For a government constantly accused of media management and spin, they’re pretty bloody ordinary at it.
In fact, this could be the worst government for media management for decades.
There’s a dodgy Stephen King novel, which I think led to a movie with Drew Barrymore — it’s not worth the effort to Google it and check — called Firestarter. That’s Kevin Rudd at the moment. The guy is creating bushfires every way he turns.
He comments on a female journalist’s clothing, and it makes headlines on the other side of the world. He makes some self-deprecating remarks at the Mid-Winter Ball and he gets zero out of 10 from the critics. Hell, he doesn’t even have to do anything to cop a battering. Having said he couldn’t attend a Lawrie Lawrence do this week, he was verballed by organisers and then mugged by broadcasters for letting Lawrence down. In an entirely confected story last night, new Nine political reporter, and ex-tabloid hack, Ben Fordham engaged in a savage beat-up over Rudd’s alleged failure to visit Hornsby Hospital. Apparently the one thing Australia needs right now is Rudd visiting yet another bloody hospital, given he’s only visited dozens of them this year — and in places with much greater need than suburban Sydney.
Oh and oops, as it turned out, he was going to visit the hospital after all, but you didn’t find that out unless you were masochistic enough to keep watching til the dying seconds of the story.
This is all the flip side of the early months of Rudd’s prime ministership, when everything he touched turned to gold, every call was a smart one and he had it on a proverbial string. Now everything he touches turns to … well, Ben Fordham stories.
And out in the real world, the government is being hopelessly outgunned by the mining industry in the battle of the advertising campaigns. The miners have big bucks — they could afford spots during the State of Origin match the other night — but more importantly they have better ads which might say that black is white, but do it in a way that is likely to make your average mug punter wonder if they might have a point.
Now is the time for the government’s media machine to be working at full effectiveness, coordinated across senior ministers’ offices, focussed on key messages, anticipating problems. Instead the whole operation looks reactive and hapless before a media turned feral. Like the government itself, there doesn’t appear to be any concerted strategy for communication across government. The lack of experienced media advisers — there has been high turnover in a number of offices over the course of the government, although Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner’s bunkers have been relatively stable — now appears especially telling.
You earn your keep as a media adviser not when things are smooth sailing but when times are tough. It’s bad enough when your minister is in the firing line. But this is worse — the whole government is under fire and its communications people need to get coordinated and get on the front foot.