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Journalists may hate Howard but the PM gets his good news elsewhere

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Wednesday, 25 June 2003

One fine day in the newsroom I overhead colleagues in the next cubicle row starting up an impromptu "we hate John Howard" session. That is, they were stating how much they disliked Howard, for one reason or another. This day I threw in a spoiler by popping my head over the partition, saying "don't you bag my mate Johnno" and ducking down again.

I recall that there was a distinct, almost horrified, pause and then one colleague saying to another, "You see what we have to put up with at this end of the office".

Howard hate sessions are fairly common in newsrooms. Journalists, on the whole, lean decidedly left with only the occasional individual, such as myself, failing to get with the program. We are tolerated in much the same way that gays (a substantial minority in journalism) are tolerated. One can see the "others" thinking, "it takes all kinds".


But if Howard is largely hated by journalists, he and his government reciprocate in part by paying no attention to anything journalists say. The media and any number or protestors complained loud and long about government treatment of illegal immigrants, only to be ignored. They have complained bitterly about the GST and the war in Iraq, and used up an ocean of ink and miles of video tape over the plight of the Aborigines. Howard and his Coalition government have sailed through all of it by ignoring the vocal minority (which includes the media and those who go on protests), without incurring any penalty.

In fact, about the only thing that seems to have dented Howard's political standing, and this can only be inferred from recent polls, has been the recent brouhaha over the Government-General, Peter Hollingworth. And in that case it is difficult to see what else Howard could have done, considering that he never even had a shadow of a legal pretext for asking for Hollingworth's resignation.

It is possible, and again this is only a guess given the lack of research on the issue, that the public at large were sufficiently confused by the media coverage to think that Hollingworth himself had somehow been involved in sexual misconduct, rather than one of his subordinates. (The unrelated, 40-year old rape accusation has lapsed into well-deserved oblivion, but certainly would have added to the confusion.) However, any political damage to Howard is likely to soon be repaired as the whole episode fades from the public memory.

So if the government of the day pays no attention to the media and ignores protest marchers (this point will be the subject of another column), who or what does it pay attention to? The answer would seem to be the Liberal Party's own research into voter attitudes. Occasionally reporters trip over this obvious point or, more likely, have their heads bashed into it by someone behind the scenes and they write a story about how research tools such as focus groups are constantly used by all the major parties to keep up with what the public are thinking.

Thus the Howard government continued with its policy on illegal immigrants, despite the howling from the vocal minority, as it knew full well from its own focus groups that even the legal immigrants had no time for the problems of the illegals. The feeling was that the illegals should have to wait in line at an Australian Embassy somewhere like all the other immigrants. The result was a big election win for Howard.

Then there was the war on Iraq. This is an odd one because, at least to judge from the published polls, the majority of Australians were against going into the war without United Nations approval. The vocal minority were, for once, on the same side as the silent majority. Yet Howard went ahead anyway and seemed to have little trouble persuading his own party (plus the Nationals) to come along for the ride. Why was this?


My supposition is that Howard - who does seem to have a good idea where the votes are - was told by his own researchers that opposition to the war by his voters was skin deep, and that no-one would shed tears over the old Iraqi regime. Once the war started it also became a matter of "we want our team to win" and further protests against the war seemed only to anger the electorate.

Another case in point is Aboriginal affairs. I can recall a producer of one of the top current affairs shows saying that he steered clear of Aboriginal issues, despite pressure from his own reporters, because it is known, from minute by minute scans of viewer numbers that a story about Aborigines will make them turn away, in large numbers. No-one is interested. Howard also knows that the electorate are simply not interested in Aboriginal issues, again very likely from party research, and has kept away.

I could drag in some more examples but, in any case, all this means that Labor has been left with a major problem in that Howard has slipped out of all possible traps and captured the high ground in the two issues that seem to matter to the Federal electorate at present - immigration and the economy - all by careful calculation based on Liberal Party research.

The media has been ignored as not only failing to reflect public opinion, but also because it seems to have no influence on voters. This point shall be explored another time but for now it is little wonder that Howard has decided to stay on for a while longer, and Labor has had its recent leadership stoush. Whatever either party now decides to do, it will be directed by their own research and not by the media.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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