In the absence of other evidence, John Lyons’s snarky comment today on Kevin Rudd’s unwillingness to front the media while attending the opening of Fairfax’s new headquarters might look like simple spoiling. After all, The SMH gave Rudd’s attendance, and comments on FOI, a positive write-up . And journalists can be so precious and self-important.

However, there has been a steady drip of stories about the media management technique of the Prime Minister and his staff. Crikey mentioned the Prime Minister’s reluctance to be filmed while being interviewed on radio earlier this week, and Christian Kerr in The Australian linked this to other examples of spin and management yesterday.

The Government’s “nothing to do with us” approach to FOI refusals has also become clear even as it talks about reform, while Insiders last week noted Rudd’s tendency to duck difficult issues in interviews by saying “I’ll get back to you on that.”

At the heart of the issue of Rudd’s media management is the extent to which it reflects the NSW Labor approach of tight control and endless spin, as practised by many of current Government’s staff in their previous jobs. Comparisons with other politicians – like the Rudd-Blair comparison – can be lazy and facile, but the Government’s innate caution is strongly reminiscent of the Carr Government, which was only mildly reformist, and then only when it could avoid political damage.

Rudd’s appointment of Bob Carr’s former communications director Walt Secord early in his period as Opposition Leader was taken as a hint of his intended approach to the media, borne out by the aggressive approach of Secord, which incensed some old Gallery hands .

Secord has now left – to run Justine Elliott’s office – but the approach appears to have remained the same. Lachlan Harris – he of back-turning fame – now runs the Prime Minister’s press office. Harris is a former lawyer, journalist and Opposition staffer, and you aren’t considered to have paid your Gallery dues these days unless you’ve copped a spray from him. Tim Gleason, ex-husband of Reba Meagher, and, like Secord, another former Carr adviser, is also there. Former TWU spokeswoman and Beazley staffer Fiona Sugden has been with Rudd since he became leader. The best of them is George Wright, the well-regarded former ACTU Policy Director, who moved there after starting with Lindsay Tanner following the election.

Apart from aggressive media management, a key tactic throughout the government – from the PMO through to senior bureaucrats – appears to be either not responding to inquiries or offering the blandest of bureaucratic talking points on anything faintly sensitive.

I initially thought, being the newest and least-experienced Gallery member, that I was alone in copping this, but it is becoming apparent that the same approach is being adopted with rather more senior and influential hacks. There are one or two experienced hands in government ranks who are happy – and confident enough — to have an adult conversation, but these are the exception to a rule of centralised, and very bland, information management.

Henceforth, Crikey will be diligently keeping track of how the Government handles the queries and issues we raise with it. We’re still waiting for a response from the Prime Minister’s office on whether, and why, he doesn’t like to be filmed while doing radio interviews, although other sources have long since confirmed this.

Think of it as the Crikey equivalent of the parliamentary Notice Paper.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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