In one of the most extraordinary media ploys ever undertaken by a mainstream media organisation, the Courier Mail announced yesterday in a bold front-page editorial that it was ripping its reporters off Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman’s campaign buses.

An un-bylined piece, written by the paper’s editor Michael Crutcher, unloaded on the LNP and ALP obsession with controlling the message.

“In a way, media are held “captive” by the political parties,” Crutcher explained.

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“They are not told where they are going until the plane or bus is in motion or until the journey is at an end. When they get to a destination, they will sometimes see the party leaders spend as little as 10 minutes with hand-picked Queenslanders who are unlikely to venture outside the party’s preferred lines.”

The paper noted that “all-in” press conferences prevented talented reporters Sarah Vogler and Koren Helbig from pursuing sustained lines of questioning. It said it will still attend “major” pressers and “request interviews with the leaders”. It will also continue to source copy from AAP reporters still marooned on the official trail.

The Courier Mail then announced its own news gathering vehicle, the Sunshine Express, piloted by Queensland journalist of the year Trent Dalton and equipped with a personalised Twitter account. This morning, the new approach was out in full force, with Dalton asking a Tarragindi mum and an Kingaroy nut farmer to hold forth on the Pineapple state’s problems. Vogler and Helbig followed up an Australian story on developer donations and assessed a Newman promise on health care. The following breakout box featured prominently:

But the move seems curious given that the campaign’s opening week was nobbled by the Rudd-Gillard leadership stoush and both Bligh and Newman had made a concerted effort to cut back on official announcements until the dust had settled. And on campaign buses and official pressers, journos are often able to ask the real questions on the sidelines or through informal briefings from advisers. It also appears to have delivered a gift to his intra-News rivals at The Australian, whose state politics writers have been dueling with their colleagues at the little paper for years.

Indeed, The Oz’s team of crack reporters led by state political editor Michael McKenna, Roseanne Barrett, Sean Parnell, Jamie Walker and North Queensland scribe Sarah Elks have been serving it up on the reportage front and Fairfax’s Brisbane Times website has also been scoring some direct hits with its popular Poll Call live blog.

Campaign insiders have told Crikey that the one possible motivation is latent anger at Newman and Bligh spinners for refusing to farm out “drops” in favour of running official lines through the less critical 6pm commercial TV bulletins. Advisers can usually secure 200,000 viewers on Seven and Nine and 150,000 on Ten, despite the Courier-Mail‘s claimed readership of over half-a-million.

One insider told Crikey: “It’s tough for people when they realise that they’re not the centre of the universe any more…and it’s hard when people realise they’re not gathering around The Courier Mail each morning sweating on what they’re going to say.”

But Crutcher denied the revenge narrative, telling Crikey that the paper had a “very professional relationship” with both teams.

“There’s no element of retribution here. I’m not about grudges or running vendettas if you’re not working your backside off for readers. I just made a decision about how to best use our resources to tell our readers what’s really going on.”

A Crikey survey of the first week of the campaign revealed a paucity of official drops in both the Courier-Mail and The Oz‘s pages. Instead, it has been up to the journalists to get inventive to find new angles. There were several “gotchas” — perhaps sourced from rival dirt units —  in which candidates on in both camps were forced to stand aside thanks to revelations from their dark pasts.

Crutcher nominated last week’s scoop revealing that the Labor candidate for Gregory, Jack O’Brien, does not live in his electorate, as evidence of his reporters’ tenacious approach.  The paper’s coverage has also been bolstered by the addition of Madonna King’s video interviews.

Nevertheless, the Courier-Mail and Newman especially have a history of tetchiness. In 2008 a testy exchange between city hall reporter Alison Sandy and Newman spinner (and former Courier Mail journo) Michael Corkill was documented by Media Watch. Sandy had a left a message on Corkill’s voicemail threatening the withdrawal of “decent” media coverage if it did not receive a “drop” on the BCC budget.

Then, as Crikey reported at the time, in 2010 the newspaper used an editorial to launch an amusing spray on the then-Lord Mayor’s “arrogance and Napoleonic tendencies” in trying to manage coverage around the opening of the Clem7 tunnel. The paper described Newman’s antics as like a “toddler throwing toys from a cot”. (Crutcher says things were repaired later in the year when Newman sat in on news conference).

Still there is some evidence that the wound has only partially healed over. Yesterday, the Courier Mail meted out vigorous treatment to Newman’s promise of two new helicopters and a thousand extra police for Queensland, prominently quoting the government’s dismissals under the headline ‘Newman’s plan for extra police dubbed pie in the sky’.

Today, its story on Newman’s $129 million health plan was headlined “Lack of new beds in LNP health fix”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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