Chapter Nine:
The Referendum Debate: A Note on Press Coverage

Dr Nancy Stone

The "quality" press played a large part in the debate preceding the republic referendum of 6 November, 1999. The Victorian group promoting the "No Republic" case asked me to examine every copy of The Age (and The Sunday Age) and The Australian during the 12-13 weeks to voting day, to enable some assessment of the manner in which those newspapers handled this important public debate. For this purpose, the numbers of column-centimetres of print (excluding head-lines) devoted to each side of the topic were carefully recorded.

The material was sub-divided into news/comment, editorials and opinion pieces, and the number of letters (full and brief) published, classifying each as pro - or anti-republic or neutral in tone. The results are given in the accompanying tables and bar-charts.

The way in which the material was classified into "Yes", "No" and "Neutral" is central to the outcome: one reader's bias is another's fair reporting. Editorials, opinion pieces and letters of course generally speak for themselves. It is the classification of news/comment which is bound to be most contentious. Accordingly examples are given, to invite evaluation of the accuracy of my assessment. (News and comment, formerly kept scrupulously separate, are now routinely merged by many journalists, hence their combination for present purposes).

News/comment took many forms:

Journalists notable for impartial reporting were Nicolas Rothwell (The Australian) and Tony Wright (The Age). By contrast, Graeme Leech, who edited most Melba columns in The Australian during the period under review, would have to qualify as having presented the most consistently one-sided viewpoint.

During the three months prior to the vote two other major events occurred: East Timor's referendum and the subsequent unrest there, and the long drawn out Victorian State election. These events probably accounted for the dearth or even absence of republic material at certain times, especially in the Opinion sections.

Coming now to the results of this survey, and considering news/comment first, week by week, it may be said that there was not one week when column-centimetres in the "Yes" camp did not exceed those in the "No" camp, usually overwhelmingly.

This was true of both newspapers. Indeed, in only 4 of the 12 weeks did even "Neutral" exceed "Yes" in The Australian. In The Age, that balance was 7 weeks to 6.

Consider now the results in summary, embodied in the grand totals of column-centimetres for the full 12 or 13 week periods. (These appear for each newspaper in the bottom line of the appropriate table).

For The Australian, the sum total of news/comment on the "Yes" side was 4,246cm. The "No" total came to 1,468cm, and "Neutral" amounted to 4,276cm. Thus "Yes" overshadowed "No" by almost 3 to 1.

The pattern for The Age for news/comment was even more unequal, with "Yes" totalling 2,531cm, "No" 530cms and "Neutral" 2,835cm. The ratio of allotted space for "Yes" to "No" was close to 5 to 1 (although, as indicated above, the proportion of "Neutral" news/comment in The Age was slightly greater than the proportion of "Yes" material, whereas in the case of The Australian, "Yes" material actually even exceeded "Neutral").

It is obviously a newspaper's right to express its own view in its editorials, and it is no surprise that every relevant leading article in both papers, without exception, urged readers to vote "Yes".

In the opinion pieces, most readers would hope to see a roughly equal division for and against a proposition as fundamental as changing Australia's Constitution. However, space in both papers was allocated not much less than 2 to 1 in favour of the "Yes" case.

Happily, the spread of views among Letters to the Editor (presumably reflecting roughly the "balance" of letters received on the topic) was much more even, with The Australian's ratio 8 to 7 in favour of the "Yes" vote, and The Age's 6 to 5 in favour of the "No" vote.

In the event, the referendum was lost convincingly, and in every State as well as the Northern Territory. The advocacy of the "quality" press, as exemplified by The Age and The Australian, may have convinced inner city voters, but clearly failed to sway the wider population. Could it be that the urgency with which these newspapers (particularly The Australian) relentlessly pressed their case rebounded upon them? Or was it perhaps that the uniformity of views expressed simply made some readers suspicious? To paraphrase R W Emerson, "the louder they proclaimed the advantages of the republic, the faster we voters counted the blessings of the present system".


Totals Over 13 Week Period
Prior to Referendum