As the seemingly never-ending federal election campaign powers on, Charles Purcell speaks to Inner West journalist and newsreader, Deborah Knight, about how social media has changed the game and the integral role media will play in the upcoming election showdown.
You could be forgiven for thinking that we’re only weeks away from the federal election. Party leaders Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have been all over the media, hitting the hustings, kissing babies, selling their policies and launching their charm offensives. Deborah Knight, Leichhardt local, Channel 9 newsreader and host of Financial Review Sunday, has observed the progress of this “very long, drawn-out campaign” with great personal and professional interest.
“I think we’re already in election mode, which makes it an unusual election year,” says the journalist. “The official election period isn’t even underway just yet … it’s a quasi election mode, because we know the date of the election, which we normally don’t this far out.” With polls already predicting a landslide against Labor, one can expect the Gillard camp to pull out all the stops to regain ground.
“I think we’re getting a whiff of desperation from Labor because they realise they’re facing electoral annihilation so I think it’s going to get dirty, if it hasn’t already,” says Knight.“It will be an interesting election from a journalist’s point of view because the campaign period is so long and because it’s the first time that a budget has been framed as an election document. It’s fascinating and intriguing and I wouldn’t want to be a politician.”
Come election time, Knight will join the tireless army of journalists who will attempt to explain, decipher, interpret and deliver all the latest information for the public. The election details aren’t settled yet, but apart from “being glued to the screen watching the results like everyone else,” Knight hopes to be involved on election night as part of the Nine commentary team, as well as present an analysis for the business community on Financial Review Sunday. Her job and those of others will be not only to make sure their information is accurate but to deliver it to their audiences before their rivals.
As part of the media, Knight has a powerful ability to help shape the national conversation and mould debate – and not just around election time. Yet while she agrees that the media will be delivering the big messages come the election, she says the landscape around traditional media such as television has changed. No longer the sole, critical funnel of information, it now has to compete with other forms of media as well.
“It’s interesting that the framework has changed because social media plays such a big part,” she says. “If you are on Twitter or Facebook, you can actually get the message straight to you from the politicians; you don’t have to get it via the traditional forms. I think the big shift [is evident] since even the Obama campaign in the US; politicians were tapping into fundraising in social media as well.”
“The role of the media in a traditional election cycle is changing to a degree. With 24-hour news channels you can see news conferences live as they happen.”
Other forms of media such as newspapers have been forced to change as well: “The print media is adapting enormously with its online presence… they have to be up to date with things immediately.”
You can count the newly launched fact-checking website PolitiFact Australia as part of the new media and political landscape. Even before the election, PolitiFact Australia is already hard at work, running its “Truth-O-Meter” over statements by our political leaders. For example, Liberal MP’s Jamie Brigg’s comme
Tint that “federal government public servants are purchasing gold-plated coffee machines” receives the “Pants on Fire” rating for its accuracy.
Peter Fray, former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and now editor-in-chief of PolitiFact Australia, says that media will always play an important role in any election.
“It is the filter,” he says. “Elections are a battle of talking points. PolitiFact comes in at that point to fact-check those talking points. We don’t have an agenda and neither do we seek to say which side is doing best or winning the race. That’s not for the fact-checkers.
“We are a resource. We publish the sources and link up to the data. In that way people can go to the documents and make up their own minds.”
Frays says “this will be an election where all sorts of media will try and do different things to capture audience. I don’t go with the argument that people don’t care about politics. That’s not my experience. But there is a strong case for media re-invention. That’s where we fit in.”
Meanwhile, Knight says that of the big issues the parties want the election to be fought over, “Labor wants it to be about education, their big reforms and the National Disability Insurance Scheme; the Opposition wants it to be about the economy, refugee arrivals and illegal boat people as well – so they’re both trying to frame the political ground.
“But I think the average voter is switched off to a degree. Most voters aren’t hearing the message [the parties] are trying to resonate among the electorate because they’ve made their minds up or they’re just over it because of the long, drawn-out process.”
If the average voter is switched off, is it part of Knight’s job to make them switched-on again?
“I don’t think it’s up to the media to help them be switched on. Politics is key and integral to the coverage of the national affairs and national stories, but it’s not my role as a journalist to get voters excited about politics. It’s up to the politicians to create an inspirational debate.”
“I think people are very cynical about politics. I think they’re cynical about the reasons why people get into politics in the first place. That’s being played out and amplified when you see what’s happening with ICAC. When you see scandal and people involved in allegations of fraud, people become very cynical about the whole process. I’m really glad we have compulsory voting… because otherwise I’d hate to see what the voter turn-out would be.”
As an Inner Westie, Knight nominates transport, health, education and the Gonski reforms as issues that have traction within her local community.
“We are facing a real crisis and a real crunch with placements for kids in schools: they’re already at capacity at local primary schools. That’s a huge issues that young families have in the Inner West.”
Whatever challenges the election holds, you can expect Knight to employ her secret weapon in preparing to bring the news to viewers: research, research, research. “I read myself into a frenzy to get as much information as I can on any subject matter I am reporting on.”
And she can expect plenty of 3.30am wake-up calls in the coming months in her quest to bring the viewing public the latest news and information. Knight lists “having to endure make-up and hair that time in the morning” as one of the less envious parts of her job.
“Having so much focus on your appearance is something that I view as a bit of a negative, which is par for the course, really … you have to accept that. The first thing people will comment on is what you’re wearing rather than what you’re saying, which unfortunately is not just the bane of women, it’s blokes as well.
“The positives are that it’s just such an exciting career. I’m constantly learning, constantly having to challenge myself in new and different ways. It’s certainly never boring: I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Words: Charles Purcell.