I’m not one to jump to the defence of Tony Abbott. Regular visitors to this blog know I’m more likely to criticise him and offer gratuitous advice.
But last night I found myself defending Abbott’s non-response to an offensive line of questioning from a journalist.
Early reports of the incident suggested that Abbott was gobsmacked by the footage of him using a ribald colloquialism in a clumsy attempt to show blokeish empathy with his defence force hosts. It was said that he could do nothing more than stare silently at the journalist.
In reality, Tony Abbott responded to the journalist several times and, when the reporter tried to mimic an old Kerry O’Brien tactic by asking the same question over and over, Abbott chose to say nothing rather than dignify it with an answer. Which is in fact what he said once the hack finished his poor imitation of O’Brien.
In retrospect, what gratuitous advice would I give the Oppostion Leader? Absolutely none.
As a former media adviser with a communications background rather than a journalistic one, I believe Abbott did the best he could.
What were his options?
1. Keep answering the question? If he had done so the journalist would have taken the next line of questioning – will you apologise, is this the type of behaviour befitting an alternative PM, will you resign? Acknowledging any of these questions with an answer, even if it is merely a repetition of your own message, will send you down the slippery slide of indefensible questions.
2. Walk away? Abbott found out during the recent federal election campaign that refusing to answer questions and walking away from a media event, even if it is merely a photo op, is deemed equivalent to running away and will be portrayed as such.
3. Hit back – either orally or physically? As much as Abbott would have liked to, this clearly was not an option.
Which leaves us with Option 4: say your piece, wait out the journalist’s attempt to further Shanghai you, then say your piece again. If the journalist persists, stay silent again until he/she gives up.
In choosing to meet this line of questioning with silence, Abbott used the aural equivalent of a simple tactic used by celebrities to ruin paparazzi photos by closing their eyes and rendering the shot unpublishable. On rare occasions such as this one, the closed eyes or deliberate silence become the story due to the determination of the media outlet to have a story, and nothing more.
In reality, Abbott was on a hiding to nothing no matter what he did, and he chose the option that would minimise the damage to him. I believe this will be borne out in the hours and days ahead.
Post script: This article by Crikey reports that the “shit happens” comment was found by accident after Channel 7 FOIed the Defence Department footage to obtain vision of Abbott shooting a variety of guns. It was this that the Opposition Leader’s office was resisting being released to the public. However, Crikey also reports that Abbott was given a couple of hours notice about the line of questioning that Riley intended to use.