news ltd, pokies and the afl: relentless and wrong

It’s well known that the Murdoch press has the Gillard government in its sights. Just about everything they publish, apart from the obligatory pages devoted to Aussie Idol / X Factor / Masterchef / insert-your-reality-blend-here, is slanted, manipulated and fabricated to convince their readers that Canberra is being run by evil kindergarten dropouts.

Pick a topic, any topic with a political angle and you can be sure that News Limited will find the angle that suits their purpose. Poker machine reform is one such topic. I’m sure the editors of papers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Herald-Sun would love to run a stream of voyeuristic sob-stories about poor battling Aussies who’ve lost everything on the pokies… but they’ve foregone this for the good of the cause. Instead, they’ve taken the side of the gambling industry and constantly, relentlessly ripped into the reforms and their proponents, and given miles of column space to the clubs, the NRL, the politicians and anyone else who has a vested interest in seeing these reforms fail.

If there was ever any doubt as to how deeply involved News Ltd is in their pro-pokies, anti-reform campaign, it was dispelled this week. Andrew Bolt, as he so often does, fired the first salvo on Wednesday in his column, titled “AFL’s poker face could prove to be a challenging punt for Gillard” (Herald-Sun, 21/9/2011). According to Bolt, the AFL is about to rise up and join the NRL in venting its “fury against Wilkie’s plan,” even though (when you actually read what he’s written) there’s nothing to substantiate this claim. In an article ostensibly about the AFL, Bolt managed to work in references to the “carbon dioxide tax”, the Labor caucus and Kevin Rudd’s rumoured/imminent return to the top job… but gave up nothing to suggest that the AFL is, in fact, about to formally oppose the proposed reforms.

So, a fluff piece. An opinion piece. Sure, and it was as lightweight as most of Bolt’s work… but it set the scene for Samantha Maiden’s onslaught today.

Maiden is the national political editor for many of Murdoch’s Sunday papers; you could be forgiven for expecting her to at least get the facts right. Sadly, that doesn’t appear to be high on her agenda. She has articles in today’s Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Herald-Sun, and guess what? We’re talking about pokies and the AFL again.

For her Sydney audience, Maiden penned “NRL and AFL tackle PM over plan to curb the use of poker machines” (Sunday Telegraph, 25/9/2011). The headline readers would justifiably assume that the AFL has joined the NRL in their anti-reform campaign; they would be wrong. Maiden has taken comments from the media-friendly Eddie McGuire (Collingwood) and the walking sound-bite Jeff Kennett (Hawthorn) to suggest that AFL clubs (not the AFL itself) may be about to “launch a public assault” against the proposed reforms. Her main intention is clearly to associate the AFL with the NRL’s stance in this matter; the headline makes the article itself almost irrelevant.

For her Melbourne audience, Maiden got more specific. “AFL pokies revolt hits Prime Minister Julia Gillard” (Sunday Herald-Sun, 25/9/2011) spends more time on the personalities within the AFL (McGuire, Kennett and Western Bulldogs president David Smorgon) and on explaining why the reforms won’t work. It’s clearly targeted at the AFL heartland, and a transparent attempt to link the future of the AFL with the continued financial success of poker machines.

The Sunday Herald-Sun even ran a brief editorial today to support Maiden’s article. “Clubs gun for the Prime Minister” (Sunday Herald-Sun, 25/9/2011) is brief enough, but manages to reinforce the idea that the proposed poker machine reforms won’t work. It also gets the nature of the reforms wrong… nice one Ed.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Maiden is, as stated earlier, the national political editor (for Sundays); she’s writing about a political situation, sort of. Why is this a problem?

Here’s why.

The AFL have staunchly resisted any overtures or invitations to oppose the Gillard government’s proposed reforms, and to date they continue to do so. AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou is on record as saying that the reforms will NOT kill AFL clubs, not even the “cash-strapped” ones, and the AFL’s current assessment of gambling associated with their sport makes it very unlikely that any official opposition is likely to happen any time soon.

Maiden states that AFL club presidents will meet tomorrow (Monday) to “launch a public assault against the laws during grand final week,” and that “…club presidents (are) calling crisis talks tomorrow over the changes.” The truth, buried deep in the Sunday Telegraph article and not mentioned at all in the Sunday Herald-Sun, is that this meeting is about the distribution of football licensing agreements over the next five years. The reforms may be discussed but these are hardly “crisis talks” that have been called by the clubs.

The reforms themselves are misrepresented. Maiden doesn’t even bother describing them for her Sydney readers, but in Melbourne we get this:

Under his agreement with Ms Gillard, Mr Wilkie demanded mandatory pre-commitment by the 2012 Budget, forcing punters to register for smartcard or PIN before betting.

Critics say problem gamblers have no limit on how much they spend and can set a limit of $100,000 or more. Casual punters will stop betting because they can’t be bothered. While it is believed the AFL does not support any co-ordinated publicity blitz, AFL chief Andrew Demetriou has held talks with ministers, including Families Minister Jenny Macklin.

No mention of low-loss poker machines, which do NOT require a card to play and are the platform these reforms are based on. Maiden talks about mandatory pre-commitment and ignores the rest; this is blatant misrepresentation. She’s the national political editor; she knows the facts. She’s simply chosen not to include them, and that makes a nonsense of her assessment of the impact of these reforms. And of course Demetriou has held talks with ministers… he’s been doing that for years. It’s part of his job.

Maiden pays a lot of attention to the thoughts and opinions of Jeff Kennett. Unsurprising really, Murdoch papers rely on regular pronouncements from the former Victorian premier. Yet Kennett’s time as Hawthorn president is at its end, and consequently what he has to say has become, like him, irrelevant. Still, it’s worth remembering that Jeff Kennett supported the introduction of pokies into Victoria when he was in opposition, and as premier her oversaw the rapid expansion of the industry across the state. He is on the board of Amtek, a company that exists solely to support and maintain poker machines. And yet he is also at the head of Beyond Blue and has been (until now) president of a club that calls itself the “family club”. He is a bundle of conflicted views and opinions, nothing more.

Ultimately, there is currently no substance to any of this. Nothing has happened, the AFL is not yet fighting the reforms and the club presidents have not yet mustered any combined resistance. Maiden’s articles are speculative fiction. Still, in a company that prints exclusive articles every time Clubs Australia issues a media release, speculative fiction is as good as gold.

And while we will have to wait to see what tomorrow brings, one thing is for sure. No one associated with the AFL would want to court any kind of controversy in grand final week. Not the AFL, not the clubs, not the presidents… no one. This week is the culmination of the season; it’s a seven-day media frenzy of sport and celebration that has only one goal, and that is to build up to Saturday’s season decider. To suggest that club presidents, especially Collingwood’s Eddie McGuire, would do anything to detract from that in grand final week is, in my opinion, ludicrous. Sure, Eddie has spoken out against the “footy tax” but that’s a far cry from an official campaign.

Then again, that’s News Ltd for you. Making the ridiculous plausible, seven days a week… and twice on Sundays.


7 Responses

  1. Adam Fletcher says:

    Very well argued Tom. Shows the Sydney Telegraph and Melbourne Herald Sun for the good fire starting fodder they really are. You are factual about the misrepresentations of sporting bodies and clubs by Murdoch’s machine, and that is the real point.

    Evidently not a fan of Jeff Kennett. I concede he is an amalgam of opposing views.

    Fiction does not make for news and we deserve better from the publications purporting to represent the people and the zeitgeist.

    We find – through spin, a sheer insincerity to the truth, drawing long bows and creating a soup out of different issues – that somehow Julia Gillard and her government are anti AFL, anti NRL and anti sports club. No further from the truth could this be.

    But evidently the truth, in this case, does not make for good news, nor help a deceitful agenda or sell papers.

  2. Barry says:

    This is a very good demolition of the Sunday Tele and Sunday Herald Sun stories. It’s disappointing when such papers get caught up running agendas like this.

    I would just make one point though. You write that Maiden omitted certain background information from one of the stories etc, although it is much more likely that it was the result of subeditors cutting back/tinkering with the story.

  3. nomadiqueMC says:

    an excellent assessment of the situation bro’, a well written piece. it’s such an insidious alliance, and News Ltd’s involvement is far from objective.

    on friday night, as usual i watched channel 9’s NRL coverage (i don’t have foxtel, but in any case i’m part of a minority who doesn’t mind rabs & co) and whilst the TAB Sportsbet advertising has become overwhelming and relentless this year, i was disappointed to hear Ray Warren (a legend sportscaster, it has to be said) spruiking the anti-reforms bandwagon.

    i expect it and have heard it from gus all before, but i was disappointed with rabs. and it wasn’t an off-hand remark – this was a 5-minute, channel 9 sponsored and supported plug for the ‘won’t work will hurt’ propaganda machine, complete with Ray Warren’s (dulcet toned) endorsement.

    it made me sad.

  4. Barry says:

    Yes, nomadiqueMC, Ray’s involvement in the Clubs Australia propaganda effort is all the more disappointing given he opened up last year about his own problems with gambling:–like-the-fortune-hes-lost-to-gambling-20100501-u09r.html

  5. Libby Mitchell says:

    I loved reading that article also Tom! Great arguments raised. It worries me sick that our media has such opportunity and license to mislead so many people, with so little tangible rebuttal allowed! My reader comment in Andrew Bolt’s article was censored [as usual]…as was my contribution to his blog. Judging by the tenor of the published comments, a few more PRO Reform comments may also have been deleted.

    Logical debate has gone out the window! I am still holding on to the belief that the majority of Australians can see through the nonsense…despite the idiotic claims being made! We need to find out how WA clubs are surviving! As they ARE so well no doubt and not a local pokie among them!

    Ask any old digger how RSL clubs survived pre-pokies…and they would sneer at the RSL claims made now. My Dad recalls when RSL’s were tin sheds! FULL of support…FULL of friendship and FULL of hard community input by members who cared. They did not have to use lethal addictive products to fund their work…they just DID it instead! Footy clubs did the same. I just hope and pray that enough people can remember the truth, to combat these ridiculous and destructive self-serving claims!

  6. Analogue Cheese says:

    And the question arises – what is News’ motive? It goes beyond the reflex anti-Gillardics.

    News has real skin in this particular issue.

    News has a proprietary stake in the NRL, and an interest therefore in keeping running costs low and returns high.

    By helping to cover individual club operating costs, poker machine revenue is essentially an indirect subsidy to News – transferring some of the league’s operating costs onto mug punters.

  7. Chris says:

    With regard to Analogue Chesse’s astute observation that mug poker machine players are indirectly financing the NRL and contributing to the profit line of News Ltd so it is with the AFL clubs.
    I suggest the distincing of AFL from the reform issues suggests the AFL has less to lose than the NFL and News Ltd and are prepared to hand ball the resistence to reform to those who think they have the greatest to lose.

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