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Junkyard dogs and flak catchers

By John Harrison - posted Tuesday, 5 April 2005


The battle lines between news makers, reporters and propagandists probably pre-date the Egyptian Pharaohs' fondness for having their glories etched in stone. But any notion that today's journalists are not being supervised and watched as closely as their ancient counterparts is misguided.

The Beattie Government employs more journalists than The Courier-Mail. This imbalance alone makes clear that in the never-ending battle between journalists and spin doctors, government spin doctors have the numbers. And in politics, it is the numbers that count.

Tom Wolfe's wonderful story Mau Mau-ing the Flak Catchers tells how the citizens of Oakland, California, hassled the welfare bureaucracy - and its frontline flak catchers - for their entitlements during the 60s. Four decades on, and it is the flak catchers and spin doctors doing the mau mau-ing; this time to the tribunes of the people - the Fourth Estate.

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There are two species of spin doctor in government: the departmental flak catcher who is a frank and fearless public servant employed in the corporate communications unit or division of the department of state; and, the ministerial media advisor, a political apparatchik paid by the taxpayer, chosen by and loyal to the minister, and employed for the term of his or her political master's ministerial life. Memorably described by Pat Weller as among “the junkyard dogs of politics”, these ministerial media advisors are not accountable to the departmental head nor to the parliament and its committees - only to their minister.

Though they might object, departmental flak catchers are subject to being suborned to services of their political masters, rather than their bureaucratic masters - all in the name of “responsiveness to government policy”. At the time of the children overboard affair (October-November 2001), the Public Affairs and Corporate Communications Division (PACCD) of the Defence Department had 148 permanent public service positions and a further 68 contract positions. None of these people seemed to be able to communicate to the Prime Minister, or to the public, that children had not been thrown overboard. During the hot phase of the current Iraq war, Australian defence department public affairs officials were accused of not releasing to Canberra journalists information that was made freely available by the Pentagon to overseas journalists in the comfort of the Doha Sheraton in the Gulf state of Qatar.

This is not to say that there are not casualties in the battle against the slings and arrows of the Fourth Estate. There has been, for example, an exceptionally high turnover of public affairs officers in the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) in recent years - communication professionals who are not prepared to do the bidding of the junkyard dogs and their handlers.

Some ministerial media advisors do return from the Dark Side to re-join the forces of Light. Former Hawke advisor Barrie Cassidy is now fronting the ABC's Insiders; former Keating advisor Greg Turnbull, is now Canberra correspondent at Network Ten News; former Goss glosser Denis Atkins, is back at The Courier-Mail. Even Kerry O'Brien did time in the service of Lionel Murphy. Yet one cannot help but wonder if, whatever their affirmations about honesty, fairness, balance and independence - the values of the MEAA Ethics Code for Journalists - that once having passed beyond the veil, those who return are but ghosts of their former selves.

In addition to employing an army of government spin doctors, governments - especially at the federal level - are employing the heavy armour of political advertising. Research by the Parliamentary Library before the 2004 federal election showed that the 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2001 federal elections were preceded by sharp increases in government advertising outlays. 

  • The bulk of the Keating Government's $3 million advertising campaign on Medicare Hospital Entitlements was spent the month before the 1993 poll.
  • The Keating Government spent $9 million in the three months prior to the 1996 Federal election campaign.
  • The Howard Government spent $29.5 million in the three months before the 1998 election campaign. Half this expenditure ($14.9 million) was on the GST campaign and yet pre-election spending on GST advertising accounted for only 13 per cent of total expenditure on the GST campaign.
  • In the four months before the 2001 election, the government spent roughly $78 million.
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The Parliamentary Library concludes “This trend of pre-election spikes in government advertising seems likely to continue”.

The job of journalists in scrutinising the affairs of government calls for unceasing vigilance - especially in terms of the part government plays in keeping an eye on journalists. Recent revelations that the Queensland Police Service keeps its Minister abreast of contentious FOI applications simply reinforces the point, but my word, don't you worry about that.

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First published in the Brisbane Institute's journal, Brisbane Line  on March 31, 2005.



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About the Author

Dr John Harrison teaches journalism and communication at The University of Queensland. An award winning journalist and higher education teacher, he is at the forefront of the development of new ways of learning using digital mobile media.

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