Kevin Rudd’s shock demise as Labor Leader and Prime Minister can be traced to a relentless front page focus by The Australian on the mining tax row.
As a journalist and former Howard Government media adviser, I’m a keen observer of the front pages of our leading metro daily newspapers.
What fascinates me the most is the lead; what is chosen as the number one story of everything that has happened in Australia and around the world in the past 24 hours and how is it told. It says a lot about the paper, and its readers.
I surveyed the front pages of The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, The Age and Herald Sun in June 2010 to find out (a) who is writing the most leads and, therefore, who are, arguably, Australia’s most influential journalists, and (b) what are the top issues and how is this front page coverage affecting events.
- Dennis Shanahan, The Australian, 14 leads
- Phillip Coorey, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 leads
- Matthew Franklin, The Australian, 5 leads
- Andrew Clennell, Daily Telegraph, 5 leads
- Michelle Grattan, The Age, 4 leads.
- Mining tax row, 20 leads (16 in The Australian)
- Sport/errant sport identities, 17 leads (15 in the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph)
- Crime/law and order/sentencing, 14 leads (12 in the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph).
The Australian ran 12 front page leads on the Rudd Government’s mining tax in 13 days. Such a run of Page 1 leads on one issue is rare.
By comparison, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald each ran just one front page lead on the issue in June. The Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph ran no front page leads on the issue in June.
You’d have to go back to Whitlam’s sacking in 1975 or the Vietnam War in the ’60s and early ’70s to come close to such a run of Page 1 leads on one issue. Even then it’s doubtful there was such a run. (I have looked at these front pages but didn’t record the results.)
Was Rudd’s tax on mining profits as big a story as the Vietnam War or Whitlam’s sacking? Of course not.
The Australian’s front page coverage, fulled by intense lobbying from the mining industry, gave a platform to the billion-dollar mining sector, the centre-right Coalition and anti-taxers. This influenced Parliament Question Time and the daily news media. It became a frenzy.
Such was the heat – media and political – generated by The Australian and Dennis Shanahan that by Saturday 12 June the story, in The Australian, was mining tax row/Rudd leadership. By Monday 14 June the story, in The Australian, was Rudd leadership/mining tax row.
The Australian’s coverage generated its own front page news. By Saturday 19 June, Dennis Shanahan splashed on Page 1 that Rudd may be dumped within days if he did not resolve the mining row.
Few believed it would happen. Labor was ahead in the polls 52-48 and Rudd was still in his first term.
But that’s exactly what happened. Four days later, on 23 June, Julia Gillard, backed by an enthusiastic majority of Labor MPs fed up with Rudd’s autocratic style, challenged Rudd.
It was no contest. Rudd, almost friendless, didn’t even contest the leadership ballot.
Overnight, Australia’s political landscaped changed. Rudd the PM was now a backbencher and Australia had a new PM, Gillard.
The Australian, the Coalition and the mining industry gorged on the blood.
The Rupert Murdoch-owned The Australian took on Rudd and the mining tax and won.
Rudd, and the Labor Party, ultimately were responsible for the collapse. But The Australian had a big hand in it.
- 2-9 June: The Australian leads with mining tax row for seven consecutive days
- 11-16 June: The Australian leads with mining tax row for five consecutive days
- 12 June: The Australian’s story morphs into mining tax row/Rudd leadership
- 14 June: The Australian’s story becomes Rudd leadership/mining tax row. The Daily Telegraph joins in, saying on its front page that Labor Party power brokers are ready to back Gillard as leader.
- 19 June: The Australian says Rudd is just days from being dumped unless he “solves” the mining tax “row”
- AM 23 June: Sydney Morning Herald reports that Rudd has been asking MPs if they still support him
- PM 23 June: Gillard tells Rudd she’s challenging him
- 24 June: Rudd surrenders. The Labor Party elects Gillard Leader, and thus she becomes Prime Minister, and Australia’s first woman Prime Minister.
The Australian, when it wants to, wields significant power.
Looking at the bigger picture, there is no national centre-left metro daily newspaper to balance The Australian.
The state papers such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age must focus on state issues as well as national ones.
The Australian is well-known to be a loss-making venture. But Murdoch is willing to fund it in order to wield power to financially grow his empire overall.
There is a gap for a national centre-left daily newspaper. But who will fund it?
First published ABC 27 July 2010. Author Mike Smith. Photo: ABC/aap-Alan Porritt.