Symposium: A Decade of Howard Government

The Geoffrey Boycott of Australian politics

Rodney Tiffen, The University of Sydney

In 1988, at the nadir of his first disastrous period as opposition leader, the Bulletin presented John Howard with an unwanted Christmas present. The cover of the issue for 20 December proclaimed ‘Mr 18%. Why on earth does this man bother?’ The following year when Andrew Peacock deposed him in a stunning party room coup, Howard’s leadership credentials were in tatters. Howard himself did not think a return to Liberal Party leadership was possible, colourfully describing the prospect as amounting to ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’ (Bowers 1989).

Six years later, following the failure of a succession of Liberal leaders—Peacock, Hewson and Downer, it was a more chastened and cautious Howard who again assumed the mantle of Opposition Leader. During the 1980s he had boldly proclaimed that the times suited him, and that he was the most conservative leader the Liberals had ever had. In the 1987 election, he had proposed a radical program of cutting government spending and taxes and, despite the economic pain in the electorate at the time, he lost.

By contrast, Howard’s main aim in the lead up to the 1996 election was to preach reassurance. No electorally dangerous spending cuts were canvassed. There would never ever be a GST. Medicare would be retained and strengthened, and so forth. In light of later debates about Labor opposition strategies, it should be remembered that in 1996 Howard won with a classic ‘small target’ campaign. Of course he had the key element to make that tactic successful—an irretrievably unpopular government and prime minister.

Howard’s main aim in the lead up to the 1996 election was to preach reassurance.

Even after his huge victory in 1996, Howard arguably lacked the authority usually associated with an electorally successful prime minister. In 1998, the swing against Howard was one of the strongest ever against a government in its first attempt at re-election. Labor actually won a majority of the two-party preferred vote, and the Government was only saved by its success at hanging on to the marginal seats it had won in 1996. In early 2001, pundits had all but universally written him off, after a series of electoral defeats and consistently disastrous showings in the polls. Even in the year leading up the 2004 election, under Latham’s leadership, Labor led for much of the time, and the major parties stood broadly equal when the election was called.

In sum, we should not over-simplify the electoral record as one of continuing triumphs. At times his position has been extremely vulnerable and his political survival has hung by a thread.

On the other hand, Howard stands alongside prime ministers Hawke (1983–91) and Menzies (1949–66) as the only leaders to have won four successive elections, and is now the second longest-serving Australian Prime Minister. The last two elections have—against the trend of Australian elections—seen a swing towards, rather than away from, the incumbent government. In 2001, he staged one of the most, if not the most, amazing electoral turnarounds ever, coming from a seemingly hopeless position early in the year to record a resounding victory (Gittins 2001). In 2004, he became the first Australian prime minister since 1977 to win a majority in both Houses.

Nevertheless in the pantheon of Australia’s most electorally successful leaders, Howard does seem a strange fit alongside Menzies and Hawke. He does not have their personal charisma. Moreover, although in retrospect it is easy to downplay the degree of contention during the reigns of successful leaders, in key respects Howard’s political agenda and outlook are less clearly in conformity with majority Australian public opinion than one would expect given his long tenure.

This combination of facts raises two issues—one is how the Government’s electoral success relates to the constellation of public opinion. The other is how Howard’s media management skills relate to his success. This paper argues that Howard has been masterful in framing the perception of electoral choices and influencing the political agenda, and that an underestimated source of his political success has been his skill at defensive spin control.


To simplify (and perhaps somewhat distort) a mass of complex and inconsistent data into a capsule description, Howard does not command majority support for such major planks of his domestic policies as the GST, Workplace Relations, stripping back the public sector, privatising Telstra, and supporting the monarchy. If there is this disjunction between Howard’s view of society and majority public opinion, how then do we explain his continuing electoral success?

Howard has pinpointed the marketing weaknesses of his opponents.

All governments face occasions when they are out of step with majority opinion on particular issues, especially because public opinion is itself shifting and inconsistent. Successful governments are typically able to insulate themselves from the electoral impact of particular unpopular policies in several ways.

An election is not a referendum on a set of issues but a judgement about competitors’ capacity to govern. An election, then, is a more general battle of images than just choosing among a set of policy positions. In a representative democracy, it is less important that a party’s position aligns with a voter’s on some particular policy viewpoint—especially if it has only transient public salience—than the sense that the voters think the party and its leader are competent, predictable, and have the range of abilities to deal with coming contingencies. Governments have an advantage in this contest of images because they are more of a known commodity, and it is easier to associate the opposition with the risk of change.

Similarly, electoral politics is about relative not absolute choices. For many in the electorate their choice represents what they see as the lesser of two evils rather than a positive and hopeful embrace of the party they are voting for. So how choices are framed and, in particular, how one side is able to portray the other are crucial to success.

Howard has pinpointed the marketing weaknesses of his opponents, focusing upon Beazley’s ‘lack of ticker’ and Latham’s inexperience. Both parties prefer not just to rest on the appeals of their own policies, but to contrast them to the alleged disaster their opponents represent. The 2004 election campaign—despite his several mis-steps and lapses—showed Howard’s strategic strength. As far as possible, he stayed on message—the virtue of the Government’s economic management and the fear of higher interest rates under Labor. Howard showed similar mastery in the conduct of the republican referendum. The process maximised the No vote against ‘the politicians’ republic’, by combining both those who wanted to retain the monarchy with those who wanted a popular vote for president.

In projecting himself, Howard has constructed a consistent persona, as a traditional Australian identity, someone who is at one with the ‘average’ Australian, and he takes every opportunity to highlight this. Note, for example, his recent staunch defence of Christmas—and the way the media lapped it up. Queensland’s Sunday Mail had a headline, filling half its front page on 18 December 2005: ‘Stop the Rot / Howard in call to save Christmas’ ‘Prime Minister John Howard has called for religion to be put back into Christmas’. What concerned the Prime Minister—and brought this front page headline—was the lack of ‘nativity scenes in department stores. They seem to have disappeared in recent years and you have this sort of “oh we don’t want to offend anybody”’. It is very characteristic of Howard that he blames multi-culturalism and political correctness rather than crass commercialism, and the religious expression he wanted to re-introduce was very undemanding—a matter of decorations rather than, for example, giving money to charities for the poor.

People may not be excited by white bread, but nor are they alarmed by it.

Even though few under 70 are likely to embrace most of Howard’s world view, it is one that does not challenge or threaten many. Labor frontbencher Julia Gillard described Howard as ‘the political equivalent of white bread: not very nice or nutritious but you know the next loaf is going to be the same as the one you bought last week, and the same as the one you’ll buy in a fortnight’s time’ (Gibson & Dick 2006). People may not be excited by white bread, but nor are they alarmed by it.

In an election campaign not all issues are equally important. As always the party contest is partly one of the relative salience of different issues, what issues count most with the public at the time they vote. Although the Howard Government is out of step with majority opinion in many of its attempts at domestic political engineering, in other areas it enjoys majority approval—especially in its record of economic management, where it has overseen continuing growth, low inflation, lower unemployment and low interest rates. Probably just as important, the Government has been helped by the rise of a sense of threat, from asylum seekers and then from terrorism. The Government has an interest in maintaining the public focus on these issues rather than the domestic agenda.

The attempt to escalate them was most evident in the low road that Howard took to victory in the 2001 election, the Tampa, children overboard, and the fusing of the asylum seeker issue with the terrorist threat. The Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock, ‘did whatever he could to create a sense of panic. In one extraordinary statement he warned—on the basis of information from an unnamed source—that ‘whole villages’ in the Middle East were ‘packing up’ for the journey to Australia. ‘If it was a national emergency several weeks ago,’ he added, ‘it’s gone up something like 10 points on the Richter scale since then’ (Browne 2005).

The contrasting agendas were nicely juxtaposed in November 2005. Two pieces of legislation were dominating the week in parliament, and the polls showed a neat symmetry between them—on industrial relations, 29 per cent were satisfied and 60 per cent dissatisfied with Howard’s performance while on terrorism, 62 per cent were satisfied and 30 per cent dissatisfied (Hartcher 2005b).

At midday on Wednesday, just before the scheduled introduction of this momentous legislation, Prime Minister Howard called a midday press conference, in which he said that intelligence just received revealed a serious terrorist threat. As a result, the existing legislation (already in operation) would need urgent amendment. The Prime Minister was not asked a question about industrial relations (Hartcher 2005a, 2005b), and in all subsequent media coverage terrorism trumped workplace relations. The issue where the government enjoyed majority popular support displaced the one where it was unpopular. Whatever the substantial reasons behind the Government’s actions, it is hard to believe the Prime Minister was unaware of the publicity advantages of his move.

Howard has a muted style—almost a one-tone-fits-all sobriety of response.

So, especially at moments of electoral choice, the Government’s preferred issues have been most salient on the public’s agenda, and the Prime Minister has managed to project both his preferred self-image and his preferred image of his opponents fairly consistently. Partly this comes down to media management skills, and it is to these that we now turn.


The popular and scholarly attention to spin control, public relations and politicians’ tactics for manipulating the media is misleadingly lop-sided. There is concentration upon charismatic and inspiring leaders such as John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. There is concentration on the mixing of politics and celebrity and the telegenic qualities that make for political success. There is dissection of immediate tactics such as the manufacture of photo opportunities and sound bites, and the timing and framing of news releases. However, there is much less attention to the strategies and skills of defensive spin, and it is here that Howard excels.

The overall aim of politicians’ attempts at news management is to maximise the attention to and the impact of positive developments and to minimise that of negative developments. All parties need defensive skills because they inevitably face embarrassments and reversals, but these skills are especially relevant to governments seeking to remain in office.

Some of Australia’s most flamboyant and otherwise skilful politicians have not been good at defensive skills, often through being too aggressive, never willing to concede a point and so increasing rather than decreasing attention to the damaging actions. Treasurer Keating’s description of the recession we had to have is perhaps the epitome of a response that inflames rather than mollifies the critics. Another example was Attorney-General Gareth Evans. When he was in trouble for authorising spy flights over Tasmania to ensure the Franklin was not being dammed, he invoked what he called ‘the streaker’s defence’ that it seemed like a good idea at the time, thus increasing rather than reducing media coverage. Such counter-productive invocations by John Howard are difficult to find. Even in apparent triumph he has a muted style—almost a one-tone-fits-all sobriety of response—that means also there is little triumphalism in success that may later become a hostage to fortune. The repertoire of defensive skills is extensive but some of the key ones follow.

Altering the timing

The Government has been masterful at ensuring that negative news comes out at moments of least electoral relevance. The story about children overboard—surely one of the most shameful episodes in Australian electoral history—(just) remained intact until the 2001 election, while in February 2002 it was fairly fully exposed by the Senate, with the Government receiving intense but temporary adverse publicity, at a time when it had no electoral impact.

The 2004 election had two examples. Official largesse to marginal electorates—low on policy rationale, high on pork barreling—were not systematically exposed at the time. Even eight months later the disclosures failed to gain much media traction, even though it was disclosed that the marginal Liberal seat of McEwen received sixteen of 27 special sports grants in the lead up to the 2004 election and a further six went to another problematic Liberal seat, Makin, in Adelaide (Schubert 2005). Much more central to the campaign were the Liberals’ promises about the Medicare safety net, promises which less than six months later were abandoned. Nothing had changed since the election to justify the breaking of what was by any standard a ‘core’ promise. Veteran journalist Michelle Grattan was moved to comment ‘John Howard has treated the voters with total disdain in hacking into the safety net. He has absolutely no excuse for breaking an election promise that was repeated over and over, and formed a central part of his campaign’ (2005a). Again the government suffered intense adverse publicity but at a time of no electoral relevance.

The Government’s post-election embarrassments all got extensive media coverage.

Split the headlines

The breaking of the safety net promise illustrated another technique. Howard made five large announcements together, getting some other bad news out of the way, and somewhat blurring the public focus. So the Sydney Morning Herald’s headline (Dodson 2005) ‘Howard unleashes policy whirlwind’ was the best the Government could have hoped for as it broke a central promise.

Keep the damage inside the beltway

The Government’s post-election embarrassments all got extensive media coverage, although at a politically opportune time. More important on a continuing basis is to reduce the coverage of a negative story by reducing its newsworthiness, so only the quality media will cover it. Several abuses of process, for example, are judged too boring for commercial television and tabloid newspapers.

After gaining the Senate majority in July 2005, Howard’s public posture was one of modesty, with promises not to abuse the power. When Senator McGauran ‘gave the finger’ to opposition fingers, the Prime Minister rebuked him (but had forgiven him by the time he defected from the Nationals to the Liberals the following January). However, the next six months included what columnist Glenn Milne called ‘the worst trashing of the Senate I’ve witnessed in 20 years of covering federal politics’. Often senators were only given large and complex pieces of legislation just before they were to be debated, with the government using its numbers to rush through what it wanted’. The Senate gag has been used more often since July 1 than it was in the first nine years of the Howard Government: 10 times against nine times’ (Milne 2005).

According to Michelle Grattan (2005b) the Government was not worried that its rushing legislation through the Senate would get any public traction: ‘In the Washington phrase the Government likes to use when distinguishing between “elite” and “punter” views—it’s mostly those “inside the beltway” who are worried. The Government can be pretty confident that while the critics will be noisy, suburbia won’t be swayed’.

Howard has a keen sense of how to prevent a potential embarrassment from becoming a damaging headline. In February 2005 the Government was under attack on two issues. One was that in the lead up to the election it had given a $660,000 grant to the Beaudesert Rail Association, in a Queensland marginal seat, even though it ‘was crippled by debt and trading while insolvent’ (Price 2005). The other was the admission on Four Corners by senior Government scientist Rod Barton that he had personally interrogated prisoners while in Iraq. This directly contradicted Government claims that no Australians had been involved in interrogations. On February 15, the Opposition directed nine questions at the Prime Minister, four on Iraq and five on the improper Queensland grant. Howard managed not to give a substantial answer to any of them’ (Price 2005). By the end of the interrogation, Howard was struggling to repress a giggle as non-answer followed non-answer’. To those few viewing Question Time on television, and to the press gallery, his evasions looked ridiculous. However he achieved his aim of keeping his responses and hence the issues off the front pages and the television news. Only columnist Matt Price (2005) directly commented on his evasions.


The Prime Minister has clearly decided there will be no scalps, and no admissions of major wrong doing.

The Prime Minister’s stonewalling during this Question Time was only one example of a much more general strategy. This strategy is based on the view that once there are no fresh developments to feed a negative story, news attention will pass on, and the critics’ charges will run out of steam.

The Government’s adoption of this strategy is most clearly seen in the matter of ministerial resignations. In the first eighteen months of the Howard Government, after he had proudly proclaimed his Ministerial Code of Conduct, more ministers (five) resigned due to scandals than in any previous Australian government (Tiffen 1999, p. 164). Since then not one Minister has resigned. Whatever the immediate heat of the controversy, the Prime Minister has clearly decided there will be no scalps, and no admissions of major wrong doing. The Palmer Report, which followed the disclosures of the treatment of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez, said it had 200 cases of mistreatment referred to it, and included trenchant criticism of the culture in the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. The Government, however, did not hold the Minister for Immigration responsible and require his resignation.

Controlling the pace and tone of an interview

The Prime Minister has become increasingly effective when being interviewed about a difficult subject. He is the master of ponderous prose, blunting the sharpness of a charge with the tone and length of his response. The resulting circumlocutions probably do not win him any converts, but are often effective at damage limitation. For example, when 7.30 Report presenter Kerry O’Brien was quizzing him (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2005) about what he had learnt following the furore over the appointment of Robert Gerard to the Reserve Bank Board, he began by saying ‘I guess in political life it’s always wrong to say you haven’t learnt anything …’ before going into a long rambling talk about procedures in appointments. In effect his answer amounted to ‘no’, and no admission of any weaknesses, but there was no sense of aggression or arrogance in the way he defused the direct question.

Note how Howard has handled the lack of any evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, despite the frequent, vociferous and certain claims about their existence by government ministers before the invasion. Three months after the invasion, on 11 June 2003, he was interviewed by Tony Jones on ABC TV’s Lateline:

Q: Does it matter if no weapons of mass destruction are found?

JH: Oh I wouldn’t say it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t say that at all. And it’s too early to make a judgement. I mean, people should be more patient.

Q: … If none are found what are the implications?

JH: I think, Tony, that question should be asked and I’d be very happy to answer it if, after the elapse of a reasonable amount of time, such a conclusion is reached. But it’s too early, there are too many sensitive sites, the international team of 1,300 or 1,400 is only now being assembled. It is altogether too early for people to say, well there definitely haven’t been and won’t be any evidence found that Iraq had a WMD capacity before the war started. Those are issues that obviously I’ll be asked about, if those things happen …

It is rare for such a momentous enterprise as waging a war to be shown to rest upon a fiction.

Almost a year later in an interview with Channel Seven’s Chris Reason on Sunday Sunrise (Channel Seven 2004), ‘a reasonable amount of time’ had apparently still not elapsed.

Q: Is it time to admit there were no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction?

JH: No, I’m not willing to admit that. I saw a lot of intelligence before the war started and I was satisfied with that intelligence.

Q: It wasn’t good intelligence was it …

JH: There were a number of sources of that intelligence, which I’m not going to go into. I was satisfied with it and so was Mr Blair and so was President Bush. Until all of the work has been completed I’m not going to totally sign off on the issue, but whatever the circumstances were a year ago, we have to deal with a current situation and if we cut and run, as Labor wants us to do, we’ll deliver an enormous win to the terrorists.

The previous January, the head of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay—who had been a leading proponent of the view that Saddam had WMD—had resigned. Kay publicly professed that ‘we were nearly all wrong’, and that he was satisfied there were no WMD in Iraq (Blix 2005). Nevertheless five months later, John Howard could still say ‘The work of the Iraq Survey Group will go on for some time. I am not going to put a limit on it’ (Channel Seven 2004).

Robert Garran (2005, p. 5) has recounted that one day in February 2004 the Prime Minister was pushed further by two reporters who asked in separate interviews whether he would have supported war knowing Iraq’s capability in weapons of mass destruction was negligible’. That is the ultimate hypothetical question … Frankly that is an absurdly hypothetical question’. Garran judged that apparently the political cost of admitting either alternative would be too great. In the interview quoted above, Tony Jones also posed the question of the war’s justification in the absence of Saddam’s WMD:

Q: The problem is if none are found, doesn’t that retrospectively make the war illegal?

JH: No it doesn’t. The legal justification for the war, our entry into the war, was the failure of Iraq to comply with the resolutions of the Security Council—that was our legal justification.

This phrase—repeated in many interviews in the last few years—conveniently overlooks that none of the relevant UN officials thought such a course should be taken, and that the weapons inspectors in the immediate lead-up to the invasion were praising the degree of Iraqi co-operation. Nevertheless I have not heard Howard’s formulation ever followed up or challenged by an interviewer.

It is unlikely many members of the press gallery read the key conclusion.

It is rare for such a momentous enterprise as waging a war to be shown to rest upon a fiction, such as happened in the case of Iraq. However Howard has deflected the quest for retrospective accountability with as little damage as one could expect in such a situation. As the Prime Minister has said many times, ‘In the end all of these things involve questions of judgement’ (Barker 2003, p. 14).

Shaping expectations

The Howard Government has also been a master of defusing bad news by shaping expectations and then having a simple line of defence, whether or not it matches the evidence. The technique was seen most graphically in the release of the Jull Report, a bipartisan parliamentary committee inquiring into the pre-war intelligence regarding Iraqi WMD (Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO 2004). The report was released on 1 March 2004, but the Government started preparing the ground with a mid-February leak to Tom Allard of the Sydney Morning Herald. It seems that missing from the text that Allard saw was the critical section on the way the Government had used the intelligence available to it. Allard (2004) wrote ‘there appeared to be no systematic doctoring of intelligence by Australia’s political leaders before the Iraq war’. However he adds the ‘intelligence services do not get off so lightly’. The same day as Allard’s story, according to Peter Browne, a ‘much less nuanced account’ went out through the news agency AAP, under the headline ‘Iraq report expected to clear Government’.

By the time the report appeared two weeks later, the Government had successfully focused expectations on the performance of the two major intelligence assessment agencies, and about the recommendation that there be a further inquiry into the adequacy of the intelligence agencies.

On the day of its release, several news organisations proclaimed that the report had cleared the Government. Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, declared that the report ‘vindicated’ the Government—his own conclusion not the Report’s. The Prime Minister concentrated on the finding that the Australian Government’s argument for war ‘was more moderate and more measured’ than those of the British and American governments (Browne 2004).

It is unlikely many members of the press gallery read the key conclusion, which was to be found on page 93. Given the bipartisan nature of the committee with a Liberal chair, it is extremely strong:

Therefore the case made by the government was that Iraq possessed WMD in large quantities and posed a grave and unacceptable threat to the region and the world, particularly as there was a danger that Iraq’s WMD might be passed to terrorist organisations. This is not the picture that emerges from an examination of all the assessments provided to the Committee by Australia’s two analytical agencies (Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO 2004).

This criticism though only gradually filtered into news reports and was much less of a focus than the Government’s preferred themes—a classic case of engineering expectations and directing media attention.

Reframing an issue or question

Howard is not the flashiest batsman but is a champion at occupying the crease.

All politicians become adept at answering questions on their own terms rather than being forced into the categories or frames that the interviewer wants. In responding to events, especially negative events, some politicians are able to transcend even the logic which seems imposed by their nature. Note the comment by The Age’s Shaun Carney (2005) on Howard’s response to the violence in Cronulla:

John Howard does not say anything casually. And what he said was calibrated and delivered with incredible finesse. … In his opening statement, the Prime Minister had said: “I think it’s important that we do not rush to judgement about these events. I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country. I have always taken a more optimistic view of the character of the Australian people.” … With just a few sentences he converted a difficult situation, one that a conventional politician might have thought required strong, highly critical talk about elements of the society, into a positive message about the good nature of the Australian people—not most of us, or the vast majority, but all of us. My friend in Sydney said that was exactly what his neighbours, the mums and dads of the Cronulla rioters, wanted to hear.

When elected in 1996, Howard said he wanted the Australian people to be relaxed and comfortable. His response to the Cronulla violence shows how good he is at making Australians feel relaxed and comfortable about themselves, even in the face of adverse developments.


The many stages of John Howard’s career and his wildly fluctuating political fortunes suggest the need for caution in generalising about his political style and its effectiveness. In particular, he has been much more successful in his political tactics in government than in his first stint as opposition leader. And he has been far more successful since 2001 than before, transformed by mysterious political alchemy from ‘little Johnnie Howard’ into a ‘man of steel’. Part of the reason for his continuing electoral success as Prime Minister has been his skilful agenda management and his defensive skills in news management.

So to employ a cricket analogy, Howard’s innings are not marked by impressive and attractive stroke play. He is not the flashiest batsman but is a champion at occupying the crease. Even when beaten by powerful attacks, and occasionally made to look awkward, he is good at keeping his wicket intact. He has clearly earned the soubriquet, the Geoffrey Boycott of Australian politics.


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Grattan, Michelle 2005b, ‘What’s the big hurry, Mr Howard?,’ The Age, 26 October.

Hartcher, Peter 2005a, ‘Howard deflects nation’s gaze away from the ball’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November.

Hartcher, P. 2005b, ‘Workplace law revolt slashes Howard’s popularity’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 November.

Milne, Glenn 2005, ‘PM drunk on political power’, The Australian, 12 December.

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Price, M. 2005, ‘Time for an answer, PM’, The Australian, 16 February.

Schubert, M. 2005, ‘One electorate, 16 of 27 sports grants’, The Age, 9 June.

Tiffen, R. 1999, Scandals. Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Rodney Tiffen is Professor in the Discipline of Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney. Professor Tiffen is one of Australia’s leading scholars of the media. He is author of Diplomatic Deceits: Government, Media and East Timor (UNSW Press 2001); Scandals: Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia (UNSW Press 1999); News and Power (Allen & Unwin, 1989); and The News from Southeast Asia: The Sociology of Newsmaking (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1978) and numerous articles on mass media and Australian politics.