Thursday, July 12, 2007

From Minor Scuffles To A Mainstream Death Match...

'The Australian' Vs The Blogstream War Has Begun

The shift from back-alley sniper and tripwire insurgency to full blown street fighting in the war between 'The Australian' newspaper online and the thin ranks of the local political blogstream began yesterday with this post from Peter Brent at Mumble, talking about a call he got from The Australian newspaper :

A courtesy call from Editor-in-Chief Chris Mitchell this morning informed me that the paper is going to “go” Charles Richardson (from Crikey) and me tomorrow. Chris said by all means criticise the paper, but my “personal” attacks on Dennis had gone too far, and the paper will now go me “personally”.

No, I’m not making this up.

All very strange. And - I’d be lying if I didn’t admit - a little stomach-churning.

Why would Christ Mitchell choose to "go" Peter Brent "personally", along with Richardson from Crikey?

Because Brent and Richardson, and Crikey in general, dared to critique the way the editorial team of The Australian newspaper interprets the results of Newspoll, and last Monday's Newspoll in particular:
The latest Newspoll shows Mr Howard has closed the gap on Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd, who is now ahead by just one point, 43 per cent to 42, as preferred prime minister.

However, the opposition leader still holds a greater satisfaction rating, 60 per cent to Mr Howard's 46 per cent, and Labor retains an election-winning lead.

A fleet of opinionists from The Australian openly cheered the polls as showing Howard firmly on the comeback trail, whereas the real truth is that he is still flat-lining. The majority of .Australians don't trust Howard, and they don't want to vote for him or his government again. The Australian newspaper did not reflect, or headline, those very simple facts.

There was the usual barrage of blog posts bagging The Australian. Nothing unusual about that kind of criticism from the political blogstream.

Here was Crikey's take on July 10 :
The front page of today's Australian newspaper and its reporting of the latest Newspoll has prompted a range of reactions, from shock at the sheer mendacity of its main headline ''Howard checks Rudd's march'' to muffled awe at the paper's continuing ability to pluck some shred of glass-half-full optimism from the ongoing cataclysm of the Liberal Party's federal polling. All of which is no more or less than one might expect from the country's unofficial conservative organ.
The Australian shows a clear and undeniable bias towards the Howard government in the opinions, but most particularly in the headlines, which is what most people see and read. Most in the Australian political blogstream accept this. No big deal. Another Newspoll, another bad result for Howard Corp. polished to a dull glow of hope by The Australian's front page and headline writers. Life goes on.

But Chris Mitchell thought the wave of criticism was a very big deal indeed.

This time, for reasons still unclear, the editor in chief of 'The Australian' decided to try a shock and awe attack, decapitation strike on the still-below-the-mainstream-radar political blogstream.

Peter Brent, from Mumble, is a respected commenter of political polling for most political bloggers and dozens of poll addicts, and it is hard to see why Mitchell would see him as some kind of threat worthy of such a response, where at best Brent might be seen as a mild stainer of the newspaper's credibility. Brent's readership online is small, less than a thousand per day.

Well, Brent's readership was small, until Chris Mitchell went into meltdown mode :
Online prejudice no substitute for real work

THE measure of good journalism is objectivity and a fearless regard for truth. Bias, nonetheless, is in the eye of the beholder and some people will always see conspiracy when the facts don't suit their view of the world. This is the affliction that has gripped, to a large measure, Australia's online news commentariat that has found passing endless comment on other people's work preferable to breaking real stories and adding to society's pool of knowledge.

Stunning, and hilarious. Welcome to the blogstream, Mr Mitchell.

Mitchell stayed true to his 'threat' over the phone to Brent. His editorial did get personal :
"woolly-headed critics", "the one-eyed anti-Howard cheer squad", "masquerading as serious online political commentary" "smug" "self-assured" "delusional swagger".

No bias, and clearly cooler heads at The Australian, right?

Well, what about this :

As a newspaper we don't know who we will support at the federal election.
Why, if you are an unbiased newspaper, are you going to support either party? Or any politician, for that matter, running for a seat, or the big seat?

Of course, this editorial is in The Australian, and Mitchell, like so many other opionists in The Australian are still fighting the sort of 'Left Vs Right' battles most adults dispensed with once university was over.

Mitchell can't seem to comprehend that the vast majority of Australians now live in a world where they will vote, and voice their support, for the political party that most often voices their concerns and most actively appears to be looking after their future, and the future of Australia for their children. Labor and Liberal generational votes are all but dead. Left Vs Right? Irrelevant today, as it has been for good decade.

Mitchell should have just called his editorial "Those Bloody Lefties!"

The self appointed experts online come instead from the extreme Left, populated as many sites are by sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper. We fully expect that if anything goes wrong for Mr Rudd in the campaign this year we will be blamed for Labor's misfortune.

It reflects how out of touch with ordinary views so many on-line commentators are.

...they should not kid themselves they are engaged in proper journalism and real reporting.

That is probably the strangest comment of all. How many bloggers in Australian regard themselves as "proper" journalists anyway? Not many, I would presume.

Most bloggers don't have the time or resources to practice journalism, by whatever standard Mitchell thinks applies here. He misses one of the key missions, and American success stories, of independent political and news blogging - to keep a check on the mainstream media, and to inform the readers of the news they might have missed, or issues they believe their readers should be aware of. It's not complicated, and it's certainly not the big conspiracy that Mitchell appears to believe it is.

Here's Mitchell again :

On almost every issue it is difficult not to conclude that most of the electronic offerings that feed off the work of The Australian to create their own content are a waste of time.

So why go on and on about them, then? Because he's worried.

Why does Mitchell feel so threatened? And if he's right about them being such a waste of time, why are so many of the "electronic offerings" experiencing signs of real growth in readership?

Because Australians, like Americans last year, are bored with the mainstream media and no longer believe that most of what they read in the newspapers is truth. The blogstream allows news followers to see other sides to dominant opinion threads, like those so often found in The Australian, and to pick up links to other news resources, or other blogs, that will expand their knowledge on the issues that interest them.

Plus, bloggers can cut loose in ways that still seem unacceptable or too over-the-top for staid, tired newspapers.

Not to forget, of course, that the blogstream allows readers to instantly voice their own views on a subject, or news story, and to engage in exchange with other readers of the blogs they visit.

Mitchell must have known that by devoting his entire lead editorial to trying to bitchslap the blogstream into behaving itself that he would instead give it new life, new readership, new focus and fresh attention from the mainstream of Australia.

You've got to love the irony, too, of Mitchell complaining about the blogstream calling The Australian a biased media institution. His own newspaper has devoted literally hundreds of editorials in the past seven or eight years to endless whining about the 'bias' on show at the ABC.

Of course, when The Australian is accused of letting its bias towards the conservative government show far too often, Mitchell goes fullcore berko.

But it's all a bit too late for Mitchell to start claiming The Australian does not have a politically-motivated bias towards the Howard government.

John Howard clearly thinks The Australian is biased in favour of his government and its generally unpopular policies. Here's Howard on the ABC in March, 2006 :

"I think back over the last 10 years that this government has been in office and I think of the positions taken by The Australian newspaper. It has been broadly supportive, generously so, of the government's economic reform agenda. And it has been a strong supporter, consistently... of industrial relations reform. Its only criticism of the government is that it might not have gone far enough."

And here's Chris Mitchell himself keelhauling his own 'We're Not Biased' editorial on The Media Report :

I think editorially and on the Op Ed page, we are right-of-centre. I don't think it's particularly far right, I think some people say that, but I think on a world kind of view you'd say we're probably pretty much where The Wall Street Journal, or The Telegraph in London are. So, you know, centre-right. I think that's a good position for us to be....
Well, not if you want to write editorials claiming to be unbiased.

A lot of the anger and venting in the blogstream over The Australian's twisting and reframing of the Newspoll results was stirred up by this column from Dennis O'Shanahan in the The Australian yesterday.

Somebody didn't like the scale of the comments that post attracted, because it was closed down yesterday, by 11.32am, with this abrupt message :

Commenting for this article is no longer available, try one of the articles below for more from the Dennis Shanahan blog.

16 comments appeared on the blog in less than one hour. Most were negative, hammering Shanahan for spinning the Newspoll results to create the impression that Howard and his government were making a comeback.

Today's 'shock and awe' editorial from Mitchell was trailered yesterday in Shanahan's column :
Academics at arm’s length from the political and journalistic worlds can huff and puff about polls and poll reporting but they can’t deny the real world influence of those polls and the real interest politicians take in them.
Journalistic worlds? What does that mean? That journalists from The Australian dwell in a world, a reality, that is removed from the everyday Australian world they are supposed to be reporting on? His defence became his own indictment.

More Shanahan self-defence :
The Australian and Newspoll (and I) have been right about election result after election result. It’s all the vindication we need. Just spare us the amateur and jaundiced analysis that can’t accept the numbers going in the opposite direction.
He ended his column with this :
Cheers to all those who engage in the great, democratic and political exercise of freedom of speech.
Ironic indeed considering they only took 55 minutes worth of comments and then pulled the plug on Shanahan's 'blog'.

You have to wonder why they chose to shut it down.

Too much freedom of speech from the punters?

When Mitchell's badly aimed firebombing
of the local blogstream hit online this morning, Tim Dunlop at Blogocracy was one of the first out of the gate :
They defend themselves in the strongest possible terms and attack, specifically and generally, just about anyone who disagrees with them, particularly “Australia’s online news commentariat that has found passing endless comment on other people’s work preferable to breaking real stories and adding to society’s pool of knowledge.”
Dunlop blogs via, the corporate homeland for 'The Australian'. For reasons unexplained so far, Dunlop's critique of fellow Murdochians at The Australian disappeared from the net early this morning. It briefly reappeared and has now disappeared completely. So much for freedom of speech, and The Australian being ready to accept criticism.

AB at The Road To Surfdom manned the mortars a short time after Dunlop :

Do these guys at News think their reading public has had a collective frontal lobotomy? Do they expect their customers to just swallow their biased, looney manipulations whole, without even chewing? Do they really despise their blog contributors as much as Shanahan makes out? Are they really so afraid of criticism that they’re prepared to “go” the humble Mumble?

The answer, it seems, is sadly “Yes”. What a pathetic bunch of losers. Their condescending and now outright feral attitude is the best evidence yet that their pet government is going out big time next election. Shanahan should be especially fearful, as it was him who took the credit for getting rid of Beazley and having Rudd installed as leader. That one’s come back to bite you on the arse, hasn’t it Dennis?

The Poll Bludger, one of the blogs that appears to be getting under the skin of Chris Mitchell, built an IED and buried it by the roadside, asking one of the most relevant, potent questions of the day :
The Australian – sober and experienced voice of reason, or craven mouthpiece of the crony capitalist military-industrial complex?

The comments from Poll Bludger's readers on Mitchell's shitfit are well worth a look.

Bryan at Oz Politics asks : "Is it just me, or does this seem just a touch too precious?"

Simon Jackman, another poll analyst and political scientist, comments : "Frankly, I’m surprised that the mainstream media are paying that much attention."


With Crikey, Mumble, Blogocracy, and a dozen other blogs putting in the boot since the beginning of the week, Chris Mitchell must have felt besieged. He was clearly rattled. He didn't write that editorial today for fun. He was trying to undermine any credibility given to the political blogstream, before too many people started paying attention. Like we said, it has already backfired, and badly.

Larvatus Prodeo went for a grind on The Australian's editorial interpretations of Newspoll results yesterday.

LP has been busy popularising the moniker 'Government Gazzette' for 'The Australian,' which is now being used by Crikey as well. That sort of branding clearly annoys Chris Mitchell.

LP commenter Youie noticed an interesting bleed of government spin and editorial echo at The Australian earlier this week :

I couldn’t help but note this remarkable coincidence. Alexander Downer’s opinion piece in yesterday’s [Monday’s] Australian said of Rudd: “He used his trip merely as a media opportunity - all sizzle, no sausage.”

Today [Tuesday], three sentences into his piece, Shanahan says: “But voters drawn to the Rudd barbecue by the sizzle and smell of onions may now be looking for the sausage.”

The howls of 'Government Gazette' only increased after that effort.

For Mitchell, that should have been beyond embarrassing. Perhaps that echo chambering of government ministers also inspired his attack today.

Chris Mitchell made a serious tactical error, by running his rant as the main editorial. American newspaper editors learned all too late never to show your throat to the political blogstream. Now we now how rattled he is, we're not going to forget it.

Through the hundreds of comments up at various Aussie blogs today, it's clear the blog readers believe some serious blows have been landed in recent months against the credibility of how The Australian's editorial team interprets and billboards Newspoll results. Mitchell's throbbing forehead reaction proves it.

But, as pointed out above, there is an underlying theme to the comments : Why does Chris Mitchell give a shit what Mumble or Crikey or LP contributors think about how The Australian interprets the polls? The collective daily online readership of all the main political blogs, including Crikey, would barely crack 40,000. But those numbers are rising every week.

Has Mitchell seen the writing on the wall? That more and more Australians are turning to non-newspaper blogs to get some perspective, or 'alternative views'?

The Australian readerships of Australian blogs are rising, with Crikey and LP probably doing better than most, and it's likely Australian blog readership will blossom during the coming federal election, when the mainstream media begin seriously hyping the power of blogs and the internet to impact on the outcome of the elections. It remains to be seen whether the blogstream will have an impact on the elections, but the media is going to run with this story anyway. It's now part of the election coverage cycle, as set down by the American news channels.

Mitchell gave the rest of the media its starting point today. Is the Australian political blogstream worth being listened to, or not? Mitchell did the blogstream a huge favour by claiming that, for the most part, they're not worthy of your attention. When people read such warnings, the usual response is to think 'Well, why aren't they? Why is this guy telling me not to pay attention them? Am I missing out on something?'

As a multitude of blog comments, on the various blogs linked above, point out, Mitchell allowed himself to come over as "wussy", "petty", sensitive", "sooky" and so on. It was one of the weaker editorials from Mitchell, who can usually frame his arguments with clarity and perspective. He raised an argument against the political blogstream in Australia and failed to make enough relevant points to impact negatively.

He panicked and went on the defensive, and on the attack. And he failed mightily on both fronts.

Again, why does Mitchell even care about a bunch of blogs pulling a few thousand readers a day?

Mitchell not only showed his paranoia and his fears about how the Australian media landscape will be impacted by the political blogstream, he exposed his throat and he sparked a debate he has all but no chance of winning, and in turn, he's given some truth to the widespread belief that the editorial team of The Australian (with the except of Matt Price) simply do not like blogs. More so, they don't like the fact that Rupert Murdoch forced them to shift most of the daily editorials and opinion pieces into a blog format, from which Murdoch knows he will see increased online ad revenue. The more people who comment, the more fiery the arguments and debates under the columns get, the more ad revenue hitting the News Limited bank accounts.

In the past few months, with some of The Australian's columns and editorials ratcheting up 300 and 400+ comments, the actual opinions of the columnist tend to take a backseat to what the commenters are saying to each other. Matt Price gets involved in the ruckus below his own words more than anyone else from The Australian editorial team, and appears to enjoy the exchanges. But most of the rest don't return get involved at all, letting the commenters rock around in a free-for-all.

Digital democracy has come hard and fast to The Australian, and they don't like the fact that on an average Newspoll day more than 80% (my rough estimate) of the comments aired on the boards portray a highly opinionated, often venomous, sprawl of Australian readers who simply do not agree with the way The Australian editorial team interprets the Newspoll results, and regularly claim that the writers are spinning for Howard Corp.

It'll be interesting to watch the mainstream media and blogstream reactions to all this in the next few days.

One thing is now certain.

The Blogstream Vs The Mainstream Media wars in Australia have begun.