Who are they calling detached?

Thursday, 12 July 2007 

Back in May, after yet another false call on the end of the Rudd ascendancy by the media after what was supposed to be a vote-winning Budget, this blog suggested that the inability of media commentators to grasp the current political conditions would lead to a confidence crisis.

To see two extraordinary pieces by Dennis Shanahan and an editorial in a mass circulation paper like The Australian attacking a blogger (albeit one of the most sensible ones), Peter Brent at Mumble, it looks like we have one.

Shanahan’s article is interesting. He highlights the importance that the interpretation of the polls is being given by the political class, which makes it necessary for him to pick out even small trends that could lead to a change in electoral dynamics.

For someone so sensitive to the smaller trends, Shanahan, along with other commentators, have been remarkably insensitive to the larger message from the poll – that the government is heading for collapse. Persistently Labor’s lead has been dismissed as ‘soft’ and unsustainable in such strong economic conditions. Whether it was the budget, the Burke affair, the Anzac Day broadcast, terrorist attacks, media commentators have continually called the end of the Rudd honeymoon – and got it wrong.

Part of the reason for this failure to get to grips with this election year is given away by The Australian editorial, which justifies its confidence in getting it right this year by the fact they did so in 1998, 2001 and 2004. But it is precisely because they keep seeing current political trends through the prism of the past, which is why they have done so poorly in 2007. The continual expectation that Howard will inevitably erode Labor’s lead like he did in previous years has coloured their ability to judge the political impact of events this year. In Shanahan’s case this is especially clear on the impact of the Budget, that clearly was a political failure, but to Shanahan, a political triumph for Costello and the government.

Like Mumble, this blog’s view is that Shanahan is a good journalist and ironically, on the comments on which he is being attacked is actually much in agreement. Shanahan at least has the virtue of consistency unlike some other flakier journalists in the mainstream press such as Jason Koutsoukis, whose analysis has been so much all over the place that it is no wonder that he has resorted to the betting markets to tell him what is going on. Part of the reason for Shanahan’s consistency is his strong political contacts, even if his reports give the impression that they are stronger on one side of the political fence than the other.

The question is, what are these contacts worth now that the political class is itself struggling to get to grips with what is going on? When The Australian talks about those detached from the real world do they include a political class, which with its dwindling social base is forced to rely on focus groups and whose leaders ring up The Australian editorial office to get a jump on the opinion polls to tell them what is going on? It is precisely the charge that the political parties are out of touch that is one of the main attacks they have used against each other this year and which resonates so well with the electorate. The media’s close attachment with the Australian political class has not given them any great insights into the Australian electorate’s thinking in 2007, which is why alternative commentators like Mumble and Crikey can generate an audience and perhaps why a major paper like The Australian can be so extraordinarily sensitive to them.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 12 July 2007.

Filed under Media analysis

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