Election reporting has changed a great deal in the last century, from early campaigns where face-to-face interaction with voters was crucial, to recent elections as highly mediated events through television, newspapers, radio, the internet and, increasingly, mobile and portable media.
In the 19th century, newspaper reports of elections were often a mix of editorialising about the election and verbatim reports of the speeches candidates made from the hustings, complete with reports of audience participation in brackets, such as ‘(hear hear)’ and examples of heckling. Editorial commentary was sometimes strongly directive. For example, for the first election in New South Wales on 15 June 1843, the Sydney Morning Herald assessed all of the candidates for its readers and told them that ‘Mr Wentworth is foremost in the ranks’, arguing that if he was not elected, it would be ‘a reproach and a loss to the community’. Newspaper reports of speeches continued to be important, but by the mid-1920s, cinema and radio were also playing a role in reporting election news. After its introduction in 1923, radio quickly became a major source of political news including through the live transmission of policy speeches made by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition at peak listening times.
But even into the early 20th century, party leaders still had to travel widely to get their messages across—whether by horse-drawn buggy, steamer or train. One legendary effort was Coalition Prime Minister Joseph Lyons’ marathon campaign during the 1937 election, when he travelled 9600 kilometres and held 43 meetings in as many days. Leaders’ public meetings were generally well attended and well publicised, usually receiving live radio coverage and front-page newspaper reports the next day. Press coverage of speeches was still often verbatim, and meetings reported in transcript style.
By the 1940s, media consumption was encouraging change. Radio aided leaders who were effective political orators, such as (Sir) Robert Menzies, but local candidates found that attendance at their public events dropped markedly—something they largely attributed to the mainstream use of radio.
Australian legislators in the 1940s also had serious concerns about radio, specifically about the impact of electronic media reporting on election results. The Australian Broadcasting Act 1942 required a complete ‘blackout’ of electoral broadcasts for the last 72 hours before polling day. Radio stations—and, after 1956, television stations—were forbidden to broadcast any election-related material. This rule remained in place until 1983, when it was lifted for election news reporting but remained for election advertising.
By the 1960s, television was playing an increasingly important role in both the ways in which people spent their leisure time and how politics was communicated. In 1958, two Labor politicians (H.V. Evatt and Arthur Calwell) and two from the government (Harold Holt and (Sir) William McMahon) appeared in the nation’s first television debate. From 1963, leaders’ policy speeches were presented before the cameras. Television news and current affairs were also growing in importance, with the ABC’s Four Corners (from 1961) and This Day Tonight (1967–78) both playing a significant role.
In 1972, Labor’s ‘It’s Time’ campaign revolutionised Australian election campaigning. Based on detailed market research and public opinion polling, it focused extensively on television, and its success marked the end of the traditional public meeting-based campaign. Thereafter, politicians and their advisers tailored their campaigns for the demands of television, and sought to exert much greater control over their public and media interactions. Public meetings became less spontaneous and less well attended as people had increasing access to politics at home.
Aside from television news and the ABC current affairs programs, the commercial channels, capitalising on a burgeoning interest in public affairs, initiated programs such as A Current Affair (Nine Network, 1971– ) and programs hosted by Mike Willesee (on Ten in 1974 and then on Seven, 1975–82). 60 Minutes was launched in 1979.
To capture viewers’ attention, campaign events were redesigned to be more entertaining. This was epitomised by Labor leader Bob Hawke’s policy launch at the Sydney Opera House in 1987, at which he arrived by barge from Kirribilli House. Hawke was also part of the first televised leaders’ election debate in 1984, sparking a tradition that continues to this day. Since then, a televised debate (often called the ‘Great Debate’) between the Labor and Coalition leaders has been held during every federal election campaign, with the exception of 1987 when Hawke refused (reportedly because he was still smarting at being unexpectedly upstaged by Andrew Peacock in 1984). In 1993, the Nine Network first added its own touch: the ‘worm’ (a live visual representation of how studio audience members were responding to the leaders during the debate).
During the 1990s, the parties increasingly became convinced that their campaigns were being won or lost in the national media. They made significant changes to how they coordinated their campaigns—including travel for the leaders and the journalists accompanying them—which had major repercussions for election reporting. In the 1950s, the major parties used to provide the media with the leaders’ itineraries at the beginning of the campaign and newspapers would print them. This became a problem once there were more organised political parties and social movements, better telecommunications and much higher stakes involved in terms of favourable television coverage. ‘Wild scenes’ involving protestors at opposition leader John Hewson’s public meetings during the 1993 election and the cost this inflicted on the Coalition campaign were salutary lessons for both major parties.
At the next federal election in 1996, the parties put new logistical arrangements in place. In providing transport for the journalists travelling with party leaders, they took the opportunity to impose a level of secrecy about the leaders’ daily schedules. Journalists on the campaign buses and planes following the leaders were not told where they were going, or only given short notice—which made it difficult for them to adequately prepare or even to organise camera crews to be on location. Once there, journalists were sometimes provided with detailed policy documents only minutes before interviews were held or deadlines had to be met.
Over the next few election campaigns, the secrecy intensified. Once the leaders’ advisers used to print out itineraries for the next day and slip them under journalists’ hotel doors at around midnight. But by 2001, travelling journalists were instead sent a text message just before the bus left, advising of its departure time, where it was headed and the issue of the day. By 2007, they were only getting a text message about what time the bus or plane was leaving, and no details about where it was headed, what the event was going to be or what the issue of the day was. Journalists could find themselves on the way to regional Queensland or suburban Tasmania, covering an environment policy launch or a housing affordability plan.
The parties were trying to control information flows in an era of instant messaging when mobiles, texts, tweets and emails meant the details of their events could be communicated very quickly to opponents who could disrupt them at very short notice. In the already frenzied atmosphere of election reporting, journalists found that these new methods made it difficult for them to seek out extra information other than what was being provided or to adequately scrutinise policies.
By 1998, fed-up senior journalists like Michelle Grattan were getting ‘off the bus’, feeding questions to more junior reporters on the road. This pattern has continued ever since, and leads some commentators to express concern about whether junior reporters can do the tough questioning of senior Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters, and whether they are more susceptible to political public relations techniques.
Transport and technology were also making campaigns easier to cover. Digitisation and the internet played a key role. Once reporters had been reliant on the campaign buses to stop and provide them with a place that had phones and faxes, so they could file their stories. Now, portable cameras, digital equipment, satellite and wireless ability to transmit audio-visual material back to base quickly all make for faster and more efficient ways of reporting news. Stories are now sent from mobile devices and laptops, using email or sometimes blogs and Twitter. The rise of 24-hour television news channels (especially since Sky News Australia provided a dedicated election channel from 2004) means it is possible for journalists to watch the campaign unfold from their office or at home. They are not only able to watch key events live on television, but can also access websites and blogs, listen to news, interviews and pundits on radio (including the 24-hour ABC NewsRadio), and receive information direct from the parties by SMS, email and RSS feeds—including media releases and transcripts of press conferences and media interviews.
An increasing recognition began to dawn that travelling on the bus (or plane) gave reporters access only to the manicured face of the campaign while information and important decisions were often being made elsewhere, including within the parties, but also within the media itself—including online. In the 2000s, some of the key sites for election reporting (excluding those already mentioned) included ABC Radio National’s AM and PM programs, ABC1’s Insiders, The 7.30 Report (now 7.30), Q&A and Lateline, Sky News’s Agenda, Network Ten’s Meet the Press, the Nine Network’s Sunday and ABC News 24’s The Drum. While election reporting traditionally is associated with Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters and journalists working for major media organisations, a multitude of other sources also report election news and contribute to political communication, including comedy shows such as ABC’s The Chaser, talkback radio hosts and callers, websites including Crikey and ABC online’s The Drum, blogs, YouTube clips, social media comments, emails and electronic newsletters.
The 2000s saw the decline of straight Press Gallery-centred election reporting. This was exacerbated by new media options, but was also the result of party leaders holding fewer (and shorter) press conferences and devoting more of their time to radio and television interviews. This included not only talkback radio (which played a significant role in elections during the 1990s especially), but also breakfast television programs such as Sunrise and Today. In 2007 and 2010, Labor’s Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard performed many FM radio interviews, while in 2010 opposition leader Tony Abbott appeared on Hey Hey It’s Saturday.
Some journalists argued that the ‘soft’ media appearances were about reducing journalists to the role of theatre-critics and spectators so politicians could avoid tough questioning, while others argued that the trend was a democratising one. For example, when Rudd appeared on Rove Live in 2007, he tapped into an audience of over 1.3 million—including young people, who are difficult to reach through conventional news and current affairs. As the role of journalism in mediating politics and elections continues to change, such debates will continue.
REFs: R. Tiffen, ‘Australia’, in J. Strömbäck and L.L. Kaid, The Handbook of Election News Coverage Around the World (2008) and News and Power (1989); S. Young, How Australia Decides (2011).