Yellow journalism represents a corruption of journalistic integrity, sacrificing legitimate news for manufactured sensationalism. Rarely is it more evident than in the newsrooms of the Murdoch media empire, yet in this election a surprisingly large number of Australian media outlets have fallen prey to the clickbait tendencies of the yellow press.
Last week, The Sydney Morning Herald broke a story about Greens preferences in the NSW seat of Sydney, safely held by Labor deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, by a margin of 12%. Fairfax ran with the headline:
Greens preference Fred Nile candidate in Sydney over gay, Indigenous Liberal
The lede left no doubt as to the angle of the story,
Along with a series of tweets, Fairfax pushed their case hard and within hours Fred Nile was trending Australia-wide. According to the story, the Greens were “effectively declaring the Christian Democratic Party would be a better choice for the seat”.
The condemnation came thick and fast. It was proof, some claimed, that the Greens were just another political party, that they were extremists, that the Greens will make alliances with anyone and do whatever it takes to gain power.
Amongst the manufactured outrage, what was barely mentioned was the fact that the preferences outlined on the how-to-vote card put the Christian Democrats 9th, and the Liberals 10th. Labor was to receive fourth preference.
Because Sydney is a very safe Labor seat, because the Greens refused to consider a preference deal with the Liberal party, and because of how the preferential voting system works, the Greens had essentially drawn a line underneath Tanya Plibersek. The message should have been clear: all parties and candidates placed after the ALP on the how-to-vote card did not represent any of the Greens values. End of story.
Yet this wasn’t how it was interpreted by those reporting on the non-event.
A large portion of the article was devoted to explaining the hateful bigotry of the CDP with little room given to explaining why the Greens decision to preference Fred Nile second-from-last was so much worse than the choice made by the Liberal Party to give second preference to Fred Nile.
Buried at the end of the article is the briefest of mentions that Geoffrey Winters, the aforementioned gay, Indigenous Liberal candidate for Sydney, has preferenced the sometimes racist, openly homophobic CDP second on their how-to-vote cards. This would seem to be a far more apparent conflict of personalities and policies than the Greens choice to put the CDP and Liberal party last, yet Fairfax ran with a misleading smear against the Greens in an effort to sway public opinion against the growing influence of the left-wing party.
Last month, Fairfax ran a Geoffrey Winters puff piece, in which he claimed that because he was a proud, gay, Indigenous man, he was the model of the modern Liberal candidate. Apparently the party of Cory Bernardi (once claimed that marriage equality would lead to legalised bestiality), George Christensen (compared anti-bullying programs for LGBTIQ+ youth to the grooming of children by paedophiles), and Tony Abbott (said Indigenous communities are a “lifestyle choice”, closeted support for terra nullius, feels “threatened” by homosexuality) is the party of self-loathing.
The content of this article was quickly picked up and shared by a number of other outlets:
HuffPo – claimed that the Greens were preferencing Tanya Plibersek seventh, despite their own media showing that Labor were preferenced fourth; also included a number of tweets describing the Greens as stupid, pathetic, and hypocritical.
The Guardian – didn’t bother to discuss the gay, Indigenous Liberal party candidate preferencing the CDP second, instead ran a quote from him describing the Greens decision as “surprising and disappointing”.
Junkee – went some way to explaining how preferences will work in Sydney, but did little to explain why the story itself is a red herring.
All continued to focus on the Greens nontroversy, rather than examine the claims of a SMH puff-piece last month. Geoffrey Winters may be a proud gay man, but he is aligning himself with a man who would describe Mr Winters’ lifestyle as “unnatural, immoral, unhealthy and sinful” and believes that the Liberal candidate suffers from a mental disorder.
Ultimately, the Greens backed down and changed the how-to-vote cards, putting the CDP last and the Liberal Party second last, in a token move to appease those who wouldn’t have voted for the Greens in any case.
Any voter who was to follow the Greens how-to-vote card for the seat of Sydney would see their vote go first to the Greens, then the Socialist Alliance, followed by the Animal Justice Party before finally helping to re-elect Tanya Plibersek in the seat Labor has held since 1969. Neither Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats nor the Liberal Party would get a look in.
The author of the article knew this. The editors at Fairfax knew this. The journalists who perpetuated the story knew this. Therein lies the problem.
While 19th century media barons like Pulitzer and Hearst encouraged yellow journalism in order to sell more newspapers, its return to dominance in the 21st century has less to do with profit margins and more to do with the inability of some writers to work independently.
Many members of the Australian media are very capable of political analysis, separating fact from spin, reporting stories on merit rather than taking their lead from Liberal/ALP propaganda.
Unfortunately many more are incapable of thinking for themselves. They are overly reliant on sub-editors for guidance, the lack of which is destroying an entire generation of new media journalists.
This is the great tragedy of our age. Those working in the media will be incapable of creating original fact-based content as their prejudices come into play, influencing the story they turn out with no one to correct them.
It is entirely plausible that many Australian journalists do not know how to cover an election beyond following what others are doing and engaging in groupthink; it’s possible that the 24-hour news cycle has worn many down; and it could just be the case that a 55-day election campaign is just too much for journalists constantly searching for fresh news stories.
But then if that is the case, perhaps they chose the wrong career.