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Problems in getting to the story and getting it out - continued

By Phil Dickie - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002

This is part two of Phil Dickie's exposure of the techniques politicians use to hide their activities from the media and the public. Part one is here.

7. The spoiler.

Another tactic when being pressed hard on a particular embarrassment by a troublesome journalist is to release part of the story heavily glossed with positive spin to a rival. This can kill off any publication of the full gory details. An example from my own casebook comes from pre-Fitzgerald days when the police minister who wasn't answering any of my questions offered the paper an interview with another journalist. The paper fell for the gambit. The proper response of course was that the paper, not the minister's office, should be taking the decisions about which journalists should be doing the stories.

8. It's all in the timing.

Governments often exploit the media's need for immediacy in news. A report issued at midnight or an embarrassing debate held in the wee hours is unlikely to be covered in the next day's papers and has a good chance of being considered old, stale news the day after. Embarrassments can also be dropped when media resources are stretched covering budgets or attending Christmas parties. The Federal Government slipped the committee report on the International Criminal Court into parliament on budget night.


9. It's all in the staging.

The media can also be kept busy - usually with the relatively inconsequential. This is quite easy with the television, where there is a lot of truth in the old adage no picture, no story. A large part of media management is the staging of various stunts, complete with photo and filming opportunities. A parliamentary reporter can be kept busy with a continuous stream of press conferences which have to be covered, but also take limited resources away from other possibly more troubling activities.

10. Playing the person, not the ball.

This is a particular and perennial problem with issues based articles and it is essentially a major diversion. Attack may be the best form of defence (or diversion) - but where there is an issue at stake, it is and should be treated as irrelevant or peripheral. But such attacks often work and many, many serious issues get lost in a barrage of accusations and counter-accusations.

"You know how the game is played," said one advisor crossly to a journalist recently who was persisting in getting an answer to a question from the minister instead of a fob-off line from a "spokesperson". But that is the trouble - the public does not know how the game is played. The name of the game in fact comes most revealingly from those on the government side of the equation, from Joh's famous "feeding the chooks" line to the more technocratic preference of the Goss era to putting journalists "on the drip".

As a former senior government advisor recently confided, "what you do with journalists is you feed em and feed em and feed em and every so often you call in the favours".

11. Fumbling towards more scrutiny

The most significant development in journalism in recent decades may well be the increasing size and sophistication of the effort to manage the news and manage the media. It is not a development much covered in the mainstream media. Even in academia, many more resources are devoted to turning out public relations specialists than to examining their effects.

The key question to be continually considered by the more thoughtful journalists and editors might be "just who is setting the agenda" - both in general, and in relation to particular issues. Our ability to attain the state of being relaxed and comfortable might then have some relationship to the degree to which we in the media set our own agendas, rather than being kept diverted or occupied by the trade of authority. This is not quite equivalent to an earlier dictum of journalism - where the role was defined as afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted - but there is some common ground.


There is, admittedly, room for lots of heated debate over whether unelected media organisations should be setting the general social, economic and political agenda. It is a vexed and tangled issue but what is being stressed here is that we should be setting our own agendas rather than having them established for us. At any rate, what is in the papers or on the airwaves, however it was initiated, does have a bearing on the policy discourse and priorities.

In Queensland, the Courier-Mail has an enormous ability to shift and shape the political agenda. The only other news organisation that can come close is the ABC, and usually it doesn't. Some decry this influence, some lament that the paper doesn't use its influence wisely or well and some point out, quite correctly, that it is a sad commentary on moral, policy and other vacuums in government that the newspaper has this sort of influence in the first place.

An illustration might be useful. Queensland has long been afflicted by blatant racketeering in its property marketing industry, and a long tradition of ineffectual regulation has meant that occasionally racketeering verges on being the dominant mode of property marketing in areas like the Gold Coast. The form changes - from selling underwater real estate to time share - but the game essentially has remained the same.

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About the Author

Phil Dickie is editor of The Brisbane Line, Newsletter of The Brisbane Institute. His investigative journalism in the 1980s led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in Queensland.

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