Rudd’s demise traced to front page focus
Kevin Rudd’s shock demise as Labor leader and prime minister can be traced to a relentless front page focus by The Australian newspaper on the mining tax row.
As a former journalist and federal and state government media adviser, I have long been a keen watcher of the front page of our leading metro daily newspapers. What fascinates me the most is the lead, what is chosen as the number one story of everything that has happened in Australia and around the world in the past 24 hours and how is it told.
The lead is the thing that the newspaper wants to tell you first before anything else, based on what it thinks you need to know and want to know. It says a great deal about the newspaper and its readers.
These front page leads not only shape the thoughts, feelings and knowledge of millions of readers, they shape the nation’s daily news, the public agenda and events.
The authors of these leads are, arguably, Australia’s most influential journalists.
I’m surveying the front page leads of The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, The Age and Herald Sun to find out (a) who is writing the most leads and, therefore, who are Australia’s most influential journalists and (b) what are the top issues, and what effect is this front page coverage having on the political, policy and social landscape.
The results for June are:
1. Dennis Shanahan, The Australian political editor: 14 leads
2. Phillip Coorey, Sydney Morning Herald chief political correspondent: 6 leads
3. Matthew Franklin, The Australian chief political correspondent: 5 leads
4. Andrew Clennell, Daily Telegraph state political editor: 5 leads
5. Michelle Grattan, The Age political editor/Sean Nicholls, Sydney Morning Herald: 4 leads.
1. Mining tax row: 20 leads (led by The Australian with 16 of the 20)
2. Sport/errant sport identities: 17 leads (led by the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph with 15 of the 17)
3. “Social decay”: (stories contributing to a picture of increasing, unchecked violence and lawlessness, unsafe streets and roads, a crumbling justice and sentencing system): 14 leads (led by the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph with 12 of the 14).
The Australian ran 12 front page leads on the mining row in 13 days. Such a run of Page 1 leads on just one issue is rare. By comparison, The Age and the SMH each ran just one front page lead on the issue during this time. The Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph ran no front page leads on the mining tax row in June.
You’d have to go back to Whitlam’s sacking or the Vietnam War to come close to such a run of Page 1 leads on one issue. Even then, it’s doubtful there was such a run. (I have looked as these papers but didn’t record the results.) Was Rudd’s tax on mining profits as big a story as the Vietnam War or Whitlam’s sacking? Of course it doesn’t come close.
The Australian’s front page coverage stoked the mining industry’s stand, fueled the Opposition and Parliament Question Time and armed TV, radio and print journalists across the country with a barrage of questions. It became a frenzy. Such was the heat – media and political – generated by The Australian and Dennis Shanahan that by Saturday June 12 the story, in The Australian, had become mining row/Rudd leadership. By Monday June 14 it had morphed into Rudd leadership/mining row.
The Australian’s coverage generated its own front page news. By Saturday June 19, Dennis Shanahan splashed on Page 1 that Rudd may be dumped within days if he did not resolve the mining row. Few believed it would happen. Labor was ahead in the polls 52-48 and Rudd was still in his first term. But that’s exactly what happened. Four days later, on June 23, Gillard – backed by an enthusiastic majority of Labor MPs who were fed up with Rudd’s autocratic style – showed Rudd her fangs, or rather her backers’ fangs. It was no contest. Rudd, virtually friendless, was powerless. He didn’t even contest the leadership ballot. Overnight, Australia’s political landscape changed. Rudd the PM was now a backbencher and Australia had a new prime minister, Gillard.
The Australian, led by Dennis Shanahan, was highly influential in Rudd’s demise. The message here for politicians and stakeholders in public policy is: Beware The Australian and Dennis Shanahan, especially if you’re going to pick a fight with big business, an economic powerhouse of the nation.
Rudd is responsible for his own downfall. But The Australian sped it up.
Timeline: The Australian’s front page focus on the mining tax row in June
June 2-9: The Australian leads with the mining tax row for seven consecutive editions from June 2 to 9
June 11-16: After just one day’s break, The Australian leads with the mining tax row for five consecutive editions from June 11 to 16
June 12: The Australian’s front page series morphs into mining row/Rudd leadership
June 14: The Australian’s front page series becomes Rudd leadership/mining row. The Daily Telegraph joins in, saying on its front page that ALP powerbrokers are ready to back Gillard as leader
June 19: The Australian breaks the news that Rudd is just days from being dumped unless he solves the row with the mining industry
June 23, AM: The Sydney Morning Herald breaks the news that Rudd has been asking MPs if they still support him as leader
June 23, PM: Gillard tells Rudd ‘game on’
June 24: Rudd surrenders. Labor Party endorses Gillard as leader and Prime Minister.
Looking at the bigger picture, there is a news market for a national daily left-of-centre broadsheet in competition with The Australian. The state-based broadsheets are under pressure/obliged to cover state government issues such as problems and concerns with major projects, infrastructure and services. For example, The Age, in June, ran a number of Page 1 leads on the Brumby Government’s $2 billion ‘food bowl’ irrigation project, local population pressures on state planning, urban growth and services, and Brumby’s planned anti-corruption commission. The Australian, being a national paper, is not under this pressure/obligation. There is something of a left-of-centre vacuum at the national daily broadsheet level.