This is part two of Phil Dickie's exposure of the
techniques politicians use to hide their activities from the media and the
public. Part one is here.
7. The spoiler.
Another tactic when being pressed hard on a particular embarrassment by a
troublesome journalist is to release part of the story heavily glossed
with positive spin to a rival. This can kill off any publication of the
full gory details. An example from my own casebook comes from
pre-Fitzgerald days when the police minister who wasn't answering any of
my questions offered the paper an interview with another journalist. The
paper fell for the gambit. The proper response of course was that the
paper, not the minister's office, should be taking the decisions about
which journalists should be doing the stories.
8. It's all in the timing.
Governments often exploit the media's need for immediacy in news. A report
issued at midnight or an embarrassing debate held in the wee hours is
unlikely to be covered in the next day's papers and has a good chance of
being considered old, stale news the day after. Embarrassments can also be
dropped when media resources are stretched covering budgets or attending
Christmas parties. The Federal Government slipped the committee report on
the International Criminal Court into parliament on budget night.
9. It's all in the staging.
The media can also be kept busy - usually with the relatively
inconsequential. This is quite easy with the television, where there is a
lot of truth in the old adage no picture, no story. A large part of media
management is the staging of various stunts, complete with photo and
filming opportunities. A parliamentary reporter can be kept busy with a
continuous stream of press conferences which have to be covered, but also
take limited resources away from other possibly more troubling activities.
10. Playing the person, not the ball.
This is a particular and perennial problem with issues based articles and
it is essentially a major diversion. Attack may be the best form of
defence (or diversion) - but where there is an issue at stake, it is and
should be treated as irrelevant or peripheral. But such attacks often work
and many, many serious issues get lost in a barrage of accusations and
"You know how the game is played," said one advisor crossly
to a journalist recently who was persisting in getting an answer to a
question from the minister instead of a fob-off line from a
"spokesperson". But that is the trouble - the public does not
know how the game is played. The name of the game in fact comes most
revealingly from those on the government side of the equation, from Joh's
famous "feeding the chooks" line to the more technocratic
preference of the Goss era to putting journalists "on the drip".
As a former senior government advisor recently confided, "what you
do with journalists is you feed em and feed em and feed em and every so
often you call in the favours".
11. Fumbling towards more scrutiny
The most significant development in journalism in recent decades may
well be the increasing size and sophistication of the effort to manage the
news and manage the media. It is not a development much covered in the
mainstream media. Even in academia, many more resources are devoted to
turning out public relations specialists than to examining their effects.
The key question to be continually considered by the more thoughtful
journalists and editors might be "just who is setting the
agenda" - both in general, and in relation to particular issues. Our
ability to attain the state of being relaxed and comfortable might then
have some relationship to the degree to which we in the media set our own
agendas, rather than being kept diverted or occupied by the trade of
authority. This is not quite equivalent to an earlier dictum of journalism
- where the role was defined as afflicting the comfortable and comforting
the afflicted - but there is some common ground.
There is, admittedly, room for lots of heated debate over whether
unelected media organisations should be setting the general social,
economic and political agenda. It is a vexed and tangled issue but what is
being stressed here is that we should be setting our own agendas rather
than having them established for us. At any rate, what is in the papers or
on the airwaves, however it was initiated, does have a bearing on the
policy discourse and priorities.
In Queensland, the Courier-Mail has an enormous ability to shift
and shape the political agenda. The only other news organisation that can
come close is the ABC, and usually it doesn't. Some decry this influence,
some lament that the paper doesn't use its influence wisely or well and
some point out, quite correctly, that it is a sad commentary on moral,
policy and other vacuums in government that the newspaper has this sort of
influence in the first place.
An illustration might be useful. Queensland has long been afflicted by
blatant racketeering in its property marketing industry, and a long
tradition of ineffectual regulation has meant that occasionally
racketeering verges on being the dominant mode of property marketing in
areas like the Gold Coast. The form changes - from selling underwater real
estate to time share - but the game essentially has remained the same.
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