The hypocrisy of politicians is wonderful to behold. There was Labor in the House of Representatives this week attacking the Liberal-National government for having employees of ministers monitor the media to find information with which to embarrass their opponents.

The very same Labor Party which two decades ago, under the skilful direction of its amiable servant Colin Parks, turned such monitoring into an art form! Back in those days the government’s National Media Liaison Service so infuriated the Coalition with its effectiveness that it promised to immediately dismantle the so-called aNiMaLS propaganda machine immediately on gaining office.

And abolish the organisation a Coalition government duly did while not depriving itself of the benefits available to an incumbent of having staff paid to keep track of the public activities of the opposition in the run up to elections.

Showing that when it comes to hypocrisy anything Labor can do Liberals and Nationals can do better, the new monitors were not put in to a transparent place in the bureaucracy like the NMLS. A Coalition Government hides them away in the offices of ministers and the party whip.

Greg Barns in his book Selling the Australian Government: Politics and Propaganda From Whitlam to Howard (an interesting review of which you will find on the APRA website here) used the insight gained from years working as a Liberal Party staffer to blow the whistle on the Coalition’s Government Members Secretariat (GMS) operating from the office of the Government Whip and thus protected from parliamentary scrutiny. This was the group that Mark Latham referred to as “the dirt unit” which set out to find information with which he could be discredited.

This election Labor has seized on the revelation in The Bulletin magazine that the dirt unit has moved location from the Whip’s office to that of Attorney General Philip Ruddock in Sydney with Labor’s Anthony Albanese suggesting yesterday that the Brisbane office of Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources Ian Macfarlane was being used as the hidey-hole for those dealing with the Queensland part of the coming campaign.

An interesting insight in to the way governments stumbled in to this business of media manipulation was given last year on Radio National’s Background Briefing where Wendy Carlisle spoke with former Whitlam and later Hawke government press secretary Graham Freudenberg.

Back in 1972, Freudenberg explained “we had commitments to the idea of open government, and part of this idea of open government was to release more information.” He continued:

Graham Freudenberg: So rather naively, I think, we thought that the way to do that was to equip every Minister with his own press secretary.

Wendy Carlisle: Why was that naïve?

Graham Freudenberg: I think it was naïve to think that press secretaries would facilitate the flow of information, rather than as they did in practice, try to manipulate the flow of information in the interests of the Minister.

So to some extent the present manipulation of information and control of propaganda, you could say originated in 1973 with the Whitlam government.

Wendy Carlisle: And later, it was the Hawke government which refined the propaganda machine even further with the creation of the National Media Liaison Unit, or ANIMALS, as it was fondly known.

Graham Freudenberg: Well I acknowledge that the Hawke government did establish the National Media Liaison Unit.

Wendy Carlisle: This is the one otherwise known as ANIMALS?

Graham Freudenberg: Otherwise known as ANIMALS. And that was an effort at media control in the political interests of the government, and government members.

Wendy Carlisle: Was there any discussion within Labor when ANIMALS was established to the appropriateness of hiring public servants, deploying them in ANIMALS and using them for political purposes? Was that seen as a sort of a corruption of the process of the public service? A politicisation of the public service?

Graham Freudenberg: I don’t know what discussions were held at the time, and I can’t recall what our perceptions at the time. I imagine though, we were not unduly exercised over it. You know, I can’t be hypocritical over this, it’s one of those things that undoubtedly would fall into Gareth Evans’ Gareth Evans’ category of ‘it seemed a good idea at the time’.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey