Ignore all the hype about Twitter and Facebook and Google Hangouts. Forget about the PM’s cosy chats with “mummy bloggers”. When the official election campaign begins in mid-August, the nightly news will still be the key battleground for the two major political parties.
“Despite all the talk of the 24-hour news cycle, everyone in the campaign will be sitting down at 6 o’clock to see who ‘won’ the night,” veteran Labor campaigner Bruce Hawker told The Power Index. “That is still the number one priority of the election campaign … During the campaign, pollsters usually poll after the 6 o’clock news and you’ll see reflected in polling how we and our opponents went on the news that night. If there is a bad story for us, our polling will drop.”
Hawker estimates election campaign directors spend up to 70% of their time working out how to make their side look good — and the other bad — on the evening news.
The 15-second soundbites will be as carefully crafted and polished as diamonds. Political staffers will be sent out each day, like troops scouring for improvised explosive devices, to find politically friendly locations for big policy announcements. The side that provides the most interesting pictures — be it Opposition Leader Tony Abbott go-karting or PM Julia Gillard cradling a newborn — will dominate that day’s coverage.
“Campaign directors run election campaigns for people in marginal seats who don’t give a damn about about politics,” said Grahame Morris, a former chief-of-staff to John Howard. “They certainly don’t tweet or email about politics. But they still watch television and it is still true that the mass media, particularly television, is the most powerful tool available to a campaign director. You can get everything else right during a campaign, but if you get the nightly news wrong you’re in trouble.”
It’s no wonder: 4 million people combined still tune into Seven and Nine’s 6 o’clock news bulletins a night, with a further 1.5 million watching the ABC at 7pm.
Both Nine and Seven have fresh news directors since the last time the election circus came to town: Darren Wick at Nine and Rob Raschke at Seven. Nine veteran Wick, a former Today and A Current Affair executive producer, has a broader remit. He’s in charge of all Nine’s news and current affairs output; Raschke, Seven’s former Brisbane news boss, doesn’t hold sway over Today Tonight or Sunday Night. News legend Peter Meakin remains behind the scenes at Seven as a full-time consultant.
Wick told The Power Index Nine retained one “great advantage” over Seven: Laurie Oakes. “Laurie is the guy,” he said. “He’s the one the whole country stops to watch and listen to. Everyone wants to know what his take is.” Nine’s more junior journos will follow the campaign circus, feeding copy back to Oakes, who’ll deliver seasoned analysis and, hopefully, a smattering of scoops.
“To an extent, the TV news directors are captive to events on the campaign and whatever the politicians decide to dish up. And they don’t try to overtly swing votes like newspaper editors …”
Seven has some surprises up its sleeve this year. Crikey can reveal that Seven is planning to team up with the recently launched PolitiFact Australia to test the truth of politicians’ statements during the campaign. Seven and PolitiFact declined to comment, but we hear an announcement is imminent. Seven has also secured former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett as a campaign commentator, and a deal is being stitched up with a Labor figure.
The ABC, where Kate Torney is now in her fourth year as news director, is also hitching its star to the fact-checking wagon: a well-resourced fact-checking unit will be up and running by election time. The Age contributing editor Russell Skelton will leave Fairfax to become foundation editor, and a soon-to-be-announced presenter will pop up across the ABC network to test claims by politicians (and other influencers). The ABC has also flagged greater policy scrutiny, a beefed-up online offering and more opportunities for voters to set the agenda.
To an extent, the news directors are captive to events on the campaign and whatever the politicians decide to dish up. And they don’t try to overtly swing votes like newspaper editors, particularly in the News Limited stable, are prone to do. While Seven’s Raschke thinks the ABC’s “equal time” election campaign rules for political parties is “absurd”, he said: “We need to be fair, absolutely objective and to give both sides an equal go. The audience will not watch us if they think we’re being unfair.”
But news directors can and do impose agendas — particularly when they want to capitalise on an in-house scoop. Bruce Hawker recalls Channel Seven running especially hard on claims that then-premier Mike Rann had an affair during the 2010 South Australian state election after Sunday Night aired an exclusive with former SA parliament house barmaid Michelle Chantelois.
Nine dominated the last federal campaign — first with Oakes’ series of damaging scoops (that won him a Gold Walkley and cratered Labor’s campaign) then with former Labor leader Mark Latham’s stint as a 60 Minutes freelance reporter. Latham scored more media mentions than Treasurer Wayne Swan or shadow treasurer Joe Hockey the week he controversially confronted Julia Gillard on the hustings. Things turned meta when Oakes weighed in to bag Latham and his own network, with rival media outlets duly following up the stoush. Nine was exactly where it wanted to be: dominating the news cycle and killing it in the ratings. Whether the public was any more informed about policy is another issue entirely.
The question of the media campaign bus — which keeps news outlets captive to the political parties’ agenda — remains a perennial debate among the news directors. Although Seven’s Raschke despairs about the “staged and orchestrated” nature of campaigns, he says the bus remains the place to be.
“During the last campaign [Seven political editor] Mark Riley travelled with the leaders more than most of the other political correspondents and we expect that to be the same this year,” Raschke said. “He’s not sitting in a distant office in Canberra. I actually think there’s a powerful advantage in having your most senior person on the road with the leaders …
“The reality is you have to be on the caravans. If you’re not with the political leaders it’s very hard to hold them to account and to see how they interact with voters. The least worst option is being on the bus.”