From irreverence to irrelevance: the rise and fall of the bad-tempered tabloids



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Refusing to change with the times, Australia’s tabloids now cater to an aged, monocultural and alienated constituency.
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Rodney Tiffen, University of Sydney

“Kick this mob out” shouted the front page of The Daily Telegraph reporting the calling of the 2013 election in which Tony Abbott was to triumph. Restraint and modesty have never been the hallmarks of tabloid newspapers. Sometimes they celebrate what they claim is their impact – most famously when the London Sun proclaimed “It’s The Sun wot won it” after the 1992 Conservative victory.

But it is a long time since any tabloid newspaper could plausibly claim such a role because their reach has shrunk so markedly. In 1972, the biggest-selling newspaper in Australia was The Sun News Pictorial in Melbourne, with a daily circulation of 648,000. Its stablemate, the Melbourne Herald, was the biggest-selling afternoon newspaper with 498,000.




Read more:
Christchurch attacks provide a new ethics lesson for professional media


By 2018, the print circulation of the merged Herald Sun was around 303,000, still the largest in the country. However, in 1972, Melbourne’s population was 2.6 million and by 2018 it was 4.9 million. The Sun’s circulation in 1972 was around one-quarter of Melbourne’s population. In 2018, the Herald Sun’s was about one-14th.

Sure, business models changed, but so did the tabloids’ temper

This is a stunning story of commercial decline and failure. Of course, over the past two decades, all major media have had their business models challenged by the digital revolution. But the decline of newspapers in relation to population had already been going on for several decades, partly because the first source of news for most people had become radio and television. My guess is that tabloid newspapers are the least likely of all legacy media to thrive in the digital age.

Beyond the changing technologies, where tabloid newspapers are on the wrong side of history, at least part of the reason for their decline is the changes in their own product. Viewed over decades, we can see how these papers, and especially those owned by Rupert Murdoch, have been on an editorial trajectory that is self-defeating and has added to their decline. Compare the Herald Sun of 2019 with the Melbourne Sun of the early 1970s.

One of Australia’s most distinguished journalists, Adrian Deamer, the first successful editor of The Australian until Murdoch fired him in 1971, later a senior legal adviser to Fairfax newspapers, had once been an editorial executive at The Sun. In the 1980s, he told me:

The Sun was extremely competent in its coverage of news. It was short and sharp, limited background. The Sun was then a serious tabloid, not like the Sydney afternoon newspapers. Its news covered the same things as The Age but sharper. It had a very wide, comprehensive coverage of the news, although it didn’t disregard trivia. It knew Melbourne better than any other paper knew its city. It presented Melbourne to Melbourne. It was very close to its readers. A remarkable association.

Tabloid newspapers are much less close to their readers now. One indicator suggesting this is how human interest news has changed. My research showed that in The Sun/Herald-Sun and Daily Telegraph, human interest stories covering “ordinary people” comprised 10% of all stories in 1956 but only 3% by 2006. Entertainment-related and celebrity stories had grown from 3% to 12% in the same period.

Perhaps there were changes in public demand, but equally it was much cheaper to feed off the spin of the entertainment industry than invest in the reporters necessary to engage with community news.

The columnist as outrage machine

Perhaps the clearest sign of change is in the papers’ major columnists. For more than a decade, The Sun’s columnist was Keith Dunstan. His “A Place in the Sun” was marked by warmth and humour, eloquence and lightness of touch.

Today their major columnist is Andrew Bolt. Bolt is the highest-profile person to have been convicted of breaching Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in an error-filled article full of bile against his Aboriginal targets.

Recently, Paul Barry on Media Watch called out some of Bolt’s Islamophobia

And if our politicians will not speak frankly and protect us from Islam, watch out for a civil war. A frightened public will not put up with this for much longer, and will defend themselves. (15-7-2016)

On March 25 this year, ten days after the massacre, his headline was:

Christchurch: Do the Greens have blood on their hands?

The default setting for Bolt and his fellow columnists is outrage. There is rarely consideration, let alone appreciation, of contrasting views. Rather there is dismissal of climate “warmists”, political correctness, the left and so forth. Waging culture war is their core business.

The London Sun famously boasted of its electoral clout in 1992.
Wikicommons

Today’s tabloids are the result of a long editorial trajectory. Murdoch’s London Sun is often blamed for many of the sins of modern tabloids. It had the page three girl, was irresponsible in much of its reporting, and full of marketing gimmicks. But that paper for most of the 1970s, under Larry Lamb, had a refreshing cheekiness and humour. After another decade under Kelvin Mackenzie, the humour was gone. Its politics and its view of the world were consistently nasty.

Perhaps there was a marketing logic to this. Its main competitor in circulation, the Daily Mail, set out on a similar course denigrating racial minorities, calling for more punitive approaches to crime, and denouncing those it disagreed with.

Paul Dacre’s last memorable front page before he ended his 26-year reign as editor was about the Supreme Court judges who ruled that the executive government had to get parliamentary approval for Brexit. The story screamed:


GuerillaWire

You’re either with us or against us

Polarisation runs through the way tabloids frame the news – between triumph and disaster; heroes and villains; common sense and absurdity. These papers offer their readers certainty and simplicity rather than ambiguity and complexity; they give them the opportunity to vent their anger at the modern world.

We should not romanticise the old Herald and Weekly Times newspapers. Their editorial outlook was rooted in a smug conservatism. Their international coverage was simplistic and stereotyped. They were unresponsive to emerging issues on the political agenda – including feminism, multiculturalism, environmentalism and consumerism. They were indifferent to many of the injustices in society.

But there was a tolerance and occasionally a generosity of spirit that is markedly lacking in their successors. Moreover, they believed in honest reporting. This in addition to their large audiences which gave them a political relevance today’s tabloids lack.

Probably the most important journalist in the Canberra press gallery during the Whitlam government was Laurie Oakes, working for the Melbourne Sun. It is impossible to imagine any Murdoch tabloid reporter having that centrality today.




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Bill Shorten, unlike his predecessors Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, has recently been reported as deciding not to have dinner with Rupert Murdoch in New York to pay homage. This is a sound political judgment. Very few swinging voters are reading the Murdoch tabloids.

The papers are so set in their anti-Labor ways that there is little prospect of meaningful change in their news coverage. Moreover, the anti-Labor diet has been so constant that if the readers have not yet been persuaded to go against Labor it is hard to imagine what future coverage will make them do so.

Much of their coverage of the coming campaign can be anticipated. There will be unflattering photoshops of Labor or Green politicians. Each day will bring either a triumph for the government or starkly presented disasters and scandals for Labor and the Greens. But shrillness should not be mistaken for relevance.

For a long time, the tabloids have given up trying to engage with the range of views in a pluralistic and dynamic society. Instead they have practised ghetto journalism, catering to an aged, monocultural, alienated constituency.

Commercially, this is the equivalent of a political party knowing it is bound for defeat trying to save the furniture. Politically, it means their coverage is full of sound and fury, but signifying almost nothing of electoral relevance.

This piece has been corrected. It initially read that the “Kick this mob out” front page was on the day of the 2013 election. In fact, it was the day after the election was called.The Conversation

Rodney Tiffen, Emeritus Professor, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Turnbull has politicked himself into irrelevance on energy and climate in 2018



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Marcella Cheng/The Conversation

Alan Pears, RMIT University

As we approach the end of the year, it’s useful to look back and forward. Now is an auspicious time, as two major energy-related reports have been released this week: the federal government’s review of their climate change policies, and a discussion paper from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) on future energy paths.

The difference between the two is striking. The AEMO paper is practical, direct and realistic. On the other hand, the climate policy review relies essentially on Australia buying lots of international carbon permits to meet our Paris target (and, implicitly, on state governments taking up the challenge their Canberra colleagues have largely abanondoned).

It’s amusing to read a document that plays with numbers in such creative ways. But it is a fairy story, and it’s no way to drive national climate policy.


Read more: The federal Climate Policy Review: a recipe for business as usual


I almost feel as though I could just change the dates and reprint my article reviewing prospects for energy in 2017:

2017 is the year when many long-festering energy policy problems must be addressed. Our outdated energy market model is falling apart. The gas industry is lining its pockets at the expense of Australian industry. Climate policy is urgent, but controversial among key decision-makers. Our fossil fuel exports are under threat from global forces.

But things have in fact shifted a long way – the revolution is accelerating and unstoppable. The federal government is almost irrelevant; the public statements and policies it presents are simply aimed at getting “something” through the Coalition party room, or trying to throw blame on others. It’s very sad.

The real games are being played out within state governments; in battles between energy policy agencies and regulators; by emerging industry players who do not even have formal roles in energy legisation; and by business and the community as they defend themselves from the failures around them by implementing “behind the meter” solutions and working together.

The real heavy lifters

Medals of Valour should be awarded to Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, AEMO chief executive Audrey Zibelman, and South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill.

The government’s response to this year’s Finkel Review showed that no amount of compromise would allow a sensible energy and climate policy to pass through the minefield of the Coalition party room. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, both of whom know what they need to do, simply have too little political capital within that place to drive realistic energy policy.

But the Finkel Review also successfully recommended many changes that will help to fix the physical operation of the grid. Innovation and the laws of physics have finally begun to triumph over market politics and ideology.


Read more: The Finkel Review at a glance


AEMO worked out a way to get around the glacial and obstructive tactics of the Australian Energy Market Commission on demand-side action by setting up a “pilot project” to drive demand response. It has been clear for decades that this is a very cost-effective tool. Zibelman has been a voice of practical reality and clear understanding of the future of energy, including the demand side, and AEMO’s future energy paths reflects that.

Weatherill has weathered a storm of abuse over his state’s innovative energy strategy. His government has shown how a diversified approach can transform an energy system in little more than a year. But he needs to put more effort into long term energy efficiency and energy productivity improvement measures integrated with renewables and storage, to reduce pressure on electricity systems over time. For example, home cooling comprises a third of South Australia’s peak electricity demand, but could be slashed by efficient buildings and cooling equipment.

What lies ahead

Looking forward, the coming year will be shaped by some key issues, some of which are already playing out at a frenetic pace. Consider a small sample of many recent events:

  • As mentioned, AEMO has released a discussion paper framing a very different electricity future, and including a low-carbon scenario.

  • The new battery in South Australia has delivered remarkable outcomes, helping to stabilise the grid in ways that few imagined.


Read more: Yes, SA’s battery is a massive battery, but it can do much more besides


  • The Victorian Essential Services Commission has proposed a new “time of day” feed-in price for rooftop solar that reaches 29 cents per kilowatt-hour in afternoons and evenings. If approved, this will be a game-changer, as adding battery storage to rooftop solar will become far more attractive.

  • The Energy Networks Association, not the gas industry, has released a zero emission gas strategy at last.

  • The annual report on the National Energy Productivity Plan (remember that?) shows we’re falling behind even the government’s weak target: not surprising given the miniscule resources allocated.

Meanwhile the federal government has released energy modelling to underpin ongoing negotiation on the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) that is simply irrelevant and embarrassing. The Energy Security Board’s involvement in this has undermined perceptions of its independence, especially when it is contrasted with the vision AEMO is discussing in its paper.

While the states have agreed to continue discussion on the NEG in April, there are some major hurdles. Primarily, states must be allowed to set and achieve their own energy targets: the federal energy minister has put the blame for problems on the states, and they now have to be seen by their voters to act.

Second, the design must ensure it does not give the dominant energy companies even more power to distort markets. Some members of the Energy Security Board seem to understand the challenges, and are optimistic they can be overcome. Time will tell.

The ConversationAs Turnbull has said, we live in exciting times.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.