There is a story, apocryphal perhaps, about the meeting between John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. At one stage, the discussions became quite heated, with the President exclaiming, ‘Do you ever admit a mistake?’ ‘Certainly’, replied Khrushchev, ‘In a speech before the 20th Party Congress, I admitted all of Stalin’s mistakes.’
The Australian newspaper appears to have developed a dose of the Khrushchevs. It spends an inordinate amount of time and space highlighting the mistakes of its media rivals. Meanwhile, standards at the News Ltd broadsheet have fallen away. This once great national institution has become as embarrassing as a Labor caucus convention in Queensland.
Speaking of which, in comparing Anna Bligh’s wipeout with last year’s landslide defeat of the Keneally government, the Australian had three attempts at reporting the NSW ALP primary vote — each of them wrong. In its 27 March edition, a graphic on page 13 put the figure at 25.6 per cent, a mistake repeated by the paper’s statistical ‘guru’ George Megalogenis on page eight. Worst of all, the ALP numbers man Graham Richardson had the wrong number (this time ‘a pathetic, miserable 25.7 per cent’) in his column on page 14.
Twelve months ago, in the nation’s most populous state, Labor polled 24.03 percent of the primary vote — a figure readily available from the NSW Electoral Commission website. Instead of using this standard source, the Australian relied on Wikipedia, a notoriously inaccurate text in which anyone can enter whatever material they like online. This highlights a serious cultural problem at the paper: inattention to detail and sloppy research. In search of the facts, one might as well listen to a Clive Palmer spy story as read the Australian (Wikipedia edition).
Lionel Bowen was a widely-respected Labor MP, serving in the Hawke government for seven years as Deputy Prime Minister (1983-90). In death, he deserved something better than multiple errors in the Australian on 2 April. Strewth columnist James Jeffrey described Bowen as ‘the deputy PM of Australia … during the Whitlam years’ — the work of a simpleton. There were two other basic errors elsewhere in the paper: a claim that ‘for 11 years [Bowen] was content to be Australia’s deputy PM’, plus misspelling the name of his predecessor in the seat of Kingsford Smith, Dan Curtin. The Australian recorded it as Curtain (as in rod).
If the Gillard government acts on the recommendations of the Finkelstein inquiry and establishes a News Media Council, the new organisation will need an entire division of workers dedicated to correcting errors in the Australian. With some of the stories it publishes, one needs to look at them a dozen times to clear away the sense of absurdity.
This was my experience in reading the paper’s front page on 14 February. The opening line by Dennis Shanahan, in reporting the latest Newspoll findings, was unexceptional:
Tony Abbott has again overtaken Julia Gillard as preferred prime minister as the Coalition continues to dominate a federal Labor Party distracted by leadership divisions.
Next to this sentence, however, was a table outlining the Newspoll ‘figures’. Two-party preferred, it had Labor on 64 per cent and the Coalition on 36 per cent — a massive lead for the government. As the better PM, it had Gillard on 54 and Abbott on 15. Coalition MPs (and Kevin Rudd) must have been spitting out their cornflakes that morning, in horror at the electoral turnaround. Within the space of five millimetres, moving from Shanahan’s story to the statistical table, Australian politics had been turned on its head.
In its editorial that day, ironically enough, the Australian proclaimed:
Just as there are lies, damn lies and statistics, there are opinion polls, hyperbole about opinion polls and only a handful of professionals with the expertise to interpret them accurately.
Sometimes you just can’t help people. Writing in the Australian Financial Review on 12 January, I tried to assist the Australian by correcting another front-page howler, this time by the error-prone Megalogenis. The next day, James Jeffrey insisted that ‘Mega’s article itself was spot-on’. In fact, for nine of the 14 statistical categories reported, the journalist was mega-mistaken. Again, the timeless adage applied: there are lies, damn lies and stories published in the Australian newspaper.
The survey of errors listed above is far from comprehensive. On average, I read the Australian every third day, concentrating on the politics and sports sections. For every error I find, I work on the assumption of another 10 elsewhere in the paper — a mistake rate of shambolic proportions.
Elsewhere in the News stable, the best horseracing tips come from Ray Thomas in the Daily Telegraph. Last week he previewed a race, the Dubai World Cup, which had been run six days earlier — a surefire way of tipping the winner. Perhaps Thomas is positioning himself to take over as the statistical expert at the Australian.