The Importance Of Jeff – A Media Study

by Sarah Pinto

Introduction

This is a comparative study of the media exposure and treatment of the Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, to that of the Opposition Leader, John Brumby. It involves comparing the television and print media coverage and evaluating the probable impact on Australia’s democracy and implications for the media’s role as the public sphere. Within Australia’s democracy, the media, in theory, perform the vital role of creating a public sphere, traditionally a public forum open to all for debate of issues. This theatre of informed debate is somewhat at odds with the idea that the primary concern of those operating media outlets is profit and advertising.

Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett is widely perceived as a strong and popular leader who is determined and pragmatic in his manner of governing. Only last year, Kennett was re-elected, retaining his huge and decisive Parliamentary majority. He leads a Government which has undertaken massive programmes of economic and social reform over the past five years with the electorate’s overwhelming approval. Interestingly, it is only recently that any real criticism of Kennett and his Government has emerged in the media.

This dominance of Kennett has been partially attributed to a weak and ineffective Parliamentary Opposition, led by John Brumby. For his part, Brumby is generally seen as weak, too young for the leadership and politically inexperienced. The State Opposition has struggled in the face of Kennett and relatively small Parliamentary numbers. Additionally, well-publicised internal divisions, combined with limited funds, have hampered the Opposition’s effectiveness. During last year’s election campaign, there was a perception that to vote the ALP into government would have been far too dangerous.

Theoretically, it is John Brumby, as the Leader of the Opposition, who holds the second-highest political office in Victoria. It would seemcurious, then, that the amount of media exposure he receives is generally believed to be minuscule compared to that of the Premier. Furthermore, there has been a tendency, especially on the television news, to bypass Brumby when Opposition comments are sought and turn instead to the Deputy Leader, John Thwaites, or other senior ministers. This poses some important questions regarding the implications for democracy in Victoria.

Methodology

Television data was collected randomly from the news broadcasts of the commercial television stations 7 and 9 between Thursday March 20th and Wednesday May 23rd 1997. These were chosen as they are the only half-hour commercial television news programmes. Both consist of approximately twenty minutes (including advertisements) of general news and ten minutes of sport and weather reporting. Any items which contained interviews of either Kennett or Brumby were noted, although I concentrated on political news reporting, for rarely were there days when Kennett did not appear, in some capacity, on the nightly news. Newspaper articles were gathered solely from the broadsheet newspapers The Age, (Melbourne-based) and The Weekend Australian (national). As with television reports, I concentrated on political news reporting involving Kennett and/or Brumby.

The focus of this paper is two stories which have recently dominated State political reporting in Victoria – the controversy surrounding the Intergraph emergency services contract and Kennett’s proposal to alter the role and powers of the State Auditor-General. Both issues have received a considerable amount of coverage both in print and on television.

Theory & Practice

News Slant

News slant is a concept discussed by the theorist Robert Entman in his book Democracy Without Citizens (1989). It can be defined as the contrast in media treatment of events which are journalistically similar in a way that is likely to affect public opinion (Entman 1989. Pp. 40-41). News slant is a broad concept which can apply to both print and television. Entman thus divides news slant into four dimensions – importance, criticism, linkage and perspective. The dimension of importance is most relevant.

Importance

Importance describes the importance placed on news stories in the media through “prominence, repetition, length and duplication” (Entman Pg.42). Entman explains importance judgements by what he terms the four forces of news slant, two of which, Evaluation Biases and Production Biases, are most relevant to this paper. Entman describes Evaluation Biases as being a product of the journalistic “watchdog mandate” (Pg. 46) which produces two tendencies – favouring popularity and favouring power. Entman asserts that leaders perceived to be generally popular and powerful receive ‘better’ media treatment than those perceived to be unpopular.

This holds particular relevance to this case study. Kennett is certainly perceived to be immensely popular, although recent election results would seem to indicate that he actually is a popular leader. Conversely, Brumby is generally perceived to be unpopular, especially in Melbourne. Kennett’s perceived and actual popularity may be partially the result of a reluctance of the media (prior to the recent ‘scandals’) to heavily criticise and challenge a popular and unforgiving leader. Kennett is well-known for his inability to deal with criticism, as shown by his boycott of ABC television programmes and consistent attacks on The Age due to what he sees as excessive criticism of his government.

Furthermore, Kennett, as the representative of the Victorian Government, is consistently quoted before the Opposition in television political reporting. I noted only two occasions where the Opposition’s voice (either Brumby or Thwaites) was presented first – once in a story regarding Liberal MP Bruce Atkinson’s extra-Parliamentary employment and later in an Intergraph story . There is a greater emphasis and importance placed on the views and comments of the Government. Even when the story was labelled as a ‘Scandal’ and introduced by a presenter informing us that the “State Government has been rocked by a scandal” (23/4/97, Channel 7), Kennett is quoted first, in this instance followed by the Police Minister, Bill McGrath, and Thwaites in his capacity as the Shadow Health Minister. For reasons unknown to the audience, Brumby is nowhere to be seen.

The idea that the print media favours popularity through importance judgements is harder to determine. Certainly, Kennett enjoys a much higher profile than Brumby in print – he is far more frequently photographed, quoted and the subject of stories. In both print and television it is highly unusual for Brumby or the Opposition to be the subject of a story. Furthermore, such stories most frequently concern internal divisions or conflicts within the ALP. The greater importance placed on Government sources, and in particular Premier Kennett, by television news programmes through greater prominence is not as evident or frequent in the newspaper articles I gathered, indicating Entman’s theory is generally more applicable to Australia’s television media.

Entman also theorises that journalistic power-judgements affect the way in which events are reported, contributing to news slant. Leaders who are viewed as incompetent or having little or no power by journalists are generally unlikely to be reported in a favourable light. Conversely, leaders such as Kennett, who is widely viewed as wielding enormous power both within his party and in government, are generally reported in a more favourable light. Although he is currently being heavily criticised for his involvement in the awarding of the Intergraph contract and his proposal for the Auditor-General, Kennett is still reported favourably by journalists in both television and print. When asked to comment on the pressure on former Health Minister Marie Tehan to resign, Kennett was quoted:

“If Mrs Tehan confirms to me that she never saw or had explained to her the details of that document, then I’ve got to say to you, I believe her…This whole thing has been not very well conducted”.

Kennett is positively presented as being rational and reasonable in his response. In contrast, Thwaites was quoted immediately before Kennett, saying “Mrs Tehan must be sacked immediately. She was told about the improper payments in the Ambulance service, she covered them up, and as late as last week she mislead Parliament about these payments”.

In newspapers, however, there is more room for expansion and critical evaluation. Neither of the above quotes appeared in the newspaper the following day. While Channel 9 ran one two minute story on Tehan, The Age had a front page story with a large photograph of Tehan and Kennett in Parliament as well as an entire page (Pg. 6), entitled ‘Tehan Under Pressure’ and an editorial. While Channel Nine concentrated on Tehan’s unstable position (possibly sensing a great loss of power, influence, credibility and popularity almost overnight), asserting she “faced a barrage of questions in Parliament” (presenter) and that “only the personal loyalty of Jeff Kennett” (reporter) was saving her job, The Age provided details of why she was under pressure and in its Editorial stated not only that “a serious question mark hangs over Mrs Tehan’s Ministerial career”, but also that Kennett’s Government was “tainted” as a result of these revelations. Such a situation is to be expected, however, given the time restrictions placed on television news. Clearly, Entman’s theory is more accurate when applied to televised rather than print media in Australia.

The second force of Entman’s importance judgements is referred to as Production Biases, which grow out of the need for both newspapers and television stations to gain audiences for advertisers. To produce news with a broad (and thus profitable) appeal, Entman theorises that the media tend to simplify, personalise and symbolise. The media generally tend to simplify what are often complex issues to make stories more accessible to everyone. Furthermore, as a way of simplifying issues and encouraging audience interest, events tend to be personalised and explained through the actions of individuals in conflict. Thus the debate regarding Kennett’s proposal to alter the Auditor-General’s powers turns into a two-sided conflict between Kennett and the current Auditor-General, Ches Baragwanath, especially on the television news.

Kennett does little to hinder this process, doing his best to emphasise personality clashes rather than debate on issues. As Mike Richards writes, Kennett has a tendency to use the “If you are not with us, you are against us” philosophy. When commenting on the public debate of his plan for the Auditor-General, Kennett accused the Auditor-General of attempting to “hang on to his patch by trying to scare the public as to the ramifications of change…You’ve got the Ben Bodnas, you’ve got the Jean McCaugheys, you’ve got Joan Kirner – all of these people that have opposed everything we’ve done in this State”. Newspaper headings invariably contain the names of high profile individuals – ‘Kennett resists calls for sacking’, ‘Tehan: I didn’t know’, ‘Auditor to be stripped of powers’, ‘PM attacks Kennett on high taxes’, ‘We owe it all to Kennett: casino chief’. On the television news, the pictures describing the story which are super-imposed beside the presenter usually contain images of the individuals involved in the story.

Another aid to simplification of stories is the use of symbols which represent the essence of the issue. The television news consistently uses images of speeding ambulances and the Intergraph computer system when reporting the Intergraph contract story. Similarly, State political reporting usually contains a sound-byte of the reporter talking to the audience outside Victoria’s Parliament House. Newspapers appear to prefer to use photographs of people as symbols of a particular issue, especially photographs of politicians in Parliament. Further to Entman’s theory, I would argue that while the media simplify, personalise and symbolise, they also sensationalise, particularly on television news. This is exemplified by the use of headings to introduce stories – ‘Hostile Greeting, ‘Running the Gauntlet’ and ‘Kennett Clash’ are some examples.

Media Frames and Routinisation

The theory of media frames and the routinisation of news are discussed in Ian Ward’s book Politics of the Media (1995). Ward theorises that there is an “underlying format” and frame to news reporting across all mediums (Ward, Pg. 105). The essence of routinisation is the idea that, although the actual content of news reporting is impossible to predetermine, the way news is gathered and presented is entirely predictable. As the theorist Henningham wrote, the format of television news relies on a number of images and pictures placed together to tell the viewer a story (Ward, Pg. 105). The way the news is gathered is largely reliant on frameworks of interpretation. Ward also refers to Taras, who argues that “television journalists set out to cover a story already conscious of the requirements of the news frame” (Ward, Pg. 107), which would lead to slanted reporting. Similarly, in newspapers there is a formula used to tell a story, although as with Entman’s theory, media frames are more relevant to television.

Part of this format and frame is the reliance on official sources to create a story – around 90% of all sources are official (or from Government). This explains the focus on Kennett and Government figures in State political reporting that has already been identified, although it’s not so evident in print. This trend can allow the Government to advance their own agendas and policies with little criticism simply because they dominate the flow of information.

Related to this is the media’s focus on elites when reporting news – to make the evening news or daily newspaper, you have to be ‘somebody’. Thus when interviewing people, the television news always has a caption with the person’s name and position in society – for example, Marie Tehan, ‘Conservation Minister’ and Michael Quinn, ‘Son’. The only exception to this is if you are judged to be so high profile that everyone must know you. Examples of this are Kennett, the Prime Minister and Bill Clinton. Similarly, when quoted in newspapers, people are always labelled – either as ‘the auditor-general, Mr Chez Baragwanath’ or the ‘former Health Minister, Marie Tehan’.

Conclusions

Clearly, many of the points made by media theorists Entman, Ward and others are relevant to the Australian picture, especially when analysing television news. The theory that although the media may not be able to effectively tell its audience what to think, it is “stunningly successful” at telling the audience what they should be thinking about (known as the Agenda Setting Theory), is particularly relevant to the impact the media has on democracy in Australia. For if the media indeed promotes slanted news which is permeated by the views and opinions of the Government of the day, it would effectively corrode the ability of the public sphere to carry informed, unbiased and unslanted debate. Rather, the media would tend to set an agenda which is primarily that of the Government, regardless of their policies.

Furthermore, it is important to note that television has prevailed as the general public’s primary source of news and information, resulting in the messages carried on television becoming more important than those in print. Given the problems identified in this paper, it would appear that television is less able to avoid a simple presentation of the Government’s view and the exclusion of opposition views. The implications for democracy are enormous, although greater study of the media and television’s bias in Australia is needed. It has already been seen in this Century that one of the first tasks an oppressive regime undertakes when first taking power is to ensure government control of the press. Perhaps, in the future, they won’t have to bother – governments will already have substantial control of the media.

Sarah Pinto is a first year student at the University of Melbourne.

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