Reading into the comments

Earlier this week, political editor of The Australian Dennis Shanahan published a story headlined ‘Tony Abbott loses his carbon tax edge, says latest Newspoll’. It was, as stories in The Australian go, dry reportage of the erosion of the Coalition’s primary vote support in its first three months in government.  The real magic happened in the comments section, where subscribers (the article was branded Premium Content, and so is behind The Australian’s paywall) engaged in horrified debate about the leftist media conspiracy of the ABC and The Guardian that appeared to have recruited Shanahan and his Murdoch editorial juggernaut.

Sample comments include:

“I simply do not believe this. Boy, the journalistic fraternity must really be struggling for content if they expect us to believe this rubbish!”

“Has Mr Shanahan joined the Fairfax press? That polls are about as believable as pigs might fly.”

“I too find this poll absolutely unbelievable. Thus far, everything the new Government has done has been successful. I CANNOT believe that the public could be so stupid as to put Labor ahead of Liberal 52/48% only three months after the election as the Liberals have not done anything negative to cause this to happen! After 6 years of Labor's spinning and lying to the public and the malicious destruction of everything they touched including the economy, I simply cannot swallow that the public at large would have such poor memories after only 3 months!”

“Is it any wonder I am so disgusted.....Channel 24 is doing such a wonderful job that Goebbels will be dancing in his grave..” 

There were some dissenting voices, but the majority of comments agreed that the journalist behind the article was a puppet of the Labor party. To be clear, they were referring to Dennis Shanahan - a talking head whose innocent genuflection to the Coalition would make a lesser journalist’s jaw ache - but had nonetheless done his job and reported the results of a Newspoll that categorically declared the Abbott administration to be in trouble.

It struck me, as the comments grew increasingly angry and askance of the facts, that the responses had little to do with the column that ensconced them. Rather, presented for once with a worldview in The Australian that did not match theirs, the readership set about dismantling it. The comments section spoke of a wider truth of modern news media: content is not king, conversation is.

The comments section of any publication is where the readership comes to have their perspectives reaffirmed, to produce opinion the way a theist might consume a communion wafer. Look at Andrew Bolt, whose own comments section is guarded like an Aladdin’s cave of unique page views. His readership is famous for their eloquence of opinion, and even celebrated in certain circles for it.

Last week, when Nelson Mandela passed away, Bolt waited a few respectful days before publishing the inevitable “Mandela was a terrorist” piece. Of course, his readers could not wait that long, so on 6 December he published one line: “Former South African president Nelson Mandela has died, aged 95.” The comments section was left open, and four pages of commentary comprising 192 individual comments from Herald Sun readers discussing the various merits of Mandela, Communism, Hitler and slavery quickly followed. A representative comment as the argument unfurled: “When he was arrested he was a terrorist. The ABC are now referring to him as an ‘activist’. Soon they will be calling Hitler a humanitarian.”

Another comment suggested, “I would take Thatcher [over Mandela] any day and it has nothing to do with her skin colour.”

After one Herald Sun reader suggested that “Of course an economy would be better if slavery was allowed,” they were swiftly put in their place by another who pointed out, “Slaves are far less productive than paid workers, probably the main reason we no longer have slavery.”

And then, cutting to the heart of the real issue, “Why are the Australian/English cricket teams wearing black arm bands????? Are we now being told who we should mourn??”

Bolt, canny operator that he is, has clearly realised that his flock doesn’t need too much tending. Instead, he can merely wind them up and watch them go. At this stage of his career, Australia’s most widely read columnist has become so successful that he’s made himself redundant. As long as he has a comments section, he doesn’t even have to be a scaremongering pundit, just a fluffer.

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.

@michaelamcguire

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