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Feb 13, 2013

Mythbusting on Abbott and the media, but who asked the questions?

Tony Abbott receives as much media scrutiny as the Prime Minister -- it's where he gets it from that is different. A Crikey investigation reveals some interesting findings.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

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.

Update:

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:


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57 comments

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57 thoughts on “Mythbusting on Abbott and the media, but who asked the questions?

  1. beachcomber

    Abbott prefers to be interviewed by Cadet Journalists on the street, and Dave Hughes or Kyle Sandilands in a studio. No hard questions allowed.

  2. Jimmy

    Looking at just sheer numbers is irrelevant, Abbott does interviews with people who agree with him (Bo lt, Jo nes et el) or people that let him get out his stated desire to be perceived as “a good bloke” or in a press conference at a work place situation where it is solely designed for the sound bite (ie get less experienced journalists to ask questions, give them the same answer no matter what the question and walk off whenever you want).
    The few times he does front a serious news journalist he gets whacked.

    And the reason this hasn’t hurt him is that the media hasn’t used it against him as yet, they have been happy just to take his sound bite and subject it to no scrutiny and get stuck into Gillard. Hopefully we are starting to see the signs that this strategy is wearing thin.

  3. MJPC

    For Mr Abbott it’s the stuttering frequency that indicates the degree of scrutiny he is receiving. If he is relatively calm the viewer knows he is telling bulls*** and is comfortable with the interviewer, not expecting them to ask the hard or probing questions.
    On the few occasions on a whistlestop that a journo asks a probing follow-up question, or doubt as to what he has uttered, he starts to stutter and you know he is under the microscope. One can expect the interview to be cut shortly after the first stutter.
    The best were 7.30 report where he was like a fly on flypaper, no matter how much the stutter the questions kept hammering his credibility. No wonder he doesn’t like the ABC!

  4. jesse mandragoria

    so let me get this straight, you claim an appearance on the blot report scrutiny?

    that’s a pretty low bar

  5. Will

    The figures cited above are only a small part of the story. You can ask all questions in the world and it will be still meaningless in terms of media scrutiny if they’re backslapping Dorothy Dixers, inane trivia, controlled reporting of stunts and quote mining.

    I don’t think the media ought to be hostile, but they need to offer some level of scrutiny and accountability of matters of substantive. They also needs to continually inject the proper context so that the whole enterprise of he-said she-said doesn’t collapse into subjectivity soup.

    On any real metric, Tony Abbott has almost completely avoided media scrutiny.

  6. Holden Back

    Here’s a career opportunity for an ambitious local journo – ask difficult questions at the photo-opps!

  7. Hamis Hill

    “Abbott in Shock Resignation”, come on, Tony follow your leader!
    Your abilities no longer suit a leadership role.
    Be honest and run away from the top job just as you run away from interviews.
    Follow your leader!

  8. The Pav

    From the data provided one can honestly say the Misty Wabbit aka the Mad Monk is in reality the Artful Dodger.

    It just confirms that Abbott is as skilled at manipulating the media as he is inept at policy.

  9. mikeb

    You might have seen Q&A last night when this topic came up. It’s pretty obvious that TA & the coalition has an election to lose, not an election to win philosophy. The aim is to remain a small target & the longer TA has to field questions from journos or the public who might not be sympathetic then greater the chance of slipping up. Better to be seen out and about with the fawning supporters and friendly media and give off the impression of a cool steady leader – rather than a train wreck waiting to happen.

  10. David Hand

    Go out and buy today’s Australian and read, in the cut and paste section, the transcript of Abbott’s interview with John Faine on ABC Melbourne 774 last April. It illustrates perfectly why Abbott is justified in avoiding the ABC.

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