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Qld election: is there something more behind the Courier-Mail’s dummy spit?

In one of the most extraordinary media ploys ever undertaken by a mainstream media organisation, the Courier Mail announced yesterday in a bold front-page editorial that it was ripping its reporters off Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman’s campaign buses.

An un-bylined piece, written by the paper’s editor Michael Crutcher, unloaded on the LNP and ALP obsession with controlling the message.

In a way, media are held “captive” by the political parties,” Crutcher explained.

They are not told where they are going until the plane or bus is in motion or until the journey is at an end. When they get to a destination, they will sometimes see the party leaders spend as little as 10 minutes with hand-picked Queenslanders who are unlikely to venture outside the party’s preferred lines.”

The paper noted that “all-in” press conferences prevented talented reporters Sarah Vogler and Koren Helbig from pursuing sustained lines of questioning. It said it will still attend “major” pressers and “request interviews with the leaders”. It will also continue to source copy from AAP reporters still marooned on the official trail.

The Courier Mail then announced its own news gathering vehicle, the Sunshine Express, piloted by Queensland journalist of the year Trent Dalton and equipped with a personalised Twitter account. This morning, the new approach was out in full force, with Dalton asking a Tarragindi mum and an Kingaroy nut farmer to hold forth on the Pineapple state’s problems. Vogler and Helbig followed up an Australian story on developer donations and assessed a Newman promise on health care. The following breakout box featured prominently:

But the move seems curious given that the campaign’s opening week was nobbled by the Rudd-Gillard leadership stoush and both Bligh and Newman had made a concerted effort to cut back on official announcements until the dust had settled. And on campaign buses and official pressers, journos are often able to ask the real questions on the sidelines or through informal briefings from advisers. It also appears to have delivered a gift to his intra-News rivals at The Australian, whose state politics writers have been dueling with their colleagues at the little paper for years.

Indeed, The Oz’s team of crack reporters led by state political editor Michael McKenna, Roseanne Barrett, Sean Parnell, Jamie Walker and North Queensland scribe Sarah Elks have been serving it up on the reportage front and Fairfax’s Brisbane Times website has also been scoring some direct hits with its popular Poll Call live blog.

Campaign insiders have told Crikey that the one possible motivation is latent anger at Newman and Bligh spinners for refusing to farm out “drops” in favour of running official lines through the less critical 6pm commercial TV bulletins. Advisers can usually secure 200,000 viewers on Seven and Nine and 150,000 on Ten, despite the Courier-Mail’s claimed readership of over half-a-million.

One insider told Crikey: ”It’s tough for people when they realise that they’re not the centre of the universe any more…and it’s hard when people realise they’re not gathering around The Courier Mail each morning sweating on what they’re going to say.”

But Crutcher denied the revenge narrative, telling Crikey that the paper had a “very professional relationship” with both teams.

There’s no element of retribution here. I’m not about grudges or running vendettas if you’re not working your backside off for readers. I just made a decision about how to best use our resources to tell our readers what’s really going on.”

A Crikey survey of the first week of the campaign revealed a paucity of official drops in both the Courier-Mail and The Oz’s pages. Instead, it has been up to the journalists to get inventive to find new angles. There were several “gotchas” — perhaps sourced from rival dirt units —  in which candidates on in both camps were forced to stand aside thanks to revelations from their dark pasts.

Crutcher nominated last week’s scoop revealing that the Labor candidate for Gregory, Jack O’Brien, does not live in his electorate, as evidence of his reporters’ tenacious approach.  The paper’s coverage has also been bolstered by the addition of Madonna King’s video interviews.

Nevertheless, the Courier-Mail and Newman especially have a history of tetchiness. In 2008 a testy exchange between city hall reporter Alison Sandy and Newman spinner (and former Courier Mail journo) Michael Corkill was documented by Media Watch. Sandy had a left a message on Corkill’s voicemail threatening the withdrawal of “decent” media coverage if it did not receive a “drop” on the BCC budget.

Then, as Crikey reported at the time, in 2010 the newspaper used an editorial to launch an amusing spray on the then-Lord Mayor’s “arrogance and Napoleonic tendencies” in trying to manage coverage around the opening of the Clem7 tunnel. The paper described Newman’s antics as like a “toddler throwing toys from a cot”. (Crutcher says things were repaired later in the year when Newman sat in on news conference).

Still there is some evidence that the wound has only partially healed over. Yesterday, the Courier Mail meted out vigorous treatment to Newman’s promise of two new helicopters and a thousand extra police for Queensland, prominently quoting the government’s dismissals under the headline ‘Newman’s plan for extra police dubbed pie in the sky’.

Today, its story on Newman’s $129 million health plan was headlined “Lack of new beds in LNP health fix”.

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  • 1
    zut alors
    Posted Thursday, 1 March 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Jay Rosen has been riling against journalists being corralled in political parties’ buses and aircraft for years.

    Never thought I’d compliment the Courier-Mail on anything but, in this case, an excellent editorial call.

  • 2
    The Pav
    Posted Thursday, 1 March 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I say good on on ‘em.

    Break away from the controlled pressers and “foto ops” and get back to real journalism.

    Beong spoon fed has resulted in lazy press and a dependant cultrue.

    Could this be a start of the return of real journalism?

    Could First Dog be joined by others who ask real questions?

  • 3
    Pete from Sydney
    Posted Thursday, 1 March 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Crikey can’t you just admit this is a good call by the Courier Mail? I know this must be painful for you.

  • 4
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 1 March 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Any more than another case of what happens when you don’t do what “Murdoch” wants - not fitting in with their agenda? The imaginative, one-sided, selective way they present news in their “viewspaper” - with their publishing of the views of hand-picked selected experts, to back up their version of “reality”?
    Has a media organisation in this state done any more than the “Curry or Maul (depending on party)” to legitimise this sort of politicking - they rail against now - when it suited them?

  • 5
    Blair Martin
    Posted Thursday, 1 March 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I’ll believe the C-M when they climb down from their holy tower over MPs or prospective MPs who don’t live in their seats when they show the same confected outrage that they did with ALP candidate Jack O’brien to Campbell Newman who also doesn’t live in the seat he’s contesting.

  • 6
    David Hand
    Posted Thursday, 1 March 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Those campaign bus games with a captive media fed carefully staged photo-ops are clearly not in the interest of the electorate. Yes, it dishes up sanitised, safe, friendly stories on the evening news that come across with the bland artificial characteristic of falsehood.

    The courier mail has made the right call. Commercial TV won’t follow of course because they are not interested in news and current affairs but interesting pictures.

  • 7
    klewso
    Posted Friday, 2 March 2012 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    Throughout the “Bjelke-Petersen error” (still being brought out from time to time for a ceremonial sanitising white-wash) - while the paper made thousands every week from doing the government’s advertising - apparently there wasn’t one journalist there, from editor down to tea-lady, that could smell the corruption wafting from the nearby “dump”, just down George Street? Until those pesky 4 Cornered ABC Yankees from down south of the Tweed came around and started a-proddin’ an a-pokin’ around them good ol’ boy’s Moonlight State backyard, when they sent Phil Dickey over the top? (“One expendable man - in case that investigation came to nothing”?)
    Since the finish of them good ol’ days they been reduced to takin’ in conservative laundry and washin’ that for ’em.

  • 8
    Posted Friday, 2 March 2012 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    I can hear Hunter Thompson’s laughter from beyond the grave.

  • 9
    klewso
    Posted Friday, 2 March 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    There’s a few locals up here wondering what’s going on with the papper, in the way it’s treating “Canned-do” (considering he “dresses to the Right” too) - looks like a “falling out of chieves”?
    And a lot more wondering how they’d be treating him if he’d just “shut up and kept suckin’” instead of sounding off – “biting the hand that feeds” - when he was “Lord Mayor of Bris Vegas”? If he’d just shut up, let them meddle and run the agenda, like “normal”?
    Today it’s Cleve Palmer’s turn on their tumbril – he said some naughty things about “the media” last week? Bet he’s wishing he had some of that “respect” (the Right PR firm can buy), round about now, too?

  • 10
    klewso
    Posted Friday, 2 March 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    As for Crutcher’s journalist’s opinion - as a layman (admittedly) I reckon the case is more the opposite :- “In most ways (editing/prejudice - control over the medium of how, when and where we see them) political parties/politics is held “captive” by media”?
    They control the deployment of resources to “wrap it”.
    How else do we punters get to see “news” if not as controlled and fed out by their media organisations and how they choose to spin/portray it, in their “edited highlights”? From embarrassing pictures to “op-ed hacking”?

  • 11
    thelorikeet
    Posted Friday, 2 March 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Maybe this would have been a good editorial call EXCEPT … Dalton’s work since has been even less policy focussed and more undergraduate-stunted than anything since Peter Beattie swam in a shark tank.

    The Courier Mail, far from raising the standard and engaging in a useful and interesting policy discourse has lowered the standard (again).

    So, they should get back on the real campaign buses, talk with the Premier ad would-be Premier about policy issues challenge and probe and report. But that would be doing journalism, and one suspects the Courier-Mail is no longer competent to do that.

  • 12
    CID
    Posted Friday, 2 March 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    On the surface it’s a good call - the campaign buses are simply free advertising, constantly sanitised and controlled live versions of the press releases. Not even close to a rigorous examination of the candidates or policies.

    That’s on the surface. The problem is that having stepped off the bus, there’s still no rigorous examination of the candidates or policies, just the CM’s spin rather than the pollies.

    Oh for reporting rather than opinion.

  • 13
    Edward James
    Posted Monday, 5 March 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Feeding the chooks as Joe used to say. Being kept by the State was not freedom enough for the C M. Edward James

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