The extraordinary events that took place in the nation’s capital last week give us a good opportunity to get some purchase on the big questions of media. They allow us to look at what journalism is, the extent to which it has changed in recent years, and the implications for its future.
The speed and unremitting pressure of the 24-hour news cycle did play a part in the downfall of the prime minister, just as you could argue that it played a part in the rapid turnover of Liberal Party leaders that followed former prime minister John Howard’s ousting at the 2007 election.
The 24/7 tweet-now, think-later media omniverse is not the sole or even the biggest contributor, but it is surely part of the range of elements, along with the prime minister’s autocratic style, his disavowal of the ALP factions and his tendency to promise — and promise with religious fervour — more than he could deliver, that led to his demise.
Within the news cycle he was captive to the suite of competing news organisations’ opinion polls, which are reported and parsed in the kind of detail that literary critics have lavished on Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Once upon a time politicians paid little attention to opinion polls. Then for many years they said they paid little attention to opinion polls: “The only poll that matters is the one held on election day.” Then this line became ironic in much the same way that stumble-tongued footballers whose teams have flogged their opponents by 10 goals say they are just “taking it one week at a time.”
Now the line is not even deployed ironically. A number of senior government figures actually said a poor showing in the polls was the main reason for dumping a prime minister who had led the party to victory after four consecutive election defeats.
As Neal Blewett, a minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, told Mike Steketee of The Australian: “I am surprised by how quickly the party panicked. We frequently had bad polls and Howard frequently had bad polls.”
At least partly this had to do with Rudd, who assiduously courted public approval to the point where it was not the ALP but he and his avatar ‘Kevin 07’ that most Australians thought they were voting for at the 2007 election. As several commentators have remarked, Rudd’s high standing in the opinion polls may have emboldened him to dismiss the party’s factions, but once the polls dipped he was vulnerable, both as an electoral asset and within his party.
Rudd’s particular political personality informs some of our understanding of the importance of the polls, then, but not all. Rudd’s prime ministership has intensified and cemented a habit of relying on polls — of doing government by focus groups — rather than engage in the dark and intricate dance of both leading and following the electorate, which is where you might turn for genuine political leadership.
This habit, combined with the relentlessness of the news cycle, is having a poisonous affect on the relationship between politicians and voters as played out through the news media, as George Megalogenis noted in The Australian last weekend: “For Gillard, the second prime minister of this Labor government, and Abbott, the third Liberal leader of this opposition, the electorate’s apparent hypocrisy must be bewildering. How do you appease a mob that doesn’t seem to know what it really wants?”
How indeed. What could be added to these valuable insights from one of the nation’s leading commentators is an awareness of the role played by both public relations practitioners and journalists in miring communication between governments and the public in spin as sticky and toxic as the oil leaking uncontrollably in the Gulf of Mexico.
It is as common for journalists to lament the clamps placed on their access to newsmakers and the pervasiveness of political doublespeak as it is for PRs to lament journalists’ laziness or to deny the existence of spin.
The problem is that both parties are locked in a crocodile’s death-roll. The more journalists dig beneath the PR surface, the more cement PR practitioners pour on the surface, which in turn prompts more digging, or, worse, an ingrained cynicism. Journalists assume governments are always trying to hide a scandal of Watergate proportions. Governments assume no matter what they do daily media coverage will be negative. Usually, the truth is somewhere in between but harder to find.
It is for this reason that in my view the political interview is, if not dying, then sinking in formaldehyde. As Professor Graeme Turner has memorably written: “Watching Kerry O’Brien interview Peter Costello on budget night is like watching two cats attempt to play with the same mouse.”
It is for this reason, too, that programs like Australian Story have found a large and loyal audience. People are hungry for genuine human stories and the producers of this ABC program tell them exceptionally well. Of course, now there are fears the program is susceptible to being gamed by clever PR operators while some journalists dismiss the program as ‘soft’.
In any case the habit of taking your direction from polls and the spin cycle can be as hard to dislodge as dogsh-t on your shoe — just think of the rise of the political staffer in ministers’ offices and the millions spent on government advertising.
The second thing to note about the media coverage is that news of a leadership challenge first surfaced on the 7pm news on ABC television through the work of Mark Simkin and Chris Uhlmann. It is true that the previous weekend The Australian newspaper reported the likelihood of a challenge but one of the journalists who wrote that story, Dennis Shanahan, also reported in Wednesday morning’s newspaper that the Prime Minister appeared to have seen off disquiet in the caucus and would “almost certainly” lead the party to the coming election. Not that I’m singling out Shanahan; it’s easy to be wise after the event about events that are both volatile and unfolding.
Individual journalists from The Australian and elsewhere were working hard on the threat to the PM’s leadership, no doubt, but it’s instructive to look first at where the news was not broken. It did not break in The Australian, partly because it is still primarily a newspaper whose next edition would reach its readers’ homes in 12 hours time, and partly because it has been campaigning relentlessly, some would say remorselessly, against the Rudd government and to an extent it might have been hard for readers to separate out the fact of the challenge.
The news was not broken on Sky News, I think, because it would have needed to be checked and verified by other journalists and that would have taken time. I’m not suggesting Sky News is a sloppy news organisation. Far from it: Sky is energetic, enterprising and does very well on limited resources but as a 24-hour news channel, by necessity an awful lot of time is spent re-broadcasting sms messages, retailing rumor and chewing over the cud with a raft of commentators.
Not for nothing did Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, once say: “At a certain point you realise that there’s not enough happening to justify 24 hours of news. They should just show a snow cone melting until something happens.”
Nor was the news broken by Twitter, which has certainly become an important element of the media mix in Canberra, but not for the particular task that the organisers of last week’s coup had in mind.
The news was broken through a pillar of the so-called old media, the ABC television news, which is national and regarded as reliable by politicians and those in the press gallery. The moment these people saw the ABC’s report they knew that a leadership challenge was actually happening, and scrambled accordingly.
My point here is not about the merits of old media versus new media; nor am I entering into the months-old spat between the ABC and Sky News. It is about the sources of the news. That is, what’s the most effective news outlet for the leakers? The people who organised against Rudd wanted to communicate quickly and indisputably the fact of their challenge.
*This is an extract from a speech — What will a journalist look like in five years? — delivered by Matthew Ricketson yesterday.