Dan Andrews press conference
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

A pandemic is no time for political spin, waffle or attempts at soaring rhetoric. Right?

Leaders need to get facts out in clear language. The normal media management that governs modern politicking — drops to journalists, kite-flying, strategic leaks and massaging expectations — need to be ditched in favour of delivering information quickly and clearly. Right?

Not, apparently, for Australia’s “Most Progressive Premier” Dan Andrews and his cabinet colleagues, whose communication efforts with ordinary citizens in recent days haven’t exactly impressed.

When nine public housing towers were put into total five-day lockdown on Saturday, the 3000 residents were given almost no notice. Some didn’t find out what was going on until they saw police outside their windows.

Tower residents were then given a detention notice, written in dense legal language, indicating the lockdown would last 14 days. When asked about the discrepancy on Monday, Andrews said the length of the lockdown would be determined during the week. 

Many of the tower residents are migrants with English as a second language. The Andrews government’s strategic missteps in communicating clearly with multicultural communities — failure to translate materials or produce culturally sensitive messaging — have been criticised for months.

But some journalists got a very different treatment yesterday as Victoria recorded its highest number of new cases and Melbourne was forced into lockdown. Until mid-afternoon, well-connected journalists and Twitter speculation replaced the government as sources of information.

Andrews did not hold a press conference to announce the Melbourne-wide lockdown until after 3.15. But for hours before that “sources” in government were briefing journalists about the state of play.

By late morning it was widely reported that Victoria was looking at new cases in the low 190s and that a return to lockdown was looming. But no time was given for Andrews’ press conference. 

By 12.45, both The Australian and the ABC (in chronological order) reported the exact number of new cases was 191. This was not confirmed by Victoria Health until just after 1pm.

Still no word from Andrews, although Twitter was awash with speculation, ultimately correct, that the late press conference meant new restrictions would be announced.

Those well-placed sources texting journalists seemed to keep changing their minds about what the restrictions meant. At 12.20 The Australian reported that a four-week return to stage three lockdown was imminent, according to “well-placed sources”.

That wasn’t true. The final lockdown was six weeks and applied only to metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire. Less than an hour later, its rivals at The Age were suggesting regional Victoria would be spared lockdown

By 2pm The Age was reporting that Melbourne and parts of regional Victoria were expected to return to lockdown, according to sources “close to cabinet discussions”. Finally, after 2.30, Andrews announced a press conference for 3.15 where the details of the lockdown were properly communicated. 

Was this deliberate media management by Andrews’ team, or ministers eager to keep in journalists’ good books by leaking information?

For Victorians needing to make urgent decisions about the impacts of lockdown — including working from home, arranging childcare and protecting elderly relatives — that’s a distinction without a difference.

After this kind of media confusion, and possibly manipulation, the Victorian government is hardly in a position to complain about false information circulating online.

Peter Fray

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