Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Tuesday column: Can media proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch swing elections?

Rupert Murdoch’s apparent decision to endorse Kevin Rudd caused some panic at News Corporation’s Australian headquarters. On Sunday morning the websites of Murdoch’s Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth papers all carried stories headlined: “Murdoch endorses Rudd as PM”.

By the next morning the headline on those web pages had changed. It read “Murdoch just being polite: Rudd”.

But the computer coding remained unaltered. This means that search engines such as Google News still think the stories say “Murdoch endorses Rudd” and will find them if you specify those words. Specify “Murdoch just being polite” and you won't get them.

Was Rupert Murdoch only being polite? My feeling is that there were other ways he could have been polite... When asked by a Channel Seven news crew whether Mr Rudd would make a good prime minister he could have replied: “That’s up to the voters”. Instead he answered: "I'm sure”.

And don’t tell me that Rupert Murdoch of all people doesn’t know that his every utterance on the subject of leadership will be examined in much the same way as soothsayers examine tealeaves.

He’s doing it for 40 years.

He has endorsed Australia’s Jack McEwan, John Gorton, Gough Whitlam, and Malcolm Fraser; Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and America’s Ronald Reagan and George W Bush – each one a later leader.

In fact it is widely believed that Rupert Murdoch only switches sides after the weight of public opinion has already shifted – that a Murdoch endorsement is more of an electoral weathervane than a election mover.

Whatever it is, the Labor Party is keen to get it.

Its broadband policy released last month cites Rupert Murdoch twice as an authority, notwithstanding his clear commercial interest in the topic.

Kevin Rudd didn’t just bump into Murdoch outside the heavily fortified News Corporation complex on the Avenue of the Americas. He would have to have arranged the meeting well in advance. It appeared to have been more important to him than a meeting with his likely future opposite numbers - Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Even the fact of the meeting was certain to qualify as some sort of endorsement, as would the casual stroll out of the door and down the street in front of cameras the two must have suspected would be there.

I don’t know whether Murdoch’s cozying up to Rudd will affect the coverage in his papers (although the hurried rearrangement of their websites on Sunday seems to indicate some nervousness on their part). But I am interested in what difference it would make if it did.

Does a shift in the slant of a newspaper or television news service change the way people vote?

There are reasons for believing it does not, and that political advertising doesn’t much work either.

At the National Film and Sound Archive on the weekend I looked again at the Liberal party’s famous “turn on the lights” TV ad for the 1975 election campaign. It was so perfunctory, so uninspired that I find it impossible to believe it switched votes. Voters already knew they wanted to kick out Whitlam.

Last year two Chicago University economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro attempted to examine whether newspapers influenced people or whether people influenced newspapers by putting their dollars with the papers whose slant they agreed with.

They constructed what is probably the world’s most objective measure of newspaper bias. First they used the Congressional Record and a computer to identify the phrases most uttered by Republican and by Democratic politicians. They found for example that Republicans kept repeating the phrases “tax relief” and “war on terror”. Democrats by contrast talked about “tax breaks” and the “war in Iraq”.

Then they examined the phrases most used in the news pages of 400 American papers during 2005. Some preferred Democratic terminology, others Republican. The Washington Post for instance referred to the “estate tax”. The Washington Times was more likely to call it the “death tax”.

They assigned each newspaper a point on a Republican to Democrat scale. And then they examined whether or not the papers were merely serving up the slant the readers wanted.

Zip code by zip code they examined demographic data, political donations and even information about church going in order to determine how Democratic or Republican its citizens were likely to be. They worked out what would be ideal slant for the papers serving each zip code if they were merely trying to reinforce local prejudices.

Their results explained roughly 20 per cent of the slant that the papers actually had. In other words, to a large extent those papers appeared to be telling their readers what they wanted to hear for commercial reasons. (And it seemed that the more they told their readers what they wanted to hear the higher the newspaper price they could charge.)

The views of the proprietors, as measured by their political donations, appeared to be unrelated to their papers’ slants. Indeed, many proprietors ran papers with different slants in different cities.

If we are to believe Gentzhow and Shapiro it doesn’t matter much what Rupert Murdoch thinks. For commercial reasons the slant in his papers won’t move too much out of whack with the views of his readers.

But Gentzhow and Shapiro don’t have the last word.

An even more ingenious piece of research by economists from the University of California Berkley and Stockholm University has taken advantage of one of the most dramatic natural experiments in media bias of modern times.

Rupert Murdoch’s blatantly pro-Republican Fox News Channel burst onto the US scene in 1996 - but not to everywhere at once. Some towns were still without it by the time of the Al Gore – George Bush contest in the year 2000.

Fortunately for the researchers, Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan, there was no rhyme or reason as to which towns had Fox and which did not – it wasn’t related to their likely politics.

They found the overall vote for George Bush was 0.4 to 0.7 per cent higher in those towns that had introduced Fox News. Fox had persuaded 3 to 8 per cent of the individuals watching it to change their vote.

DellaVigna and Kaplan conclude that “a vote shift of this magnitude is likely to have been decisive”.

Of Course Rupert Murdoch can’t do the same thing here. He doesn’t own a TV station. And he is most unlikely to do with his newspapers what he did in 1975. He is probably beyond caring much these days. John Howard should be hoping so.