Here’s a fact just about every journalist knows: many people won’t call you back as a matter of principle. Few experienced journalists aren’t blacklisted by a few public figures for previously critical coverage. Whole programs can also be subject to bans, even after an offending journalist has moved on. The ABC’s This Day Tonight pioneered the trope of leaving an empty chair for those who refused to appear, making clear to the audience who was asked and didn’t front up.
But widely confirmed boycotts of an entire frontbench, of the type Tony Abbott has reportedly instituted against the ABC’s Q&A, are far rarer. While many people have refused to speak to the ABC or particular programs, it’s much harder for governments to exert centralised control over ministers who want to use every opportunity to raise their profile and sell their policies.
In the later days of the Gillard government, after 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones had said the prime minister’s father had “died of shame”, Labor ministers didn’t appear on his program for six months. No one within Labor ever confirmed it was an organised boycott, though several ministers said they personally would not appear on the program in the wake of the contraversy. But many thought it was co-ordinated. “I’m sure the word has gone out – either from Gillard or [communications director John] McTernan – that no one from the ministry is to have anything to do with us,” a 2GB source told Crikey in March 2013.
One boycott that was widely reported was the 2004 boycott of Channel Ten’s Meet the Press. As Paul Bongiorno wrote in The New Daily earlier this week, John Howard himself issued a ban as “payback for perceived biased reporting of the election campaign” (though, as Bongiorno points out, independent audits found no such bias against the Liberals). That boycott was ignored by deputy PM and Nationals leader Mark Vaile, who argued as a National the edict didn’t apply to him. “His appearance helped neutralise the damage the Howard office was trying to inflict on the show’s credibility,” Bongiorno wrote.
On a state level, perhaps the most effective user of media boycotts was Jeff Kennett, who told his ministers to boycott the ABC’s 7.30 for almost the entire seven years of his government (though Kennett would still speak to ABC talkback host Jon Faine, along with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell every week).
Stephen Mayne, who as Kennett’s press secretary was frequently in charge of imposing this boycott until he famously fell out with the premier and founded what became Crikey, says the ban was part of Kennett’s combative relationship with most of the media, which included heavy criticism of The Age in an attempt to unseat then-editor Bruce Guthrie.
“Four Corners did five pieces on the Kenentt government in seven years, and no ministers spoke to Four Corners. That’s a record. You just don’t get that sort of disengagement with the premier investigative program for such a long period,” Mayne said.
The 7.30 Report, then a state-based nightly program, also suffered from the ban. Mayne describes it as “missing in action” for much of the Kennett Revolution.
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Even earlier, in the early 1980s, NSW premier Neville Wran imposed a ban on ministers appearing on the ABC and particularly Four Corners after it pursued him over allegations of corruption, though, one veteran reporter notes, it “didn’t last very long”.
Abbott’s prime ministership has been characterised by a willingness to take on the media and use access to the benefit of his government. In the early months of his prime ministership, Crikey reported the frequent concerns of Fairfax political reporters that they were being frozen out by his government in favour of News Corp, while left-wing critics took to charting Abbott’s absences from appearing on serious ABC interviewing programs like Lateline or 7.30. Tony Abbott used to be a frequent guest on Q&A, but he has not appeared since becoming prime minister. Even Sky News’/News Corp commentator and host Peter van Onselen has publicly complained about Abbott’s failure to appear on his show.
Whether media bans work for or against those imposing them can shift over time, Mayne says. He notes the ban on some ABC programs worked for Kennett in the short term, but in the long run, doing things like banning debates between candidates and indeed speaking to local media at all in the 1999 election helped fuel a media narrative that Kennett was authoritarian and unaccountable.
Of course, there are other platforms for politicians to use to spread the word. “As a general rule, politicians can pick and choose the programs on which they appear,” Bongiorno told Crikey. “The fact that Abbott can decide they won’t go on one program doesn’t deny them a voice on all sorts of other vehicles.”
“But it all comes down to nature of the program and the broader implications. Q&A is prime time. You may quibble with its audience or its leanings, but if you can get one of your people to appear and make a good impression and put a good point of view across, then that’s got to be a positive.” The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly made the same point in his column today.
“Every party has a right to its own media strategy, and different programs appeal to different demographics,” Bongiorno continues.” You can make argument it’s not in a politician’s benefit to appear on certain things. But for mainstream programs, I think it’s counterproductive.” He adds that media bans are never justified, describing them as a weapon against accountability. “Bans and boycotts are a tool to try to cower journalists and keep them in their place,” he said.
It’s possible that ignoring the 24-hour news cycle may have greater consequences now than it did in the 1990s. The faster pace of political debate in Australia imposes greater pressures on politicians and journalists to fill airtime, and this can leave absences more sorely noticed. On the other hand, politicians also have more outlets than ever on which to get their message out.
“I think it’s unsustainable … Q&A is too big to ban,” Mayne said of the current boycott. He believes the government will back down sooner or later. It hasn’t yet.