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PM's tactics muzzle media

By Sally Young - posted Friday, 20 April 2007

During the coming election, most of us will have no personal contact with the candidates in our electorates, let alone with the Prime Minister or his rival for the top job. How we follow the election will be determined instead by what we glean from the media.

This is worrying because the media agenda is now controlled more and more by politicians.

We know many of the reasons for this including the growing armies of media advisers employed by politicians and the millions they spend on political and government advertising. We know governments use Freedom of Information and commercial-in-confidence to block access to information, and have ruthlessly plugged leaks from cabinet and the public service.


But there are also more subtle influences at work.

As Prime Minister, John Howard is the most sought after and quoted politician in the country. During the decade that he has been in power, his media preferences have changed political reporting.

Mr Howard gives many radio and television interviews, sometimes more than 10 a day. But he particularly likes radio and has a group of favoured interviewers, which include 3AW's Neil Mitchell and Sydney talkback hosts Alan Jones and John Laws.

On TV, he appears regularly on the Today show but other commercial programs such as Today Tonight and A Current Affair rarely have him on any more. This probably reflects their priorities as much as Howard's as they move away from political interviews towards celebrities, neighbourhood disputes, fad diets and cosmetic surgery.

Mr Howard doesn't do large public meetings of the sort that Robert Menzies, Gough Whitlam or Bob Hawke did, and does far fewer press conferences. When he calls a press conference, these are usually of the doorstop variety in which he briefly speaks to journalists on his way in or out of a building, allowing him an easy escape once he has made his point. Doorstops have largely replaced the traditional sit-down press conference, which allowed far more time for questions.

All these shifts are important because journalists rely on interviews as the basis of news stories. One American study found that journalists depend so much on interviews that they use no documents at all for nearly three-quarters of their articles.


Now that Australian journalists are less able to get an interview, they must turn to the material they receive in abundance - interview transcripts and press releases supplied by politicians and their media minders.

As a result, media coverage of federal politics in Australia now often follows a set pattern. John Howard does a radio interview in the morning. Footage of the interview is then edited into sound bites, which are used on television news that night. The next day's newspapers also regurgitate quotes from the interview because journalists will have been supplied with the transcript but probably won't have had an opportunity to question the Prime Minister directly. They may have tried to put follow-up questions to press secretaries but these are often brushed off, with media minders directing the journalist back to the transcript.

Relying on interview transcripts for news reporting is problematic.

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First published in The Age on April 15, 2007.

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About the Author

Sally Young is a senior lecturer in media and communications at Melbourne University.

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