The release of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission’s final report yesterday ostensibly served as another indicator of the tabloid/broadsheet divide. The Sydney Morning Herald gave the report two pages of detailed analysis and comment, a front page and an editorial. So did The Age. The Fin Review gave it three pages, a front page and an editorial. The Australian gave it extensive front page treatment, two pages of analysis and an op-ed. The Canberra Times — a front page and three pages of analysis and an editorial.
The Daily Telegraph gave it a front page too: “$1000 health tax hike” it blared, reducing one of the most complex health policy documents in decades to a cheap hip-pocket headline. But even that was better than the Herald-Sun, where you had to wade in to page 11 to find something on “Sick Victorians can wait no longer” — and of course the $1000 a year headline.
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But part of this was the Government’s own media management. The Prime Minister was scheduled to release the report at 10.30am yesterday. But the Government leaked the report to several outlets on Sunday, then insisted on a lock-up for the report release where journalists were subjected to exhaustive, and apparently exhausting, briefings, that kept going into early afternoon. The report was not made available online until lunchtime. And the report lacked a crucial “takeout”. There was no Big Bang takeover recommended, at least not yet.
There was plenty of substance, but it required lengthy reading and some health background to grasp the significance of the issues — something most journalists lack.
Moreover, the Government’s response — to consult further for six months, in effect reviewing its review, before going to COAG — similarly lacked an obvious angle for the popular press, even as Kevin Rudd was insisting the public wanted him to “just fix it” — as he had promised before the election.
The Government — from its takeover pledge, to the alcopops excise increase and its binge drinking crusade — has had a tendency to be too cute by half on health policy. Fortunately its reform Commission has taken its review mandate seriously. Time for the Government to do the same.