The News Limited 2004 Marginal Seats Guide is an internal News Limited document giving statistical details on the 30 most marginal federal seats. It gives a small but significant insight into News Limited's strategy for manipulating public opinion so as to achieve a very specific outcome from the coming 2004 federal election.
The guide was prepared during March and April in Canberra by News Limited Canberra Business Manager WARWICK COSTIN and presented with an unexceptional but rather cringe-inducing speech to an audience of News Limited employees.
The guide consists of a page of demographic information for each of the 30 most marginal federal seats, together with a couple of pages with introductory notes implying that the document is for News Limited employees only and placing the contents in the context of the election.
The demographic information for each seat is "simply a collection of details from drawn from the Parliamentary Library's Information and Research Services Group." Ostensibly, the guide would be something useful to a News Limited journalist in covering the coming federal election, in that it enables quick analysis of how political events are likely to influence the most crucial seats in the coming election.
However the version of the guide obtained is a working version, and there is an additional page that takes the form of a "note to self". This page places the guide in a wider and more disturbing context, and importantly, the themes found in this note are reflected throughout the guide as a whole.
The page in question reads as follows:
Issues --- household debt|
Interest rates pressure
Hip pocket nerve -- families in particular
Education -- schools
Catholic vote re schools, Latham attacks on church
Terrorism and national security -- Islam voters in marginals
Go through Marginal Seats Guide in detail, from breakdown of parties.
The note makes reference to the Guide, and the Guide itself reflects the same themes. The demographic summary of each seat features information pertinent to these issues. Notably, there are specific categories for the ranking of the electorate in terms of its Catholic and Muslim populations, but no other religion, reflecting the references to the religions in the note. There is no reference to Health in the Guide nor in the note, yet it is an issue of high importance to voters and to Labor. And there is the reference to "Latham attacks on church".
The note is undeniably partisan and its influence is reflected throughout the entire Guide.
A fair and reasonable interpretation of the guide is that, apart from its obvious journalistic uses, it is an aid to selecting and nuancing news coverage in News Limited's dominant daily newspapers so as to influence voters in marginal seats. If it is merely journalism, why has it been left to a senior Business Manager to prepare the document and present it to employees? There were almost certainly journalists in the audience, why not get one of them to do the tedious research?
The manner of News Limited's bias is not explicit. It is subtle and nuanced. It is smart, because it does not target political parties, it targets issues and individual politicians. Bias starts within the news coverage itself, in the choice of issues and their emphasis.
In a sense, this is not a surprise at all. News Limited's editorials make absolutely clear what News Limited considers are important issues. And these issues are bannered prominently on the front pages of its tabloids and national newspaper daily.
What is a bit surprising is that it would be so strategic — the corporation's pet issues are targeted to marginal seats in the lead up to an election. The issues in the note may have been selected by News Limited itself or in consultation with the Howard Government. There is no evidence that the issues were selected on a fair-minded assessment of what the issues ought to be in a fairly-covered election campaign. For instance the alternative Government can be expected to campaign on Health pretty strongly, yet it is absent. The note's list of issues is instead a fait accompli. News Limited's management has identified its election issues, and they probably will be the election issues, such is News Limited's influence. News Limited's "real-politik assessment" of what the election issues will be is a self-fulfilling prophesy. This political "realism" is most likely how News Limited's journalists would be persuaded to focus on these issues, in spite of many of them being Labor-sympathetic.
There is other documented evidence of News Limited's fear of a Federal Labor government. One such example is The Australian Gazette for Tuesday, April 6 2004 (see above). And the corporation's unhealthy interest in marginal seats is not new. There is this quote from the Canberra Operations 2001 Annual Report (see below): "Political notes and advice on marginal electorates were given to Malcolm Colless". Notably, this is under the "corporate" section of the report, not under the "parliamentary" section. Taken together with the marginal seats strategy, we see News Limited clearly campaigned on behalf of the Howard Government up to the federal election.
Notably, the Guide was prepared for release in time for the federal budget, and early enough to accommodate an early election. News Limited and the Howard Government may be working together closely.
Those who believe in Australian democracy must recognise News Limited as something akin to another political party, absolutely crucial to shaping public opinion, having skilled and motivated paid staff across the nation, and possibly having reader loyalty at comparable levels with the party-political loyalty voters have to a major party. The first step to taking back our democracy is a wide recognition within the polity of the reality of News Limited's central role in managing Australian democracy for the benefit of a select few.