Don’t mistake the organ-grinder for the lion-tamer: the media and the 2010 federal election

There’s a lot of outrage mixed with genuine bewilderment being expressed about the role of the media in the federal election campaign.

Much of this angst is due to a lack of insiders’ knowledge about how media, politics and policy work in Canberra and during election campaigns.

Annabel Crabb did a sterling job explaining some of the campaign minutiae in a recent piece. The scorn and derision she received from some readers would have been surprising if not for a related (and heartfelt) complaint by blogger Grog’s Gamut. Even the redoubtable Laura Tingle bemoaned the apparent lack of willingness by the political media to seek and scrutinise policy.

These posts elicited for me an excellent and thought-provoking Twitter exchange with journalism lecturer Jason Wilson during which we pondered why political journalists focus on the superficial drama of the campaign rather than policy. We explored whether political parties’ efforts to tightly manage the media and messages are a defensive move because journalists only focus on drama and superficiality, or whether it is an offensive move to ensure that the key message, and nothing more, makes the TV news each night.

From my perspective, based on real inside experience, it is the latter. Parties are the organ-grinders, doing everything they can to get journalists to dance to their tune, rather than lion-tamers holding a vicious beast at bay.

I believe much of the dissatisfaction with media coverage this election comes from Labor voters/sympathisers because they have not, for many generations, witnessed the degree of media scepticism that is currently being applied to the ALP. Their instinctive reaction is to label this media negativity as bias.

In fact, they are witnessing journalists rebelling against the parties’ (particularly Labor’s) “media management” strategies. Most journalists have finely tuned bullshit detectors and can identify even the most subtle attempts to manipulate them. Journalists’ instinctive reaction is to subvert and therefore expose this constraint in any way they can.

Before you jump to label me a Tory sympathiser, dear reader, cast your mind back over the past 30 years. Can you remember a time when the conservatives were overwhelmingly treated well by the media? I cannot. I’ve observed over that time that most journalists are “small L” liberal or left-leaning. This is no surprise considering that liberal philosophy fits so well with the journalistic motivation to facilitate the public’s right to know.

Journalists’ liberal values were clearly observable during the Hawke, Keating and Howard years. During that time, conservative politicians and parties felt they could never win a trick with the print media, television networks or the ABC.

The political media participated in the Australian community’s adoration of Prime Minister Hawke during his heyday. As Hawke’s light faded, many journalists shifted to actively support Treasurer Keating during his campaign to destablise and ultimately overthrow Australia’s most popular Prime Minister.

At no time in the 80s or 90s were Opposition Leaders Peacock, Hewson, Downer or Howard feted by the media. The conservatives’ only allies were found amongst the conservative shock-jocks in the retail-communication worlds of tabloid newspapers and talkback radio.

Kevin Rudd, in fact, was the first Opposition Leader since Bob Hawke to be given the overwhelming support of the media. Can anyone remember a conservative Opposition Leader who enjoyed this support? No. Labor supporters may be upset at the current unprecedented lack of media support, but it cannot be labeled bias. Its real name is rebellion.

Ironically, and with foresight, the media’s support for Opposition Leader Rudd was begrudging. This sentiment sowed the seeds of the campaign media’s current discontent.

Kevin Rudd is known to have vigorously worked the media during his rise from regular Sunrise guest to Leader of the Opposition during the dark and final days of the Howard government. But once the election campaign-proper commenced, Rudd mimicked the successful small-target strategy utilised by Howard in 1996. Under the tight media-management direction of former Carr spinmeister Bruce Hawker, Rudd became unavailable to the “real” news media. Rudd opted instead to appear on youth-oriented radio programs and television variety shows – affording him the double benefit of direct access to mainstream Australians without having to address pesky questions of policy and substance.

Nevertheless, the political media were so enthralled with the community’s growing dissatisfaction with Howard and the prospect of the government being overthrown, that they were prepared to humour Rudd for the duration of the campaign. A story at the time featured former Hawke media adviser and now ABC Insiders host, Barrie Cassidy, candidly quoting another journalist saying ‘We all know we have to go to war against Kevin Rudd as soon as the election campaign is over.’

This media “war” was held off by the unprecedented honeymoon that Prime Minister Rudd enjoyed with the Australian public during the first two years of his term. Not only did the media sit back in awe of this popularity, so did the political hard heads in the ALP.

In the end though, perhaps Rudd the organ-grinder forgot that monkeys also have teeth. Or that other sidewalk entertainers can be ruthless enough to knife you for the optimal position on the street corner.

Those who wish to lay blame for the behaviour of political media in this election campaign should look no further than the genial Bruce Hawker and the entourage of former media advisers that he brought to Canberra in 2007-08 from the deeply unpopular NSW Labor government. While Hawker’s tight media management strategy, aligned to the relentless 24/7 news cycle, may have delivered for the state government, it did not fit well with the communication needs of a federal government.

Journalistic resentment about Rudd’s media management, and the ALP’s more generally, had been simmering for some time. This was exacerbated by Rudd’s inability to fulfil the great expectations that he created during the 2007 election campaign to positively differentiate himself from the ageing, discredited Howard.

As shocking as Rudd’s removal was, many journalists were relieved and optimistic that the Gillard era would herald a more sensible and less frantic approach to newsmaking. Some of these journalists are young and are travelling with the Leaders’ teams in their first election campaigns. Regardless of their experience, it is easy to infer from their various writings that most campaign journalists are tired, dazed and disoriented. They are sick of being herded from one pic-fac to another, told nothing, given no time to absorb or analyse, and no latitude to report anything other than the message of the day.

It is no wonder then, that they subvert the process by ignoring the strangled notes of the squeeze-box and dance instead to their own tune, asking the most inconvenient and embarrassing questions, and attempting to catch the Leader off guard? Is this natural reaction enough to justify their policy-free questions?

No it’s not. But it should also be remembered that the campaign we see on the nightly news is no more than a flimsy facade. The only campaign that really matters is being deployed in the marginal seats. The purpose of the national campaign is to maintain the status quo (not lose any “tribal” voters) and secure enough supportive voters’ attention/engagement to guarantee they turn up on polling day.

Most policy announcements are designed to do nothing more than grab a headline to reassure a particular demographic. While it is understandable that amateur politicos would like to see genuine analysis of these policies, it’s worth remembering that most political journalists are not policy specialists and do not have a good understanding of how policy is developed or implemented. As a consequence, they pay less attention to these processes and only focus on what they know – the political dimension of policy.

In closing, let me remind you of one small matter. While I have lamented in the past that we do not elect our media, we are ultimately still responsible for their behaviour and their output. At no time have ordinary citizens had more power than now to shape their news media; with their purchasing power, with their voices and with their keyboards. I look forward to reading further contributions to this debate!

Postscript: This excellent piece by senior political journalist Tony Wright is an illuminating addition to the subject

This post was also featured at The Notion Factory.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

12 thoughts on “Don’t mistake the organ-grinder for the lion-tamer: the media and the 2010 federal election”

  1. Dear Dragonista, niece piece, carefully thought through, and valid points raised. The stunning thing that wacks me in the head is the gaping hole at the center of this current election and the media coverage. The gaping hole is the inability of the political process to engage the real issues for the average voter. The steamroller political campaigns of both major parties have their big ticket items. The media has its need to get the colour and texture of the personalities and the hot button topics; Boats, Money, Sex, Religion, Crime, Fashion, Gossip, Power, Bribes, Ego, Australian Pride, Racism. Here’s a typical headline :
    Homosexual Greenies selling Drugs to fund their Political Agenda to Bring in Illegal Immigrants wearing Gucci and Using their Iphones to blow up Bombs in the Suburbs.
    No, you’re right, it’s not a typical headline, because (a)there isn’t room on a frontpage to put it (b) there are more than five words and the ideal headline is short, BUT, if the typical newspaper in the boondocks could print the above, it’d sell the issue like hotcakes.
    There is a distance between the primitive and primordial protective family instincts and the sophisticated cynical voter. Much of the media is playing a wild game between these two. Plenty of mud, blood and tears, but bugger the development of debate and the important issues.
    Media like 4 corners and the ABC can’t illuminate the nation on their own. The ABC is always accused of bias, anyway, by both sides.
    Yes, there are plenty of other people putting out forums, intelligent websites and thoughtful campaigns.
    I hope the true voice of Australia gets heard. The democratic process is too important for the election to be limited to the most emotional, the loudest talkers and the biggest spin.
    Good luck to all of us, and thanks for your work.

    1. I’ve often wondered why Australians don’t value their vote or the democratic process. Usually, I come to the conclusion that it’s because we (and I mean this in a non-gender specific way) did not fight for our vote. For my part, I didn’t seek to understand political philosophy or processes until after I had joined a political party! I quickly added politics to my minor streams while at uni and railed quite often about the fact that people would be more engaged if they understood more about political history and for that they needed to …… be more engaged. Um. Oh well. And now I have turned full circle, withdrawing from the party 30 years ago and now deciding not to vote at all.

  2. Very interesting piece and confirms what I suspected – journalists reacted against media management and spin, just as the press did in the UK with the Blair government whose media spinmeister was the machiavellian Alastair Campbell. However, the difference was the media didn’t degenerate into a trivia obsessed clique but instead went after Blair’s government with hard questions that actually had some intelligence underpinning them.
    The Oz media generally (there are exceptions) has appallingly low standards and that, I think, is the fundamental problem. Labor has a lot to learn from its debacle of a campaign and needs to abandon its spin and media management. Meanwhile, the media posse need to substantially lift their game.

  3. this lefty media bias i keep hearing so much about, can you point out where it actually exists in organisations like, oh i don’t know, our only national broadsheet? or in any paper in Qld? Or perhaps online somewhere with news limited?

    I will give you the abc, but I think this is rather a function of those who self select to work for a public institution which is more driven by ethical reporting, than those who choose to work for private institutions, who are more naturally driven by readership and therefore sensationalism.

    And you conveniently leave out that up until his unprecedented third term in power, the media did not support Beazley in opposition but fronted strongly for Howard. I don’t think this a conservative conspiracy, but just because Beazley was the most useless bastard on the planet.

  4. People accuse the media of bias, but the trouble is the media is often biased towards the trivial, the shocking and the simplistic . People of all kinds of backgrounds are multi-dimensional.
    It was interesting to see on Australian TV a turbaned bloke with beard expressing complaint about “boat people” invading Australia, in thickly accented English. Maybe he’s become an insecure parochial Aussie and bypassed the laid back “fair go” aspect. Good luck to him, it reminds me of the rural Australians talking literature with Les Murray. They’re not just hard living folks out there.
    People are complex, but the media acts like we’re robots. “Press button A to get result B”.
    AT least articles like Dragonistas allow for depth of thought. Thanks again.

  5. Nice blog! D

    I always value democracy and the fifth estate

    I engaged in an experiment of my own with a stint of amateur investigative journalism


    I had discovered some interesting info that i fowarded to a respected source of the fifth estate that became a decent story

    Gold was struck

    With some hard work and research,as a citizen journalist ,anything can happen!!

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