I believe that the media will play a significant role in deciding the outcome of the next federal election. In particular, the role played by the Murdoch press- which controls some 2/3 of Australias national and capital city news market will be crucial.
At this stage, Murdoch papers such as the Herald Sun and The Australian are showing a definite bent towards Howard and running a strongly partisan and aggressive policy agenda of their own (including on global warming, IR reform, taxation, welfare, Iraq etc,). The other members of the Murdoch stable have been less predictable so far at least but with a clear slant towards the conservative side of politics.
The influence of the media on public opinion stems not from the contents of their opinion pages and editorials but from the way news is presented, especially on the first two or three pages.
A good illustration of the power of media news spin can be seen in the recent treatment of the New York strip tease affair. The story exploded on Sunday and was given the full treatment in Murdoch papers. It alleged that Kevin Rudd was drunk and behaved inappropriately at the strip joint. touching the dancers and threatened with eviction. Rudd confirmed he was drunk (so drunk he could remember little!) but by Tuesday morning, the three witnesses to the event Snowdon, Alan and the owner of the strip club had completely refuted any suggestion of misbehaviour. The NY club owner said that Rudd was a little rowdy but acted like a gentleman throughout and wanted to leave as soon as he saw that it was strip joint.
In short, apart from getting too drunk that night, Rudd turns out to be more a prude than a larrikin.
So what do the Herald Sun, the Sydney Telegraph and The Australian do? Instead of setting the facts straight, they highlight the fact that Rudds sister in law was once a stripper and (in the case of the Herald-Sun) that Rudd was rowdy that night, while giving very minor treatment to the testimony of the NY striptease owner which completely exonerates Rudd of any inappropriate behaviour. Indeed, the Herald Sun (in an editorial) continued to pontificate about the appalling behaviour of Rudd and The Australian reproduced that editorial in Cut and Paste on Wednesday.
The upshot is that, unless readers of these Murdoch newspapers were able to read meticulously the fine print (which very few have the time to do), they will be left with the impression that Rudds behaviour on that fateful night disqualified him from the top job!
Despite plenty of serious literature showing the political power exercised by Fox News when it entered the fray in the USA, some doubt that newspapers matter much for political outcomes. They point for example to alternative sources of information. Yes there are other newspapers. The AGE generally takes a sympathetic view of Rudd but it is a small player relative to the Murdoch papers; the SMH is all over the place and the AFR has very pro-business leaning. Commercial TV news is influential but with no systematic political bias. The ABC is another counterpoint to Murdoch but have you noticed how often it simply picks up news in the Murdoch press and then runs hard with it? Then there is the internet. It is certainly growing in importance but a recent survey found less than 3% of Australian voters rely on it as their main source of news.
I believe that the election will be much closer than the opinion polls suggest and if the Murdoch press as a bloc decide to campaign systematically against Rudd the way they have been doing recently, it could prove decisive.