Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Murdoch controls minds. Yea, sure.

Wednesday column

To listen to Rupert, to listen to his detractors, you’d think he could swing elections.

It’s an assumption implicit in the media inquiries likely at both ends of the globe and in the decision Cabinet is about to make on whether to grant his part-owned Sky News the licence to produce Australia’s overseas television service.

Its beyond doubt that Rupert has been on the winning side of many elections. In 1972 The Australian gave the Whitlam campaign free advertising space, it editorialised that it was time for a change and Murdoch himself drafted at least one of Whitlam’s campaign speeches. Three years on the paper campaigned so hard for Fraser its journalists went on strike, finding some of what they wrote unrecognisable in the paper that hit the streets.

In 1992 after the British Labour opposition promised media laws that would force Murdoch to sell either his share of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB or his newspapers his mass-circulation Sun campaigned against Labour as if its life depended on it.

On election day its front page was filled with the face of the Labour leader inside a light bulb. The headline read: "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights".

Page three featured a fat woman in a swimsuit under the heading: "Here's how page 3 will look under Kinnock”.

That night as the results filtered through to Hollywood, Variety magazine says a relieved Murdoch told confidants: “We won.”...

The Sun itself claimed credit. It’s headline the next morning read: “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”.

Later the Sun switched to Blair after the new Labor leader flew half way round the world to speak at the Murdoch talkfest at Hamilton Island. NewsCorp got to keep its share of BSkyB.

But being on the winning side of elections - near consistently - isn’t the same as swinging the result. And it has suited both Murdoch and his critics to act as if it is.

What little economic research there has been on the topic suggests that although we take newspapers seriously we are not particularly influenced by them; if anything the influence runs the other way.

The most thorough study by Chicago University economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro categorised American newspapers by the terms they used. Some preferred Republican terms such as “war on terror” and “tax relief”. Others used Democrat terms: “war in Iraq” and “tax break”.

Then they examined registered voters postcode by postcode along with circulation figures and found the Democrat leaning newspapers serviced Democrat postcodes while the Republican newspapers serviced Republican postcodes. Checks on church-going (strongly related to politics) suggest it was readers that drove the papers rather than the other way around. Indeed, the more that papers used the language of their readers the more they could charge them. Some owners ran different papers in different cities with different slants.

When Australian National University economist Andrew Leigh and Joshua Gans from the Melbourne Business School asked the same questions in Australia he found The Australian and Daily Telegraph somewhat to the right of The Age and Herald Sun (who were tied) with the Sydney Morning Herald further to the left and the Australian Financial Review slightly further left. But the differences were not statistically significant. Only one outlet - ABC TV - was demonstrably different. It lent to the Coalition.

Leigh categorised outlets by the type of people they quoted (Helen Hughes vs Robert Hughes) after checking which were quoted with approval by Labor and Coalition members of parliament.

Now a Labor member of parliament himself Dr Leigh thinks the study understates the extent to which Murdoch papers back the Coalition. He believes since it was completed in 2004 The Australian has shifted to the right. But he has no evidence, and certainly none that Murdoch papers can swing elections.

But Rupert’s Republican-backing United States television network can.

In a paper called The Fox News Effect University of California Berkley and Stockholm University economists Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan took advantage of the uneven rollout of Fox News across the US in the late 1990s.

By the Al Gore – George Bush contest of 2000 some cities had had it for years and some had not.

The vote for Bush was 0.4 to 0.7 per cent higher in the towns with Fox News. It appeared to have persuaded 3 to 8 per cent of its viewers to change their vote, enough in that close election to be “decisive”.

For me the take-home message is that Murdoch is far from all powerful, as anyone who saw his stumbling, vague performance before the British House of Commons will attest.

Newspaper readers are extremely good at making up their own minds about what they read and reading more widely where needed. Reading isn’t a passive activity. Writing doesn’t shape minds.

But television and radio are different. Andrew Leigh’s study finds commercial radio and TV stations far more extreme in supporting the Coalition than either newspapers or the ABC (although the result is not statistically significant because of the small number of times radio stations quoted public figures on his list).

Since then it is clear to anyone listening that radio has become more extreme. On climate change in particular one set of views prevails, especially in Sydney. And because radio is a broadcasting rather than an interactive medium that dominant view is taking hold.

Gillard is getting slaughtered in the media, but not by the press. It's hard to fight back against a medium that caters for people who don’t read. Murdoch is the least of her problems.

Published in today's SMH and Age

Related Posts

. They do things differently at NewsCorp

. Rupert to the rescue - his little-known role in the creation of ABC News 24

. 2007 column: Can media proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch swing elections?