While scandals occur on both sides of the political spectrum, the mainstream media tends to portray the flaws of the Labor Party over those of the Liberal Party, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

POLITICAL JOURNALISTS love a good scandal. The media are rightly determined to hold power to account, so when there is political misconduct, they pile up. But why are journalists giving more coverage to Labor scandals than Liberal wrongdoing?

A clear example of this unfair treatment is the attention given to the ICAC scandal of former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian over the stacking issues of the IBAC branch of the Victorian Labor Party.

As the scandals progressed, the Berejiklian scandal did not worsen. After revelations that the NSW premier was having a secret affair with disgraced MP Daryl Maguire, one would think media pressure would make his job untenable.

In October 2020, secret recordings of Maguire’s phone calls with Berejiklian caught him warning his lover in a conspiratorial manner: “You don’t need to tell me a little bit.” It was in the news at the time, but Teflon-like Berejiklian managed to avoid continued media pressure on the secret relationship and, most importantly, the relationship’s impact on his political decisions.

Whether the media cared or not, the ICAC investigation continued for another year. Ultimately, it was not the media pressure that forced Berejiklian to withdraw. Rather, she made the decision to resign on September 30, 2021, believing that she could not resist the appearance that she had “violated public trust” by awarding multi-million dollar grants to groups. communities in Maguire’s Wagga Wagga headquarters.

The accusation that Berejiklian did not declare a conflict of interest when awarding the grants is no small political issue. The ICAC – “C” for “Corruption” – continues to investigate the grant-making process and is still hearing witnesses.

The fact that Berejiklian resigned, knowing full well whether there was any evidence to exonerate or implicate him, is a huge story in anyone’s estimation. It wasn’t a little-known backbench MP like Maguire resigning – it was the premier of NSW and in the midst of a pandemic.

You would expect a scandal of this magnitude to receive a tremendous amount of media scrutiny, analysis and commentary. You would think journalists would separate the charges, dissecting them for the public over many media cycles to uncover the sordid truth.

One of the hard things to judge when analyzing the media reaction to different events is what constitutes proportional coverage. One way to measure proportionality is by comparison. In this case, comparing a Victorian Labor IBAC scandal to a liberal NSW ICAC scandal shows a clear unfairness in media interest, attention and scrutiny.

The graph below compares the number of news articles mentioning the ICAC and details of the grant scandal in the seven days following Berejiklian’s resignation on September 30, with mentions of the Victorian investigation of the IBAC on the stack of the Labor branch for a week starting October 6. Online and print newspapers from national outlets, based in Melbourne and Sydney have been included.

The IBAC scandal received more attention than the grant-related resignation of the Premier of New South Wales in all media except the ABC. The contrast was particularly stark in Murdoch’s media. Surprise Surprise.

(Graphic provided)

Note that I have only counted articles that specifically look at the grant scandal – not just those that mention the ICAC. Indeed, many articles referred to the ICAC in connection with Berejiklian’s resignation, but did not detail the grant scandal itself. Instead, many praised Berejiklian’s career with emotion, with reporters appearing to mourn a friend without mentioning the circumstances of her decision to quit.

Much of the coverage has portrayed her as a heroic and much-loved prime minister, the victim of an excessive bribery commission. Maybe she’s loved a lot because the media didn’t hold her accountable for her questionable relationship with Maguire.

I did the same analysis with the history of IBAC. I have only counted articles that specifically mention IBAC in connection with the branch stacking scandal in Victorian Labor. Never mind that the stacking of branches, while clearly unethical, is not illegal. This report not only equated the Andrews government scandal and the NSW Premier’s ICAC investigation, but proportionately placed too much emphasis on the IBAC investigation.

But wait, there is more evidence that journalists are more interested in a Labor scandal than a Liberal scandal.

Politicized coverage: Media prefers liberal COVID response to labor response

The Victorian-era branch stacking scandal had already gained media attention after it broke through a 60 minutes investigation in June 2020. This scandal led Labor MP Adem Somyurek to lose his ministry and quit the Party; he now sits as an independent.

You may also recall that the Victoria Liberal Party was embroiled in its own branch stacking scandal, which allegedly involved Liberal MPs Michael Sukkar and Kevin Andrews. The MPs have since been exonerated for embezzling public funds after an investigation by – try not to laugh – the law firm Sukkar for which he worked. A review also led to the cancellation of the membership of 170 Victorian-era Liberal members. Nothing to see here, go ahead.

Two scandals about the same wrongdoing – branch stacking and embezzlement of public funds. Which do you think received the most media attention?

This graph compares the number of articles written about the branch stack, mentioning Somyurek in the month following the story’s release on June 15, 2020, to articles mentioning the branch stacking and Sukkar in the month after August 20. 2020 in nationwide outlets in Melbourne and Sydney.

(Graphic provided)

Across all outlets, the story of the Labor branch’s stacking up was bigger news than the same scandal within the Liberal Party.

How to explain this blatant media inequality?

There is not a single reason for this skewed treatment of the Labor scandals compared to the Liberals. Some of these are a conscious bias on the part of many Murdoch journalists who have decided to use their media power to smear progressive politicians.

However, much of this bias results from unconscious assumptions about the differential legitimacy of Labor and Liberal politicians. In a nutshell, Labor politicians are supposed to be in the throes of scandals, are supposed to be less legitimate and so when Labor scandals do arise journalists say ‘I told you so’.

Liberals, on the other hand, are taken for granted as legitimate, and are therefore treated with gloves by journalists, even when involved in scandals equivalent to or even more serious than Labor.

Inequality of the media leads to unequal accountability between Labor and Liberal politicians, resulting in inequitable democratic accountability. Although journalists love a political scandal, they apparently love a Labor scandal more than they love a liberal scandal.

Dr Victoria Fielding is a freelance Australian columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @Vic_Rollison.

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