If John Howard loses this election, which journalists might follow him into the sunset?
Although the topic rarely receives media attention, many media identities have a vested interest in the outcome of an election. The media are uncharacteristically shy about exploring the extent to which journalists' careers are sometimes tied to political fortunes.
One difference in the media compared to when Labor last won power in 1983 is the plethora of columnists in the press, expressing largely predictable opinions only minimally disciplined by any evidence that does not fit their prejudices and overwhelmingly skewed to right of the political spectrum. The News Limited trio of Janet Albrechtsen, Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman constitute a conformist echo chamber reliably savaging all critics of the Howard government while amplifying the main themes the government wants to promote.
The one occasion when they went off script was during the APEC summit, the event from which the government was desperately hoping for an electoral bounce. Rather unhelpfully, first Bolt, then Albrechtsen - in what she said was one of the hardest columns she will write - started writing that it was time for Howard to go. This clumsy episode, about which we may never know the full truth, ended when Howard stared down his cabinet colleagues, a majority of whom thought it was time for him to go.
At one level it will make little difference to them which party is in government. Indeed their level of vitriol will simply be increased once their opponents are no longer in opposition. But while they will carry on predictably - Bolt’s column might simply be re-titled Not Happy Kevin - their relevance will be greatly diminished.
Of course there will be no perks, no further appointments to the ABC Board for Howard’s motley collection of cultural warriors. But more importantly, the columnists will lose any cache as insiders, a status that occasionally gave their rants some political currency. Presumably Labor ministers will be less inclined to share confidences and to use them as the conduit for planting stories.
Loss of perceived political clout and the subsequent ego sagging may also encourage Howard’s strongest radio supporter, Sydney shock jock Alan Jones, to retire to the Surrey countryside. Jones, who has complemented his on-air crusades with behind-the-scenes letter writing and lobbying for causes he believes in, is likely to find the new Labor government - especially given the geographic spread of its leaders – less accessible and less inclined to stroke his ego.
Support for the Howard government is more generationally divided than ever before in Australian politics and the demographic of Jones’s audience - older listeners generally rusted on to Howard - is likely to decline in political importance once Howard loses. The Liberals' path back to power will have to involve finding ways of appealing to younger age groups.
Like the columnists, the shrillness of Jones's anger will if anything be increased once government changes, but its predictability will be tiresome to all but his core fans, and he too may lack the access that gives his program its political impact.
The interests of these obviously opinionated media figures are immediately apparent, but more intriguing are those of reporters in the Canberra press gallery. One of the greatest role strains in reporting is the need to maintain journalistic independence while at the same time cultivating closeness. Often there is a trade-off, usually tacit, whereby a journalist obtains information in exchange for running the story the way the source wants.
While the doyens of the gallery, such as Michelle Grattan, Laurie Oakes and Paul Kelly, are adept at dealing with all sides of politics, some journalists have built their reputation on their closeness to the Howard government. According to Howard’s biographers, Peter Van Onselen and Wayne Errington, Howard thinks Dennis Shanahan can be relied upon to report his views accurately. Certainly the prime minister could not ask for interpretations of political developments and polls more sympathetic than Shanahan has provided. His tetchy and world-weary account of the leaders’ debate suggests he is looking forward to a holiday.
News Limited’s Glenn Milne has come to wider attention several times with his willingness to publicly report on rumours of private behaviour by Labor figures. The case which gained most notoriety this year was his revelation on the front page of the Daily Telegraph that its former editor, now Murdoch’s editor of the New York Post, Col Allan, had taken Kevin Rudd to a strip club in New York - a story Labor charges was leaked by Downer’s office.
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