In April this year, ABC journalist and television presenter Kerry O’Brien was invited to give a public lecture on the challenges for journalism presented by marketing and “spin” - the worst aspect of the more general field known as public relations. “Marketing and spin [are] two elements that combined, represent one of the biggest challenges to good journalism today,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien, who is an adjunct professor for the University of Queensland School of Journalism & Communication, pointed out, “There’s always been a natural contest between those in power and those who want to know what’s going on behind the scenes”. Those “in power” often have more financial and networking capacity than others, and so can afford the considerable resources needed to acquire public relations workers to promote or manage communications aspects of their causes. Communications tasks often translate into media liaison, and direct messages to daily newspapers and nightly television news bulletins: “… This is the age where the picture opportunity, the quick superficial doorstop, or radio talkback converted to TV news sound bite dominate, feeding the media beast.”
Media consumers such as the general public could be forgiven for thinking that those in government react only to media interest, instead of the dictates of good policy. Even a superficial understanding of television news and current affairs programs, and daily newspaper articles, suggests that politicians depend on exposure in the media for election. But once elected, they find it impossible to stand back from the media management task and get on with governing, since - while governing - they always have one eye on the next election. O’Brien commented on what many regard as “government by headline”:
The dissemination of the media message is today one of the fundamental preoccupations of government and opposition alike. As the leader of this government, John Howard is both chief executive and head of marketing. The (ABC television) “7.30 Report” gets reasonable access to Mr Howard, but when we do get our knock-backs, they’re often framed again in marketing terms. The topic we want to talk about might not be “on message” for that day, or “The PM feels he’s already got his message out today”. There was a time when media appearances by party leaders on programs like the “7.30 Report” were much more tied to the issues in the headlines and the gravitas of the programs, than “this news outlet suits us better”, or for that matter, “it’s your turn next”.
And while recycling of waste is now environmentally popular in our community, it’s also become popular among communications managers and politicians:
There’s the growing trade in dressing up old news as new. Take one example in the pre-election environment earlier this year, where the Prime Minister made what was presented as a major new spending boost for education. This was billed as a record boost for schools funding, $31.3 billion over the next 4 years. An increase of 25 per cent over the four years, we were told. All true. The clear implication was that this was a fresh funding initiative. Not true. The figures could actually be found in the forward estimates of the then current budget. In fact, the amount announced was actually about $100 million less than the estimates, so the record new spending had dropped a hundred million.
Being “on message” also means politicians and “spin doctors” have to repeat the same message throughout campaigns, whether it’s during a day or across weeks. And this can prove to be tiring for all concerned. John Howard’s new Minister for Human Services, Joe Hockey, recently complained to a radio industry conference that he had to reach too many individual radio stations to get his message out. He said it increased his chances of “slipping up” or “getting off message”.
I have to spend the whole afternoon ringing around radio stations to get a message out and it is, quite frankly, high risk because inevitably I could screw up.
How disarming. What Mr Hockey wanted was a nice convenient centralised radio news agency serving all commercial outlets, in the same way that he apparently uses the AAP wire service to disseminate his press releases - presumably with minimal questioning, minimal scrutiny.
Scrutiny is the key thing which journalism has traditionally added - and is still called to add - to the information mix. And despite emerging media technologies such as email, SMS and audio-video handouts, personal scrutiny by reporters remains the most effective … but it is the one politicians and business leaders seem to like the least. O’Brien pointed to the changing physical nature of political news conferences:
In the old parliament (Canberra’s old Parliament House), prime ministers usually held press conferences in committee rooms sitting with journalists around a conference table. Exchanges, as often as not, were robust. For television and radio coverage, questions could be heard as well as answers - proper context for the public in what was then replayed to air. When we all moved to the new parliament (in 1988), the set-up changed. Suddenly we had Bob Hawke the statesman. On a raised platform behind a lectern. An image of authority. A little more separation from the journalists. Questions harder to hear on replay. The most accessible prime minister in Australian history had suddenly abandoned his beloved morning doorstop on the steps of the old parliament. Paul Keating kept the lectern, but eventually moved it outdoors to the PM’s courtyard, framed by two heavy, imposing brass doors: questions mostly inaudible for broadcast. John Howard as PM liked the location and the dynamics, and just added a flag, and then a second.
And later …