One of the many benefits of incumbency is that traditional media models and journalism methods favour the current government over the opposition.
This style of reporting is justified by citing the public interest. The claim is that the incumbent government position is more newsworthy. It is the government that is in a position to make decisions that directly affect citizens, and therefore it is the government pronouncements that should be foregrounded in the news bulletins.
(Of course it is governments, and not oppositions, that are in a position to directly affect media interests too; and these do not always coincide with the public interest.)
Structural advantages and self-interest
Foregrounding is particularly significant in election campaigns. It looks like this: the dominant message of the day is reported ‘above the fold’ – it is presented more prominently, in more detail, and more often. It is more likely to headline and appear in off-the-hour updates; and be repeated as we ‘recap our top story’.
The inherent benefits are that the top ranking story is 1) more likely to be heard/read than other stories; and 2) more likely to be perceived by audiences as more important or more credible than an alternative position.
This is the prominence privilege dynamic. It favours the incumbent government. It is not in the public interest, but it is said to be.
At some point during an election campaign, traditional media decide whether to shift away from giving more prominence to the incumbent. Any shift depends on whether the opposition has become more likely to form the next government.
This is not a simple yes or no question, because so many interests are at stake. Suppose the Labor Party is now more likely to win, but it is not the preferred winner of heavyweight media interests. The shift may be put on hold. Some reasons are in the shadows: the influence of proprietors and pollsters; the desire of press gallery members to be participants in, as well as observers of, the political process.
Other reasons are more overt. Like voters, the media, its proprietors and employees are vested in electoral outcomes. Like voters, the media must source political information somewhere.
The obvious sources are face-to-face meetings with politicians, and political reporters. Some hardy voters attend town hall meetings or similar, and plenty of media monitor other outlets. Nevertheless, the vast majority of voters rely on political reporters; and the majority of political reporters are more likely to speak directly to politicians – at press conferences, interviews, debates, or for leaks, backgrounding and off-the-record quotes.
Prominence privilege and inherent conservative biases
Leaving aside rumblings like Abbott’s agitating or who has been mothballed this week (is it Dutton? Ley? I can’t keep up) the core point of election campaigns is to choose between the parties. The parties have policies, which are units of ideology. Every policy is an articulation of social circumstances and how the next government will neglect or shape, subsidise or curtail, those circumstances. The parties design and sell their policy – legalise marriage equality, build more roads – in line with an ideology, such as neoliberalism or social democracy.
Take the NBN. A policy of affordable, high speed national broadband for all, regardless of corporate or shareholder interests, is grounded in a progressive, social democratic ideology. In contrast, a policy of concentrating the benefits of high speed broadband in the hands of the comfortable and wealthy, while neglecting people who are, say, unemployed or house-bound, reflects a neoliberal ideology.
That is an ideological divide. But there is also an ideological bias in traditional reporting methods. So-called media balance, like the system itself, is inherently conservative. It vigorously resists change. And high-platform media voices who call the election outcome are usually also inherently conservative.
So while one NBN policy is clearly of greatest benefit to the greatest number of citizens, to economic integration and to growth, to equality of opportunity and to regional areas… the other is currently being implemented. Its currency is its currency: this is how the public interest justification works to provide incumbent governments with prominence privilege.
NBN policy also has differential impacts on mainstream media: audience fragmentation, ownership of broadcasting rights and other media power bases. And this too is a factor for editorial decision-makers when calculating which story to foreground – on the front pages, at the top of the hour. The call on when (or whether) to shift on who will benefit from prominence privilege is reserved to the most senior editorial voices.
It is obviously unwise for high-circulation media outlets to cross a likely victor who has a vengeful streak – and democracy be damned.
These observations do not require a conspiracy, or an especially cynical outlook. It is a description of the political-media landscape, of the long-standing relationship between the various public estates. The relationship reflects multiple vested interests doing the self-interested thing that neo/liberalism insists is human nature (despite the many non-Western cultural traditions that give the lie to this claim).
During an election campaign, the prominence privilege dynamic operates in two ways. First, for the public interest justification given above, the dominant coverage is allocated to the incumbent (the first audio grab or quote or footage, the most airtime, the biggest and most frequent headlines, and ‘top story’ billing).
Second, or later in the campaign, the privilege is bestowed on whichever party is perceived to be most likely to form the next government. This perception is formed and reinforced in a homeostatic feedback loop by editors and their respective pollsters, by the message-makers and gate-keepers, the opinion writers and political commentators and press gallery, who then shift editorial decisions accordingly.
It is this second stage that we are in now, and it is this second dynamic that makes a call from a high-platform voice like Chris Uhlmann significant. While it is tempting to ask who cares whether Chris Uhlmann has called the election for the Coalition? Isn’t Labor going for underdog status anyway?
But Uhlmann is the political editor at the national broadcaster. He makes electoral editorial decisions at the ABC. He matters, whether we know he is hopelessly compromised and partisan or not. This is why we should care about blatant manoeuvring and participation (rather than observation and reportage) from well-placed media figures. A call like Uhlmann’s is timed to when more voters, particularly the all-important undecided voters, start to engage.
Uhlmann’s call, and his decision to make it now, was not only a very clear call for the Coalition to win, but also a very clear call which favours the Coalition. It provides scaffolding for the feeble public interest justification to be used to continue foregrounding Coalition speakers, Coalition talking points.
I can not over-emphasise the significance of this. Like the political editors at Fairfax, and the Murdoch press, and the commercial radio and televisions networks, these high-platform decision-makers determine what to cover, how prominently, for how long, and how often. If traditional media were going to shift away from its more prominent showcasing of the incumbent government, it would start to happen about now.
The decision of whether to shift tends to coincide with who the media wants to form the next government. They know how prominence privilege works., and have their own interests to safeguard. And because media interests do not always coincide with the public interest, prominence decisions only seem coherent when the two do coincide. When these interests are at odds, and the call has preferred media over public interests, we hear engaged voters asking why Uhlmann (or whoever) is calling the election for the Coalition (or whoever).
The Conservative Line, then and now
There are additional structural advantages when the incumbent and the expected winner (as claimed by media heavyweights) are conservative. The prominence effect accumulates and compounds, like financial interests of the wealthy (not a coincidence).
These dynamics stem from two related propositions: 1) the system is historically, inherently conservative 2) incumbents abuse incumbent power to maintain prominence and credibility and thus power.
The system is inherently conservative because the system was designed by conservatives: propertied white men. Remember, these were men whose property included legal ownership of human beings under a legal system designed and constructed by themselves. They also built mechanisms for favouring conservatism into the structural norms and conventions of the Westminster system. They called these design features checks and balances and said the purpose was stability.
This is not to say that conservative conventions are not also abused by conservatives. They are. This is also inherent, to the ‘born to rule’ nature of conservatism. Born-to-rule, by the way, is not some made-up slur. It is a centuries-old tradition of the British system that they forcibly imposed here. The formal term is primogeniture. It denoted which offspring (the oldest son) would inherit all the property and a seat in government (the House of Lords) through no merit whatsoever, merely an accident of birth.
The default tendency towards incumbency is founded in these various formal structures – our stabilisers, or checks and balances – and has been reproduced down the centuries.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the upshot is that apparently intelligent people say things like Malcolm Turnbull has gravitas, or the Liberal Party are the better economic managers. And the stubborn humanity and pride of some means that people will continue to make such nonsensical claims despite overwhelming counter-evidence.
Then there is the fact that conservatives will pull any lever, and use any tax-payer funded resource, to stay in power. After the lie of meritocracy, this is the next most crucial feature of conservatism, and it is enabled by inherent biases in traditional journalism methods.
The classic manoeuvre this time round was the way Turnbull, with the support of legal advice from his Attorney General, called a double dissolution despite no discernible democratic reason to do so. The double dissolution trigger was pulled for purely political reasons, specifically, to shore up the political power of our default, anyone-but-Abbott Prime Minister.
This was done because Turnbull has utterly squandered his political capital. In language even the dimmest Liberal apparatchik could understand: the high-risk strategy to invest in Turnbull’s popularity has delivered a negative return on investment. No dividend. And like most rich folks faced with this scenario, the party turned to lower-net worth individuals, the Australian taxpayer, to bail them out of a truly terrible venture capital decision.
This is not to hold Labor up as some kind of squeaky-clean golden role model (see: Eddie Obeid). But Labor are not in power, nor reaping the structural advantages of incumbency and prominence privilege in this election campaign. Quite the opposite.
So it is the conservatives who will, collectively, stop at nothing, no matter how extreme, unprincipled and in breach of conventions designed to ‘stabilise’ the system. After all, nice guys finish last, right? We may not want to believe that this continues, year in, year out, Parliament after Parliament. That we have progressed so little.
But progress is not linear. For every step towards equality and justice and rights for all, conservatives are on stand by to aggressively push back and reinstate their preferred – and rigidly unequal, unjust – status quo.
The events of 1975, unprecedented and unrepeated, are the prime example of this in Australia. The 1975 legacy includes even apparently progressive voices reproducing, to this day, the trope that Whitlam was reckless. This retrospective justification for conservatives breaching their own conventions is never balanced with an accurate observation as to how aggressively and unscrupulously the Coalition did everything in their power to bring down an opponent – and in so doing, destabilised the whole system.
Yet somehow, being conservative and destabilising the entire system, trashing the stabilisers designed by their own, is not as reckless or dangerous or destabilising as when progressives establish progressive policies for which they have a clear mandate from the electorate in a democracy. That is how it works.
And commandeering legacy, a very high priority for the conservative side of politics, works in other ways. Why stop at retrospective justification for deeply unprincipled actions? In a similar way, conservatives will commandeer any legacy they can not destroy. According to this narrative, the Hawke-Keating economic reforms were ‘bipartisan’, while attacks on Medicare and affordable tertiary education continue right now, in 2016.
So as we enter the final stage of this campaign, it is important to know the historical context, this deeply ingrained and vigorously prosecuted position that conservatives are supposedly the more credible governing body – which continues, as mentioned, in the face of overwhelming counter evidence, via abuse of incumbent power.
In this context, major media voices make both instinctive and calculated decisions about how and where to bestow prominence privilege. Where the call is that the conservative incumbent will win, it is not merely an observation or a punt or an informed prediction. Nor is it only a vested interest. It is a call that overtly favours the conservative incumbent. The call will vest in the conservative interest, for the remainder of the campaign.