This article has been updated with additional info from Mr Abbott’s office – see below
The claim that Tony Abbott avoids media scrutiny is a myth: a Crikey examination of the media appearances of the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister shows Abbott has subjected himself to roughly the same level of media questioning in recent months.
But it’s where Abbott fields questions that makes a significant difference: he prefers to avoid questioning by the press gallery and the ABC, in favour of media doorstops across the country.
Crikey has collated data from Abbott and Gillard’s media appearances from June 1 to November 30 last year (the Prime Minister took leave in December), based on their issued transcripts. These are the results:
Some caveats: the comparison between Gillard and Abbott on press gallery questions is a little misleading — it refers only to media conferences in Parliament House, but Abbott frequently holds media conferences in Canberra and Queanbeyan during sitting weeks, which gallery journalists are capable of attending. These aren’t included under “press gallery”, but on the other hand, nor are the Prime Minister’s overseas press conferences, which are usually attended by some accompanying gallery journalists.
What’s interesting is that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition fielded almost exactly the same number of questions over a six month period in media conferences — 1051 for Abbott and 1074 for Gillard. The Prime Minister fields slightly more questions at each media conference; Abbott held slightly more of them.
Needless to say, Abbott has never held a media conference that matched Gillard’s epic August press gallery media conference on the Australian Workers Union smear campaign, in which she fielded a staggering 80 questions — in addition to some on asylum seekers — or her similar November one in which she racked up 33 questions. Even without those two epic sessions, the Prime Minister on average fields more questions at Parliament House media conferences than Abbott, 13 to 11 per session, or 20 to 11 with the AWU media conferences included.
But as the numbers indicate, Abbott prefers his media scrutiny to be out and about across Australia, often in workplaces intended to demonstrate the impact (or what Abbott claimed would be the impact) of the carbon price. While this reflects the nature of his anti-carbon price campaign, it also means he tends to field questions from less-experienced or non-political journalists, although journalists from broadcast media and the major newspapers are able to tap into Canberra-based colleagues, editors and producers for questions on political topics of the day.
It also allows Abbott and his staff greater control of the agenda for those media conferences and an ability to abandon them without the sort of repercussions from the national media that occur on the occasions when he has walked out of more significant events.
Abbott also avoids the ABC like the plague, gracing it just four times in a six-month period (that is based on his transcript releases, although his office didn’t release one for his car wreck of an interview with Leigh Sales on 7.30). In contrast, the Prime Minister regularly has interviews on ABC radio. Indeed, Abbott went on Andrew Bolt’s TV program (three times) almost as often as he went on the entire ABC (radio and TV). Abbott much prefers commercial television compared to the Prime Minister, especially with his now-ended regular appearances on Today. [It is, however, a myth that he prefers FM radio; neither leader spent too much time on FM, which was a favourite venue for Kevin Rudd as opposition leader. See the update below on this]
There is of course no price for Abbott preferring his media scrutiny to come from non-political and less experienced commercial media journalists. Press gallery journalists may complain about his reluctance to front up, Gillard-style, to extended questioning in Parliament House but it hasn’t done anything to harm the Coalition’s polling supremacy. There is, however, an opportunity if media outlets want to grill Abbott: more effectively use local journalists attending his doorstops to press him.
But that would require resources, which are not in plentiful supply in the commercial media at present.
Tony Abbott’s office has kindly provided their assessment of the number of interviews the Opposition Leader has conducted according to their records. As indicated above, the initial figures were collated using the transcripts posted on Mr Abbott’s website. The figures from Mr Abbott’s office show considerably more interviews, albeit with the same patterns, but readers can make up their own minds: