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It’s a spin machine that never stops whirring. An army of hundreds of taxpayer-funded media advisers working for government ministers, shadow ministers, departments and agencies, who spend their working days pumping out information — mainly political propaganda — that serves their parties’ agendas, obscuring information that doesn’t, feeding information to friendly journalists, trying to deter hostile ones, usually with highly centralised control by the prime minister’s office and the leader of the opposition’s office.

Their job, as Stephen Stockwell puts it in the Griffith Review, is to “sculpt the terrain on which public debate occurs and to play the puppet-master, crafting the words and images that create the future”. 

But that’s just the top tier of the government media machine. Below those political spinners is another layer of bureaucracy — departmental media staff. Every day, hundreds of nameless and faceless public service employees tick away in the bureaucratic media spin apparatus at federal government agencies, responding to media inquiries, monitoring social media, preparing information campaigns and liaising with ministers’ offices. 

Across 14 federal government departments that responded to INQ, the agency with the biggest media and public affairs units is the Department of Defence, with 145 people working on communications. Additionally, there are 117 staff who give public affairs advice to the navy, army and air force. 

Second to Defence, the much smaller Department of Human Services has 21 media staff, and Home Affairs has 18. The Department of Finance’s media — which tends to only attract media attention when a politician’s expenses become a scandal — is operated by just one person. Prime Minister and Cabinet is run by three media staffers.

Canberra, May 24, 2005. Prime minister John Howard with his media advisers Tony Nutt and David Luff during Question Time in the House of Representatives. (Image: AAP /Mark Graham)

Media teams don’t merely deal with journalists. Some focus on information campaigns, which have their own pressures (“Nothing like an all-nighter stuffing folders when the minister’s office brings a deadline forward,” one spinner told INQ), or internal communications and video productions. 

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The media teams are made up mostly of graduates with communications degrees — some having had their hopes of being journalists dashed in the fickle, insular and somewhat incestuous news industry. A bunch of them are former journalists. Others come from advertising and marketing backgrounds, and the media teams with high profiles and capabilities have graphic designers and camerapeople. 

Most media affairs staff have quite different jobs to ordinary public servants. Their working lives are spent dealing with journalists, monitoring the media or working on information campaigns, usually with external marketing, production and advertising firms. 

A reflection of Tony Abbott doing a media interview in 2015 while his media adviser looks on.

They are “outward facing” in a way most public servants never are, but they must still serve the agenda of their department and the government, which is often to keep information to a minimum, not share it. Most public servants never encounter their colleagues in media affairs, unless the latter have to approach a “line area” for information with which to respond to a media inquiry. 

The instinctive reaction of line area bureaucrats is to clam up and give as little as possible, even if the information is innocuous, before you never know if something could, somewhere down the track, end up embarrassing the minister. That’s one reason why, for many journalists, responses from departmental media managers are often so anodyne and pointless as to be barely worth the email they arrived in.

As scholars Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote in their book Manufacturing Consent, the bureaucracies of governments and large corporations operate in a way that subsidises the mass media. In the case of government departments, the “subsidy is at the taxpayers’ expense … in effect, the citizenry pays to be propagandised”.

Read part two of INQ’s investigation here

Peter Fray

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