Former Greens staffer Colin Jacobs offers a glimpse into the life of a parliamentary media adviser — one of the most influential denizens in the corridors of power.
Your alarm goes off at 5am. As you slowly come to groggy consciousness, you feel the sense of subdued panic that greets you every morning. You regret staying up until midnight waiting for the online papers to change over, but after watching Lateline you were too wired to sleep anyway. Before you even open your eyes, you try to make sense of what the radio announcer is saying as you reach for your phone to scan the headlines. The professional in you hopes there is a big story and you can start the ring around of breakfast and talkback radio. Another part of you longs for a quiet day and a tap of the snooze button.
Welcome to the life of a parliamentary media adviser. The people who live this lifestyle — if you could call it that — are among the most numerous and influential in the corridors of power. Their purpose is to shape the information you consume and to slant your thinking towards their tribe. It is a constantly changing, moment-to-moment existence, and everything that happens in Parliament House revolves around them one way or another.
Although we take the chasing of the 24-hour news cycle as a given, the importance of managing media in the daily life of a parliamentarian might still surprise. No MP is without help when it comes to managing communications, and every portfolio-holder has one or more full-time media staff, up to the prime ministerial team of several dozen. Apart from time spent in the chamber, until the print deadlines pass and the evening news is put to bed, no minister or shadow is out of reach of a media adviser for more than a few moments each day. This includes trips to the bathroom, the doors of which are thin enough for the shouted voice of a media adviser to penetrate.
The daily routine starts with a survey of the papers, which are still the agenda-setters for the media day. Because nobody actually has the time to read them in the old-fashioned way, digests and summaries of top stories from across the nation are assembled by media staff while most of us are still sound asleep. From here, the landscape of the day starts to take shape. While some start monitoring the radio, those with responsibility for messaging on the hot issues of the moment will be working on “lines”: the key quotes and rhetorical tactics to be used in media throughout the day. These will be disseminated so that colleagues will know what to say (and think) if they are asked or have an opportunity to comment.
Next comes fielding calls from radio and print journalists looking for comment — if you are in government or just lucky. Otherwise, it’s ringing around to see if anyone might be interested in a comment. In the meantime, there are briefings to be had with the boss. Top stories — what do they need to know? There will be hell to pay if they go into an interview poorly informed. What opportunities to pursue? A comment at “doors” on the way into Parliament? What’s the grab that going to make the TV news? What is the other side saying?
By lunchtime (that is, eight hours into the workday), the reactive media starts dying down and the media adviser can turn to hassling print journos and planning proactive media: planting stories, backgrounding journos and preparing material for embargoed distribution. By the time the media cycle is coming to a close in the afternoon, there can be precious little time and energy left over for a policymaker and their staff to see to other matters. In the evening, there may be time for some socialising with other staff and/or the gallery folks before the next day’s media landscape starts to take shape.
While part of the job is reacting to things that have happened and just finding time in the diary for interviews, the other part — creating stories out of thin air and making sure they are reported the right way — takes a lot of finesse. In dealing with the press gallery, it means carefully leveraging the common interests of politicians and journalists. Coverage of an issue can be obtained in exchange for handing over stories and content ready to go. The monopoly on certain types of information the political insider has, being able to give and receive an exclusive, and the benefits to be gleaned from letting a journalist inside the gossip tent make for fertile negotiations. The adviser must also carefully avoid areas where interests collide, such as the fact that stories about internal division are more attractive than policy outcomes.
The reason media advisers and journalists understand each other so well is that they are the same people. For any adviser job advertised, many of the best applicants will come straight from the press gallery or major media organisations. It also goes the other way, where an adviser returns to journalistic roots (and probably a pay cut) in exchange for a little more control and a little less stress. The way things are today, a journalism graduate is much more likely to end up in the swelling, well-paid ranks of the public relations and communications cadres than as a cub reporter for a daily paper. This means the clear majority of expertise that exists in this country regarding how media is consumed is bent towards manipulating it for partisan or commercial benefit — not creating it or making it better and more honest.
Given all that, there is nothing illegitimate about the media adviser’s calling. The public need to know what their representatives are up to, and mass media is the only way most of our leaders can communicate with their electors. But one of the sad postscripts to the tale of the media adviser is that for many of them, their ability to enjoy consuming news has been destroyed. Watching an episode of Q&A or reading a weekend paper are more likely to trigger flashbacks than pleasant curiosity. It’s totally understandable, but there is something slightly absurd in the fact that those who work so hard to shape our media are so exhausted by the process that they can hardly bear to see the end product.