The phrase ‘a modern Australia’ is constantly used by some parts of the political class, implying any disagreement could only come from the most troglodyte of citizens. Allain de Botton wrote in The News: A User’s Manual (2014, page 11) “Societies become modern, the philosopher Hegel suggested, when news replaces religion as out central source of guidance and touchstone of authority … The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural, unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to report that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own highly distinctive priorities.”
With that in mind, the last two Australia Days, in 2015 and 2016, have witnessed pitched battles through the media, each of which could be conceptualized as surrogate battles between republicans and monarchists for control of the day. Battles, this is, fought within the political class (in which I include the media), to which the general public have largely been bewildered onlookers.
The signal event in each year was the Australian knighthood conferred on Prince Philip in 2015, and the Australian of the Year Award conferred on recently retired Lieutenant General David Morrison in 2016. There were other events and debates, but these two dominated the media coverage and are similar enough to allow for comparisons to be made.
In this post, I compare and analyse press coverage of the two battles to see if any winners or losers can be detected, and our bewilderment assuaged.
I collected items in the ‘mainstream’ media (Sydney Morning Herald representing Fairfax, Daily Telegraph and The Australian representing Murdoch, and Crikey, an independent online news outlet), published between 26 and 30 January in 2015 and 2016. The items include reporting, opinion pieces, and letters from readers, totaling 390 items in 2015 and 207 in 2016.
In order to remain consistent with the language of the 1999 referendum, items categorized as ‘Yes’ means they are supportive of a republic, ‘No’ means they are opposed to a republic, or supportive of the monarchy (not necessarily synonyms), and ‘Other’ means related to the issue, but without explicit or reasonably implicit alignment with either side. Typically, ‘Other’ items relate to the national flag, gender issues and/or commentary on personal characteristics or physical attributes. This category also includes Indigenous issues, which appear to have received much less media attention than before 2015.
This post does not pretend to be a scientific survey or analysis, and these results are presented here for interest and discussion rather than as proof of any particular argument.
- Inverse relationships between media writing and popular writing
In 2015, reporting/opinion writing was 55% for a republic, 45% against; readers writing was 46% for a republic, 54% against. The reader writing was almost an exact replication of the referendum result 16 years earlier, suggesting there had been no change in public opinion over that long period.
In 2016, reporting/opinion writing was 62.5% for a republic, 37.5% against; reader writing was 39.5% for a republic, 61.5% against. They were diametrically opposite of each other, suggesting a strong polarization over the previous 12 months, and a strong disconnection between media and reader points of view. Overall, there was a consistent ratio of about 1 media article produced for every four readers letters published.
- Honours and honour attacked each time:
In 2015, knighthoods per se, Prince Phillip personally, and Abbott as initiator of the knighthood, were all attacked as ridiculous for their ideological (monarchical) purity, especially among media writers.
In 2016, Australian of the Year Awards per se, Lt Gen Morrison personally, Turnbull as a ‘manipulator’, were all attacked as betraying an ideological (republican) position, especially among media writers.
In both years, reader writing did not necessarily follow the media line, but over the five-day period, tended to become more consistent with it. Whether that reflects the selection processes used in each media house for publishing readers letters, or the patterns in all letters received, is not able to be determined.
- Surprise factor each time
In 2015, the knighthood was announced on Australia Day, with no warning. It was a complete surprise. There was some preceding news from Opposition leader Bill Shorten about starting a republic debate the day before, but no obvious connection between the two events.
In 2016, Morrison’s statement committing to republic when accepting the Australian of the Year Award announced on Australia Day eve was a complete surprise. It had a more obvious precursor in the ARM release of 7/8ths of first ministers declaring support for a republic earlier in the day.
- Gender issue each time:
In 2015, there were attempts to blame Peta Credlin for either encouraging or not discouraging the royal knighthood, so moving attention away from PM Tony Abbott, and discouraging attention on the merits of the knighthood.
In 2016, Catherine McGregor was castigated for saying Morrison was a ‘conventional’ appointment, so moving attention away from the Australia Day committee, and discouraging attention on Morrison’s republic commentary.
Blaming Credlin was less successful in drawing attention away from the decision maker than disparaging McGregor, whose transgender status attracted more personal attacks. The archetypal Lucretia Borgia and Mata Hari figures were, it seems, quite consciously constructed by media writers, and as such they tell us more about the writers than the two women or their supposed nefarious influences. It was perhaps an unconscious parody in this context that Crikey titled its single editorial piece ‘Time to grow some republican balls’.
- Media writing patterns
In 2015, Fairfax published ‘Yes’ articles every day (7 ‘Yes’ over the period, 1 ‘No’); Murdoch was more sporadic, with 3 ‘Yes’ and 2 ‘No’ articles over the period; and Crikey carried neither Yes nor No articles, but 7 ‘Other’ articles.
In 2016, Fairfax again published ‘Yes’ articles every day (13 ‘Yes’ over the period, and 1 ‘No’); Murdoch was again sporadic, with 6 ‘Yes’ (all on two days), and 8 ‘No’ across all days; Crikey carried 1 ‘Yes’ article and 0 ‘No’ articles.
Comparing 2015 and 2016, Fairfax producing multiple ‘Yes’ articles both years, and a token ‘No’ article; Murdoch was more sporadic in coverage, with a larger volume in 2016 compared to 2015, but ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ roughly balanced until the final day in the period (30 January) when ‘No’ took the lead; Crikey produced nothing in 2015, one editorial only in 2016.
These patterns suggest Fairfax writers are committed and enthusiastic republicans, as are its readers (ARM Chair Peter FitzSimons says he’s a ‘Fairfax man’, and Fairfax sponsored a NSW Australian of the Year entrant); Murdoch sees its readers as more aligned to monarchy, but has to balance that with its owner’s republican sentiments (and it tends to use more cartoons and satire, less wordy arguments); Crikey aligns with the Fairfax position, but doesn’t really seem to regard republicans v. monarchists as a core interest of its readers.
- Letter writing patterns
In 2015, Fairfax published letters every day, 9 ‘Yes’, 11 ‘No’ and 30 ‘Other’ letters; Murdoch also published every day, 21 ‘Yes’, 38 ‘No’, 64 ‘Other’ letters; and Crikey also published every day, 17 ‘Yes’, 7 ‘No’, and 63 ‘Other’ letters.
In 2016, Fairfax again published every day, 12 ‘Yes’, 10 ‘No’, 22 ‘Other’ letters; Murdoch again published every day, 8 ‘Yes’, 56 ‘No’, 26 ‘Other’ letters; Crikey also published every day, 4 ‘Yes’, 7 ‘No’, 10 ‘Other’ letters.
Comparing 2015 and 2016, Fairfax published a similar volume of letters, roughly balanced between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, but with ‘Other’ topics higher; Murdoch published a larger volume in both years, but with a dramatic increase in ‘No’ and decrease in ‘Yes’ and ‘Other’ letters in 2016; Crikey published a low volume of letters, with ‘Yes’ and ‘Other’ falling, while ‘No’ remained steady.
These patterns suggest Fairfax letter writers are ‘rusted on’ to Fairfax, talking to each other, and perhaps avoiding direct confrontation through ‘Other’ topics; Murdoch letter writers may have been unsure in 2015, but in 2016 were firmly in the ‘No’ camp; and Crikey letter writers counter-intuitively switched from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’, but only because of fall in ‘Yes’ letters rather then rise in ‘No’. It is also worth noting that the two media in which letter writers changed views, Crikey and Murdoch, have more continental audiences (although no letters from WA, NT or Tasmania were published), while Fairfax letter writers’ addresses are mainly in the southeastern capitals. This would not be an auspicious sign for any advocate of constitutional change.
- The ‘Other’ category counts items that relate to the issue, more or less directly, but without explicit or reasonably implicit alignment with either side.
In 2015, the other issues were changing the flag, desirability of a republic, role of Credlin and her gender (cast as a scheming femme fatale controlling an implicitly de-masculinised and effete Abbott), the credibility of knighthoods, abolition of knighthoods, personal attacks on Prince Philip, and warnings of Abbott’s impending doom if he didn’t focus on ‘proper’ political issues such as the economy.
In 2016, the other issues were changing the flag, demands for a republic, conflation of demands for another republic referendum with equal marriage and Aboriginal recognition referenda, role of the Australia Day committee, credibility of Australian of the Year awards, personal attacks on Morrison, Turnbull’s ‘breaking hearts’ and treachery (implicitly a hollow man chasing power), complaining about Australian of the Year recipients hectoring and lecturing people with trendy ‘politically correct’ views, and sniping about gender issues (McGregor was cast as a hysterical queen undermining the sound republican Morrison).
The most critical conclusion is probably that popular opinion moved strongly towards the monarchy between Australia Day 2015 and 2016, and even more emphatically after Australia Day 2016. Views hadn’t really changed much since 1999, but the public battle over Prince Philip’s Australian knighthood had a polarizing effect with the letter-writing public noticeably cleaving to the monarchist position.
The political class (in which I include the mainstream media) has moved decisively over the past twelve months towards a republic, while popular views have moved just as decisively towards the monarchy, suggesting a strong disconnection between the political class and the public. Some of this polarizing may come from a revival of the old, remembered divisions leading up to the 1999 referendum that people either do not want, or want to delay, re-visiting. Such a conclusion is consistent with the trend in polling on the issue. Even the self-selecting Sydney Morning Herald readers’ panel, which on 30 January 2015 voted 72% for a republic and 20% against, had evolved by 30 January 2016 to 59% for a republic referendum now, 22% for waiting until the Queen dies to hold a referendum (who may vote Yes or No) and 14% supporting monarchy.
In both cases, these battles originated in the Prime Ministers’ Office. The knighthood was a personal decision of PM Abbott. The Australian of the Year Award was a decision of a body located in the Prime Ministers’ Office of PM Turnbull. In neither instance was the decision made within the traditional honours system, located within the Governor General’s household, of which the Order of Australia is the best-known component. The cumulative effect of the two battles has probably undermined public respect for the honours system generally through a perception of a blatant politicization of honours processes and outcomes. It is a clear illustration of why all honours must be kept separate from partisan politics.
In terms of the tone of the media coverage, the republican-aligned press was clearly surprised by the reaction in 2016. It did not recognize any near-identical flip side of 2015 reactions. The derisory responses to Prince Philip’s knighthood appear to have set the rules and tone for the counter-response to Morrison’s Australian of the Year Award. For example, in 2015 a Fairfax write described Prince Philip as “Phil the Greek … the most mocked and least useful member of the royal family who is not currently accused of sex orgies with teenagers”. In 2016, a Murdoch writer described Morrison as having a “…fierce, almost jihadist fanaticism in his eyes, the tightened facial muscles, what might be taken to be self-righteous vindictiveness lurking in his delivery”. Similarly, Abbott was mocked as a Quixote-like medieval knight, and Turnbull was derided as a Benedict Arnold-like traitor. Prince Phillip and Morrison, Abbott and Turnbull have had their defenders among the letter writers, many of who seemed repulsed by such insights into the vulgarity of political class thinking. The characterizations are demeaning and their purpose remains obscure (to outsiders, at least), but 2015 seems to have set a template for 2016.
The attacks on Credlin in 2015 and McGregor in 2016 point to a propensity to attribute the cause for perceived ‘failures’ by men in this matter (Abbott, Prince Phillip, Turnbull, Morrison) to cunning, sexually threatening women. This points to the primal emotions involved in issues around monarchy, identity and honour, emotions that go way beyond any black-letter legalism.
The ‘surprise factor’ is evident in both years. Making surprise announcements, especially on an “it’s done, get over it” basis, concerning identities, monarchy, honours and symbols will produce very negative reactions. This indicates the level of deep emotion involved, and the need for proposals for change to be preceded by long lead times with lots of public foregrounding and open discussion. Such changes cannot be airily cast as ‘simple’ constitutional matters. The surprise story of the premier’s ‘declaration’, released on the morning of Australia Day-eve, probably antagonized the monarchists and primed them for outrage that evening. It had vanished from the media coverage by the 27th (possibly to the quite relief of some first ministers), replaced by accusations of Turnbull’s betrayal of the cause, suggesting the declaration had a contrary effect to that intended.
Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, speaking to the National Press Club, reportedly separated Aboriginal constitutional recognition from republican issues, for which he was attacked as an apologist for Abbott. But there is no necessary connection, in the letter writers, between supporting monarchism and opposition to equal marriage, gender equality, Aboriginal recognition, flag changes or honours (despite some cranky Colonel Blimp letters). One Murdoch opinion writer referred to ‘jingo bandana republicanism’, a label illustrated by the response to McGregor’s critique of Morrison’s appointment: she was attacked by Fairfax republicans and Murdoch conservatives alike as the political class closed ranks around what this analysis suggests is regarded as ‘its’ cause. As FitzSimons said, “Morrison is one of ours”.
Opinion pieces on the last day of the survey were consistent in each media house: Fairfax writers defended the Australian of the Year awards, saying they should not be debased, and blamed ‘nostalgic’ monarchist reactionaries for the conflict; Murdoch writers all professed their true republicanism, but said the time is not yet right to pursue republicanism, it must wait for a while, and blamed FitzSimons for blokey impatience. The Sydney Morning Herald editorialized “The Herald knows the selection board will look closely at the 2016 process…” with all the confidence of an insider.
One final thought around the labeling of republican and monarchist among the media writers. It’s a labeling that harks back to the 1990s and its divisiveness. All the Murdoch writers professed their republicanism, all the Fairfax writers stuck to their stated editorial policy of republicanism. The only professed monarchists were among the letter writers. This whole analysis could be based upon a false binary of republican v. monarchist, when really the battles have been between republican factions (minimalists, direct electionists, jingo bandanistas) seeking to appropriate Australia Day to their cause. But, that’s an issue for another post.
So, who won the battle in 2016?
It could be said, in the annual Australia Day Wars, that the 2015 Battle of Philip was won by the red bandanas, the 2016 Battle of Morrison was won by the gold crowns. The battlefields have both been within the honours system, displaying an iconoclastic disregard for its integrity. The question now is on what grounds will the 2017 be battle fought, who will ‘win’, how will it be reported, who will report it, and will the Australian honours system be further demeaned by crude politicization?