Shorten’s tears for his mum rev up the campaign and put News Corp on the defensive…but who was right?

The federal election campaign is in the home stretch which might explain why a deadly-dull election has taken on a suddenly manic turn. That’s not to say that disengaged punters are necessarily paying more attention – or even any attention – but the pollies and the media are getting all fired up.

For party leaders girding their loins for the final week of campaigning the issues have never been more urgent: will campaign scouts be able to find enough babies, hospital patients and factory workers in high-vis vests to see out the campaign? Who’s being disendorsed this week? Can we make our scare campaigns scarier?

What really woke up the campaign was Bill Shorten tearing up as he recounted how much he loved his mum. As any tabloid-TV producer knows there’s nothing like tears to get the ratings soaring.

Bill was crying because the Daily Telegraph was mean to his late mum, Ann, and everyone seemed to agree with Bill that he was a victim of News Corp’s “gotcha shit”.

Social media, never an institution to overlook a good cry, was as one in condemning News Corp and embracing Bill with cuddle-bunny warmth and tenderness. Levels of engagement normally reserved for cat videos, reality TV walkouts and Eurovision upsets went Bill’s way, giving his lacklustre campaign a last-minute surge.

The Daily Telegraph brushed off the opprobrium, indeed wore it as a badge of honour, and insisted that it was simply filling in the blanks of Bill’s potted back-story heard on what was generally agreed to be Bill’s star turn on ABC TV’s QandA program.

The backlash against News Corp has been seismic. Tony Koch, a 30-year veteran who worked for The Australian and Brisbane’s Courier Mail and winner of five Walkley awards, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian in which he blasted the “shameful bias” of his former mastheads:

“No editor I worked for would have put up with the biased anti-Labor rubbish that, shamefully, the papers now produce on a daily basis.”

Koch’s j’accuse is not to be discounted, but is The Australian’s bias – let’s not shilly-shally, of course there’s bias, sometimes breathtaking in its brazenness – really such a new thing? Is Murdoch’s influence more pernicious today than it has been in the past?

Koch is not the only News Corp insider to answer the latter question with a resounding ‘Yes’.

The Guardian’s media correspondent Amanda Meade – who was the must-read media writer at The Australian for 18 years – followed up Koch’s spray with a report that The Australian’s social affairs writer, Rick Morton, had gone on the record to criticise his newspaper.

‘Something has changed in the last six months’

Morton, a thoughtful and penetrating writer, told journalism students at the University of Technology Sydney that senior writers know what the “editorial line” is this election and write their stories accordingly. But the virulence of bias at The Australian has journalists worried.

“There is a real mood that something has gone wrong,” Morton told the UTS students. “People will tell you going back a decade it used to be a very great paper, and in many ways it still is, but some of the craziness has been dialled up.”

Morton added that “something has changed in the last six months”.

“I don’t know what it is. Death rattles or loss of relevance? And journos pretty much spend all day talking about it.”

Journalists at The Australian shouldn’t be too hard on the broadsheet or themselves. It still has some of the best journalism and writing in the country (including Morton’s). As for the bias, well, to be blunt, the Sun King will be breathe his last any day now. It’s unlikely that he will be setting “editorial lines” from the grave, although if anyone can, Rupert’s the man.

Is the “craziness” a function of Rupert Murdoch and his band of Little Ruperts, in which case salvation is only one obituary away, or is the poison so deeply rooted in News Corp culture that so is News Corp? (Rooted, that is.)

Which takes us back to Shorten’s mum and the Daily Telegraph. The newspaper clearly crossed the line in what it says was an exercise in correcting the record. Its virulence went well beyond overzealous reporting; it was a hatchet job and as such was widely seen as the latest salvo in a co-ordinated News Corp assault on Bill Shorten.

The overwhelming condemnation of the Daily Telegraph’s story was telling, although it is not immediately clear telling of what. Has News Corp finally offended community standards of decency? Will the backlash cause the empire’s editors to, if not retreat, tone down their bias in this and future elections? Will News Corp journalists do what their Fairfax comrades did in 1988 and demand a charter of editorial independence?

The pity of the Daily Telegraph’s jack-booted job on Bill Shorten and his mum is that a reasonable point was obscured by the rivers of bile.

Shorten’s argument found much favour

The premise of the attack was that Shorten only told part of the story on QandA when he recounted, sotto voce and with sorrowful countenance, how his mother gave up her dream to study law to instead train as a teacher because it came with a scholarship which would be a boon for her straitened family.

The Daily Telegraph’s position was that Shorten deliberately neglected to mention that Bill’s mum did go on to become a barrister. That was the “gotcha shit” that Shorten was referring to. Shorten later argued that he had discussed his mother’s legal career on previous occasions and so was not hiding anything in the latest telling of his story.

Shorten’s argument found much favour but by my reckoning it is disingenuous sophistry. One does not seek to make a defining statement – in Shorten’s case, how his late mother’s struggle was the reason he pursued a political career – by assuming that some of the most important detail will be understood and therefore need not be repeated.

As any seasoned politician knows: always assume there is someone in the room who hasn’t heard your argument or position before.

I, for one, did not know that Ann went on to become a barrister, despite hearing Shorten’s tribute to his mother several times.

Shorten made an error of judgement in being selective, on this particular occasion, about his mother’s life struggle. You do not address a national television audience, in a bid for the prime ministership, and wittingly or unwittingly tell only half of a story intended to elicit sympathy and/or admiration, and not expect to be called on it. It’s immaterial that the story happened to be a moving account about his mother.

There are lessons to be taken from this unfortunate incident. There are lessons that may or may not be heeded by News Corp. And there are lessons that election campaign strategists should consider.

Political leaders seeking to profit from their backstory are only asking for trouble. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull sought to be defined (and reimagined) by their back-stories, only to have aspects of their narrative challenged. In any case, loving your mum is irrelevant to one’s qualifications for high office or as a measure of decency. Al Capone loved his mum too.

If Bill Shorten is the victor next week it will be entirely appropriate that Ann receives loving tribute from her son. Anything else Bill has to say about his mum will hopefully be saved for his memoir.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

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