When does a good old newspaper campaign become something a bit more sinister? Something like “guided democracy”?

And when does so-called people power actually mean public opinion being goaded, prodded and distorted into something that sells newspapers (or not) and alters the course of public policy?

In yesterday’s Crikey we ran a couple of snippets about Queensland Premier Anna Bligh apparently backing down in the face of a Courier-Mail campaign to put GPS tracking devices on s-x offenders.

Not everyone connected with The Courier-Mail is universally impressed, however, as evidenced by the fact that the following email to staff from news director Emma Chalmers has been leaked to us:

From: Chalmers, Emma
Sent: Thursday, 2 June 2011 16:49
To: (multiple recipients)
Subject: petition

Good afternoon all,

As you would have seen, we are running heavily on our petition for GPS trackers for s-x offenders and we intend to for some time to come.

Alison, Selina and the sports department have been working hard to find personalities across the spectrum to endorse the campaign and give it a boost. They need the support of the whole newsroom to keep the campaign going.

Can you all please have a think about personalities, politicians or people with profile in your rounds who may want to put pen to paper for us and support the campaign? In addition to physically signing a petition, we should get a few pars on why they want to support the campaign and aim for a picture.

Your support will be appreciated.

Many thanks,

Emma

Emma Chalmers | News Director

So much for spontaneous outbreaks of people power. This is about as spontaneous and genuine as a rent a crowd. Let’s hope Brisbane celebrities have more sense than to get involved, and the reporters more sense than to ask them.

Now, there are a few dubious campaigns running in News Limited tabloids at the moment — and more than one government silly enough to get involved.

Take the Herald Sun’s online poll inviting the public to help set prison terms and other penalties. The Age covered it here and you can see some of the campaign here.

Then there is the sour and incoherent “Get Out of Our Lives” campaign, also in the Herald Sun, that covers everything from taxes to the provision of free digital set-top boxes to art installations.

On the one hand the papers call for more government action. On the other they decry anything that suggests the government is doing too much. It’s all a great big, childish whinge.

As my colleague at Pure Poison put it: “What’s next? The ‘You Don’t Understand Us’ campaign? The ‘You’ve Ruined My Life’ campaign? The ‘You’ve Always Liked Her Better Than Me’ campaign? The ‘It’s Not FAIR’ campaign?”

The campaigns on issues to do with law enforcement and civil liberties are more worrying than the sulky “it’s not fair” campaigns. There is no room, in the columns of these papers, for contrary points of view, or even serious debate. It is not just a matter of raising the profile of an issue — which is undoubtedly part of the role of the media — and finding out what the public thinks.

Rather, the campaigns are trying to whip up outrage. They are trying to rouse public emotions around difficult areas of law enforcement and policy, without doing the work of informing and educating that should accompany such efforts.

The Gold Coast Bulletin, to give another example has recently converted community outrage over the slaying of a cop into a call for vigilante action: “You have been deputised to protect this great city and help put the thugs in jail. Report for duty today …”

Why are the News Limited campaigns becoming so feral at the moment? Falling circulation, of course. And partly I suspect it is about product differentiation in the lead-up to paywalls being erected. They are trying to “belong” to the community in the hope that they will be regarded as indispensable.

And engagement with community is certainly something I think should be part of media futures.

But this is not engagement. This is not a citizens’ agenda. It is a calculated, editor-driven exercise, and it is dangerous stuff, the more so because politicians pander to it.

Thankfully the comments stream at the foot of the Herald Sun story on the sentencing poll suggests that the public have more sense than the editorial team. There are the predictable lynch-mob type comments, but in roughly equal number those who are disgusted or wary of the Herald Sun campaign itself. A selection:

“Are you serious?? A sensible society can’t have the broader population making the laws/sentences etc — this is anarchy. Bailleau was elected to do a job, so get on with it — stop abrogating responsibility for decision-making.”

And:

“I agree the judicial system has let down a lot of people & its time for reform.But even the thought of this idea is just as out of touch as the the judicial system itself. People with their own agenda’s, no experience, no guidelines, all emotion no logic very scary!”

And:

“I have no sympathy for criminals BUT there must be a chance for rehabilitation. This sort of populism is one step short of Sharia law or a return to hanging or the Stocks. The Liberals are playing with fire here”

And:

“The Liberal Party are now promoting lynch mobs? Could they be any more irresponsible if they tried?”

And:

“It makes me sick to the stomach to think our populist law and order politics has come to this. I need to leave this once great and fair country because it has gone to the dogs. Murdochracy indeed.”

I would add a note, that true community engagement is harder work than silly populism. The tabloids are treating their readers like fools, and I suspect will be roundly punished for it in the long term.

Peter Fray

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