Tactics of the opposition newspapers in Australia

August 11, 2010 • Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Mark O’Connor for the following July 26 update on the tactics of the opposition newspapers in Australia.

Former Australian of the year Dick Smith has moved to highlight the bias of the Murdoch Press in Australia, and particularly of its flagship national paper The Australian.

He has negotiated the placement in the early general news section of The Australian today (Tuesday) of an advertisement questioning the paper’s objectivity and its concern for public policy.

Sooner than make a larger story by refusing the advertisement, the Australian has agreed to carry it — only requiring, oddly enough, that the word “Advertisement” be added. A transcription of the text (though without the format) is given below.

Smith’s action targets a scandal that many see as ripe for the bursting. Journalistic standards at the Australian have long been slipping because, it seems, the Australian’s senior journalists are hired less for their ability to find and write stories than for their willingness to advocate an endless growth of population and of the economy.

This has been highlighted since Kevin Rudd’s government pushed Australia’s annual population growth up to the more-than-third-world rate of 2% a year. Depending on which table of statistics you follow, this is between 6 and 8 times the average rate for industrialised countries. Even the pro-growth Australian admitted in an editorial that the writing was on the wall for Rudd when “focus groups went ballistic” over his statement that he believed in “big Australia”.

But it was the Australian’s own commentators who went ballistic when Rudd’s successor Julia Gillard promised the electorate to turn down the throttle on population growth, and created a Ministry for Sustainable Population. The Australian began to publish long articles at the rate of 3 or four a day denouncing the very notion of sustainability or of reining in growth. For instance, when Gillard suggested that there was “an Australian way of life” typified by “clean beaches and precious open spaces” and she would protect it, the Australian’s Paul Kelly ridiculed this view as “nostalgia”. (24 July 2010) and scoffed at “the false intellectual construct of a ‘carrying capacity’ for Australia” (“Small Thinking in great leap backwards: Whatever the PM says, immigration will remain strong while there are jobs to be filled”, 24 July 2010). Such rhetoric suggests a folie de grandeur.

The contrast with the rival Fairfax Press has been striking. It too has a vested interest in population growth. All newspapers do, since if the population of their city doubles it is like a farmer being able to double his or her area under crop. As well, population growth pushes up both house prices and house turnover, thus hugely increasing advertising revenue. The Fairfax Press publishes many articles by those who believe that economic growth is the be all and end all, that consequent environmental damage is unimportant, that skilled workers must be imported at whatever rate employers require, and that the economy must have rapid population growth. However Fairfax is also a responsible publisher. Its editors recognise a duty to print alternative views, and they allow some of their senior journalists to be severely critical of Australia’s runaway population growth.

For instance, the economics editors of the two main Fairfax papers, Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald and Tim Colebatch in the Melbourne Age, are both widely-read in economics, aware of many different alternative schools of thought including “steady state” theories of economics, and aware too that the “economy” is a subset of a larger planetary world. Both have been quite critical of Australia’s recent rates of population growth.

The converse is the case in the Murdoch Press, where growth is God. Many of their senior economics writers seem embarrassingly ill-read in their own discipline, as though they graduated from old-fashioned growth-at-all-costs economics departments 20 or 30 years ago, and to have learned little since. It is clear that the Australian’s writers have been instructed to turn out articles denouncing Julia Gillard’s “little Australia” (as many of them sneeringly dub her remarks, without considering that their own views might just as facilely be called “supersize Australia”) on whatever grounds they can think up.

The resulting pieces are predictable and repetitive, suggesting that many of these writers are so used to writing simplistic propaganda that they have forgotten what a solid journalistic story –based on real information with only a minimum of the reporter’s own slant — is like. Many pieces seem written less to inform the public than to intimidate politicians into following Murdoch press ideology. And when it come to logical argument, many seem to have forgotten the difference between reasoning and assertion. For instance the prolific “Social affairs writer” Stephen Lunn (Australian, July 18th) offers the following sequence of three ex cathedra paragraphs as if under the impression that he can carry conviction by sheer assertion, devoid of information or logical connection:

Voters shouldn’t be afraid of a future population increase, for Australia can survive, indeed prosper, with more people.

They should be afraid the government of the day will use the immigration issue to take the heat off providing better services and infrastructure.

Better planning for population growth is the key.

Meanwhile Angela Shanahan (July 24) presumes in the same patronising style to straighten out readers on demography, and to prove that “There’s nothing divisive about population, as long as you know the facts”, and further that Australia’s fertility is if anything dangerously low. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/fertility-key-to-sustainable-population/story-fn59niix-1225896348126 She makes a considerable mess of it. “At last count our fertility rate had gradually climbed from 1.7 to 1.9 births per woman per year” she proclaims. If this were true the average Australian woman would bear about 45 children! Try “births per woman per lifetime”. And the current figure is not 1.9 but 1.98. How hard is it to look up the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) website? And no, that’s not a low fertility rate but far too high to keep population stable in a country that is also running a very high positive net migration.

Yet the Australian publishes few letters critical of its own biases, and only very rarely an Opinion piece on the other side. Even those readers from the business world who tend to believe growth is good might well wonder why they should pay to read long windy articles that contain so little hard information, and seem more like advertisements for the ideologies of Murdoch or his lieutenants.

Former Australian Democrat leader John Coulter remarks, “There is a solid barrage of misinformation coming from The Australian. Every article on the population debate contains factual errors which could be corrected if we had an open media.”

Below is the text of Dick Smith’s advertisement.

“Growth is good and a bigger Australia brings real social and cultural value” — The Australian editorial 21 July 2010

A Message from Dick Smith

The prime obligation of the Murdoch media is to maximise profits and returns to shareholders by supporting endless economic growth.

The Murdoch media has no obligation to show leadership in values such as our quality of life, sustainability or a safe future for our children and grandchildren.

Please note this when you read all articles and, particularly, editorials in the Murdoch media.


For another view on the growth debate, see my documentary, “Dick Smith’s Population Puzzle”
screening on the ABC at 8:30pm, Thursday 12 August. DVD available 13 August.

Dick Smith’s $1 Million Wilberforce
Award will go to a young person who shows responsible leadership by communicating the impossibility of
endless economic growth in a finite world. Details on the DVD.

Wilberforce Award Endless growth is not sustainable.

Interestingly, and quite independently of Dick Smith’s initiative, I [Mark O’Connor] have been revising and updating my and William Lines’s book Overloading Australia which is about to go into its 4th edition.

The low level of debate on population in the Australian and other Murdoch papers gets a few references in the new edition. Here is one:
… Big companies often like to push their interests from concealment. So, they ‘ventriloquize’. They fund, singly and collectively, a bewildering variety of propaganda fronts. These fronts may be called institutes, foundations, ‘committees for’, ‘task forces’, industry associations, and ‘research’ bodies.

Australia’s banks, for instance, according to economist Richard Denniss make $1000 profit per Australian per year, and also benefit from high house prices. Hence they ventriloquize through ‘chief economists’, who always claim to be speaking about the needs of ‘the economy’.

At the hint of a policy the big end of town dislikes, journalists are flooded with media releases, often virtually pre-written articles, denouncing it. Many regurgitate this pap for readers, and some may well receive secret retainers for doing so.
It might also be argued that many Murdoch journalists receive salaries for writing growth propaganda, since it seems clear that no one gets a senior post in the political or economic sections of the Australian who is not prepared to do so.

Current World Population


Net Growth During Your Visit