In the laboured soap opera that is the daily commentary on spin — rarely is the practice discussed in the context of the need for better trained journalists, better resourced newsrooms and better quality journalism.
It’s an oversight, but not an unexpected one, given much of the commentary on spin is written by journalists and published in the media.
The story journalists repeatedly tell us goes something like this. Politicians use spin all the time to avoid telling the truth. Governments employ “an army of spin doctors” to stop journalists getting the story and getting the facts to the public. The public don’t like spin. Spin is bad and a threat to democracy.
In last week’s Sunday Age, Farrah Tomazin took the debate to a new level of nonsense suggesting the public will judge the Baillieu government on whether or not they keep their promise to aspire to “higher ideals” by not using spin “as much”.
What? Are we to believe the public won’t vote for Baillieu because he refuses to answer a journalist’s question directly at a press conference — or his ministers continue to use the same catchphrase five times in a parliamentary speech?
Sense and history will tell you otherwise. In three-and-a-half-years from now, Baillieu and his team of ministers will be judged on their ability to help voters manage cost-of-living pressures, fix congestion on our roads and in our trains, make our schools and hospitals better, our streets safer and our local economy strong.
A government can repeat ad nauseam that it is fixing road congestion. The punter crawling to work in his car along the eastern freeway every morning knows better.
In short, spin and slogans may save a ministerial scalp or two and give government’s protection in the short-term, but they don’t win you elections. Actions do. It is a lesson Victorian and NSW Labor has learnt, one the federal government is slowly learning — and one Tony Abbott should learn, and soon, if he wants to become prime minister.
So if the public don’t really care about spin, why are journalists so preoccupied by it?
Here’s a theory. Unlike the punter stuck in peak-hour traffic, a journalist at a media door stop doesn’t have anywhere to go until they get a politician’s quote. With a deadline pending — and no yarn without the killer grab — they’ve got nowhere to go.
And so the dance begins. The journalist keeps on repeating the same question, over and over and over again, and the politician keeps on repeating the same answer, over and over and over again. Finally the dance finishes with the politician or media adviser saying “Times up — gotta zip!” — and the journalist, without a substantial yarn, writes a story about the government’s addiction to spin.
This is the daily dance — it’s the one politicians keep on inviting journalists to attend — and the one most journalists keep on turning up to.
But not all journalists do the dance — waiting for press releases to land in their inbox or get a lucky drop from the government media adviser or director. You’ll often find the best or most experienced journalists are the ones who rarely seek information from a media adviser. They are the exceptional ones; well-connected and given the time by newsroom editors to do substantial investigations and find the information themselves.
When a diligent, thorough and motivated journalist calls a government spin doctor, they have the killer yarn already. All they want is a comment. The day after publication they usually get a scalp or two as well.
Good journalists don’t need a clumsily worded response from a politician to get a headline. They get the facts — hard earned facts gleaned from contacts and through their commitment to the craft of news gathering.
In defence of media advisers, their job is not to deliberately frustrate journalist’s attempts to get information. The good ones attempt to give journalists a decent steer on where to find publicly held information — and more often than not are the ones working behind the scenes arguing for more direct release of information that could be easily accessed through Freedom of Information.
Contrary to popular belief, good media advisers don’t spend all day working on devious media plans to thwart due process. In fact, most of their time is spent sifting through the huge amount of new information governments generate every day and making sure it’s presented in a way that is interesting and accessible to the general public.
The growth of more sophisticated government media units has made life a little harder for some journalists — and a little easier for others. But spin is as much a threat to open and accountable government as cuts to newsroom budgets resulting in fewer journalists and journalists without the skills or time to find the story themselves.
*Brent Shooley was a media adviser for the Bracks government and for Kate Ellis in the Rudd government. He is currently a senior consultant with The Agenda Group. This article was originally published on his blog.