Are pollies’ kids fair game in political journalism?

We already know the line between public and private has become impossibly thin since the advent of the internet and our avid uptake of social media.

Potential employers can not only check the veracity of jobseeker claims, but also what they do after hours, the “type” of people they associate with, and the extent to which they’re more diligent at skolling beers than getting to work on time. The same goes for people looking for that one special person (or not, as the case may be) and parents checking up on their kids or keeping in touch with extended families.

Enhanced privacy settings have certainly helped to reduce any unwanted snooping that this online exposure can invite, but selective access to one’s social media profiles can be a two-edged sword if you’re a politician trying to engage online.

Any parliamentarian worth their salt knows online engagement is a two-way exercise. It’s not just about broadcasting the latest press release or speech on Twitter or Facebook, but making a genuine connection with voters. This interaction requires participating in real, unscripted conversations, which is a risk in itself. However the more savvy MPs seek to heighten the authenticity of their online presence by posting photos of themselves – often accompanied by their families – doing “normal” things to demonstrate how in touch they are with the “real world”.

This of course exposes politicians’ family members to a level of accessibility and scrutiny unknown before our lives went online. During John Howard’s time as PM, we barely saw his children other than on the podium on election night.

The tendency of Rudd and Abbott (or their campaign strategists) to impose their families on voters has been grasped by some elements of the political media as justification for treating politicians’ partners and kids as fair game.

This changed as political strategists on both sides of the fence, increasingly enamoured with US-style politics, started to emulate the Yanks’ habit of wheeling out politicians’ wives and children to increase their candidates’ “family credentials”. Hence the appearance of Kevin Rudd’s wife Therese spruiking her husband’s wares at a Labor campaign launch. The Rudds took this tactic even further during one of Rudd’s non-challenges against his successor Julia Gillard, when voters were treated to magazine articles and social media blitzes from both Therese and their daughter Jessica.

To date, only Tony Abbott has emulated the Rudds’ family-campaign efforts, rarely being seen on the election campaign trail without one or more of his telegenic daughters in an apparent effort to improve his standing with female voters.

This tendency of Rudd and Abbott (or their campaign strategists) to impose their families on voters has been grasped by some elements of the political media as justification for treating politicians’ partners and kids as fair game.

So we were treated during the last federal election campaign to an “expose” based on a Facebook photo of Rudd’s son smoking a cigar, apparently undermining the increase in cigarette tax that had ostensibly just been imposed to offset the burden placed by smokers on the health budget (as opposed to being a relatively painless tax grab).

And the intrusion into Frances Abbott’s private academic files (at the encouragement of senior colleagues and a media outlet) could arguably have had much less media cachet if she’d not been an almost permanent fixture alongside Tony Abbott during the election campaign, thereby becoming a proxy for attacks on her father.

In both these instances, a case can at least be made for the private lives of political children to be exposed to media scrutiny in the name of the public interest.

Yet there is no similar justification for the splashing of a toddler’s photo in the news media today simply because of the colour of her dress. The photo was apparently sourced from the public Facebook page of Greens Senator Larissa Waters, and published in order to demonstrate Waters’s alleged hypocrisy by equating her concern about gendered toys to being a “war against pink”.

While the photo was indeed in the public domain, its use in this way bordered on the irresponsible.

The actions of a child do not invalidate the political positions of their parents and it is nonsense to suggest so.

To reduce any future temptation to make that allegation, perhaps it is time to reconsider the role of MPs’ children when it comes to election campaigning and ongoing political life. Even US President Barack Obama may be inclined to rethink the merit of including his daughters in “benign” photo opportunities since the Thanksgiving Turkey incident.

Having a politician for a parent is tough enough: parliamentarian parents are rarely at home and even when they are home they’re either on the phone, glued to the television, or simply tired and cranky. MPs’ kids shouldn’t have to contend with specific media attention because they’ve been used to enhance their parent’s political brand, nor should they be used in an attempt to bring a politician down.

It’s time to end the use of kids as political props, and for campaign strategists to concede the value of doing so is outweighed by the additional burden it places on politicians’ families.

Coalition needs a better budget, not better PR

It’s hard to know why some of the Abbott Government’s biggest and most vocal media supporters have chosen the past week to complain about its abysmal performance.

Other than the Government’s abysmal performance, of course.

Last week’s Newspoll shows Labor has a 10-point lead on the Coalition once notional preferences are distributed, and that any increased approval rating for the Government from the national security issue has been short-lived.

This deterioration confirms the trend highlighted by polling analyst Andrew Catsaras on yesterday’s Insiders program, in which the Abbott Government is consistently faring less well than it did at the federal election. This is in stark contrast to the first-year polling performance of the previous Howard and Rudd governments:

… for the first 15 months the Howard government averaged a vote of 55.5 per cent, 2 per cent higher than the election. The Rudd government averaged a vote of 57 per cent, over 4 per cent higher than the election. Whereas the Abbott Government has averaged a vote of 48.5 per cent, 5 per cent lower than the election.

Catsaras also emphasised that polls are reflective, not predictive, so it’s curious why members of the Government’s conservative media cheer squad have turned into nervous nellies two years out from the next federal election.

Yet rightwing shock jock (and staunch Coalition supporter) Alan Jones berated the PM last week for failing to meet the “pub test” on the free trade agreement with China. Conservative blogger (and arguably the nation’s biggest Coalition fan) Andrew Bolt followed swiftly with a 19-point deconstruction of the Government’s woes entitled “The Abbott Government must now change or die”. And then The Australian newspaper, which has unambiguously nailed its colours to the Coalition mast, joined the lament with an editorial insisting that “The Abbott Government is doomed without narrative”:

Limply, the Prime Minister is losing the battle to define core issues and to explain to voters what he is doing and why. At stake is his political credibility, no less. Mr Abbott risks becoming a “oncer” if he allows his opponents to constantly control the agenda.

Amongst this litany of complaints, the common thread is that the Abbott Government’s problem is one of poor communication; that the Coalition’s less than sterling performance would be remedied with better media staff, a more strategic approach to communications, and a narrative.

These could help, but as former prime ministers Rudd and Gillard could attest, a slick media strategy or strong narrative are of no help to a flailing government if its political decisions are flawed and its policies untenable.

The Abbott Government is not lacking a narrative, as claimed by The Australian, but saddled with one that is not of its choosing. Having been presented with the Government’s weasel words and black-is-white recasting of commitments and lies, voters have taken a lead not from its rhetoric but the Coalition’s actions to identify its narrative.

In its own words, The Australian’s editorial best encapsulates that narrative:

Voters are left with the impression that Mr Hockey’s May budget was a litany of broken promises, designed to inflict severe pain on low-income workers and the poor, and that the deficit crisis was not as acute as the Coalition presented it.

Well, yes.

And there is next to nothing, in the Government’s words or deeds, to suggest that voters should think otherwise.

Voters did feel more receptive to the Prime Minister when he was fulfilling his “protector of the realm” role after the MH17 tragedy and in response to the heightened terrorist threat from Islamic State, but that perception took a hit at the G20 when Abbott ended up looking cowardly and weak through no-one’s efforts but his own.

This has increased the pressure on Treasurer Joe Hockey to successfully “sell” the budget and the Government’s broader economic reforms in order to protect its only remaining perceived strength – that of superior economic management. Hockey’s next best chance to retrieve this sales job is the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook report, which is due in December.

The Government could roll out a shiny new narrative at that time, which more successfully pitches the prosperous Australian future that will emerge as the result of everyone taking on their “fair share” of the burden created by the necessary economic reforms.

And Coalition MPs could refrain from foolishly drawing attention away from that message with political self-indulgences like cigars, Knights and Dames awards, whining about being unloved, or Gonski-type triple backflips.

But none of this will be enough.

As Abbott’s mentor, former PM Howard, made clear when he spoke at the National Press Club earlier this year, the community will only respond favourably to the type of change envisioned in the Coalition’s budget if it is satisfied the reforms are in the national interest and fundamentally fair.

And there’s the rub. The Abbott Government won’t be able to satisfy this fundamental requirement. The budget is neither in the national interest nor fair, and no compelling narrative or fine media strategy will be able to fix that.

Boston news coverage – first is not best

Photo: Gawker.com
Photo: Gawker.com

Here’s my latest at AusVotes 2013…

Modern journalism is impoverished by the anachronistic need to be first.

Once upon a time, in the pre-internet days of the mechanical printing press and morning edition newspapers, there was real value in getting a story first. A scoop, leak or exclusive wasn’t just about journalistic cachet, it was about cold hard cash. Being first meant selling more newspapers than your competitors, by having a story they didn’t have until their next editions rolled off the presses.

As a result journalistic merit was, and often still is, measured by being first instead of best. Walkley awards have been handed out for scoops that resulted not from investigative journalism but journalists being strategically chosen by political players to be the recipient of leaked information.

This journalistic mind-set has not adapted to the digital age of instantaneity. While someone can still get a buzz from being the first to tweet an important piece of information, there is no monetary value that can be extracted from this primacy. [An increased Klout score resulting from 20,000 retweets doesn’t qualify.]

The redundant need to be first is mistakenly still equated with ‘winning’ and it sits at the heart of what is wrong with modern journalism. It drives journalists to publish half-baked stories and poorly-verifiedinformation. It encourages the substitution of analysis with opinion. In short it rewards shoddy journalism.

Click here to keep reading…

Patsys, players and the future of Australia’s political media

Here’s my latest post for the AusVotes 2013 federal election blog…

The most significant thing that emerged from the mea culpas and post mortems that littered the coup-that-wasn’t battlefield was the notion that journalists are willing to be made patsys.

What other explanation can there be for the role the media played in the Rudd camp’s most recent premature leadership tourney?

Seasoned journalists proved yet again their willingness to publicly be made to look fools in return for being able to participate in private leadership maneuverings.

Click here to read more…

One more time (with feeling)

I’ve written before about the Canberra Press Gallery’s changes of heart when it comes to Tony Abbott.

Back in October last year, I pondered whether the tide was beginning to turn when a slew of serious journalists simultaneously started to question the ongoing viability of the Opposition Leader’s negativity and policy free zone.

While Abbott’s relentless campaign continued, the level of scrutiny and gallery scepticism demonstrated in the October articles did not. By February this year, the only political writer to objectively scrutinise Abbott’s headland speech to the National Press Club was GrogsGamut.

Then in August, it was deja vu all over again, this time prompted by an excoriating Tim Dunlop piece arguing that if Tony Abbott didn’t exist the press gallery would have had to invent him. While Leigh Sales got much of the kudos for belling the Abbott cat a few days later, pretty much every serious political journalist took the Opposition Leader to task following the Dunlop piece.

That was in August. At the time, I wondered whether the press gallery would again lose interest in holding Abbott to account. Many journalists did indeed become distracted with other matters during September including the first 50/50 Newspoll, Lindsay Tanner’s book tour and Kevin Rudd’s various “look at moi” moments. But there was also “the punch” revelations in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay and the government’s attempts to leverage them against Abbott. October then brought us the event now known universally as the Prime Minister’s “misogyny speech”.

But it has not been until this week’s sitting of federal parliament, in the face of Abbott’s resolute determination to stick to his “stop the tax, stop the boats” mantra, that gallery journalists have begun to question the Opposition Leader’s political judgement.

Initially, the AFR’s Geoff Kitney gave a clear-eyed explanation of Abbott’s tactics, noting that the Opposition Leader is an instinctive populist:

On the day when a new Newspoll showed the Coalition and Labor tied on 50 per cent each of the two-party preferred vote, boosting the government’s confidence that Gillard is gaining the upper hand over Abbott, the opposition’s tactics seemed to Labor MPs (and no doubt to a lot of Coalition MPs) to be strange.

Labor MPs (and the same doubting Coalition MPs) are beginning to think that Abbott has failed to notice that some of the horses he has been flogging are dead.

That Abbott so blatantly ignored the government’s [Asian Century white paper] agenda suggests that his own private polling is telling him that the issues that dominate the tabloid and talk-back media are still political winners for the Coalition.

But his judgment is now facing its biggest test since the last election.

Since then, though, less and less confidence has been reflected by writers usually considered more supportive of the Coalition. Former Liberal staffer Peter van Onselen and conservative journalist Jennifer Hewett both drew parallels between Abbott and his former boss John Hewson, who lost the unloseable election to Paul Keating. Meantime, the Daily Telegraph’s Simon Benson compared Abbott with another ill-fated, budgie smuggler-wearing opposition leader, Peter Debnam. Even Coalition flag-bearer Dennis Shanahan expressed his doubts.

Abbott’s easiest days as Opposition Leader are behind him as he moves into a period where the polls tighten, the frustration about an “early” election among voters will ease as an election nears and he will be more closely assessed as an alternative prime minister.

… Of course, Abbott won’t and can’t stop his carbon tax campaign because it would be suicidal for his credibility and a shift from a genuine area of public concern. There is clear evidence that Abbott’s aggressive campaign against the carbon tax has cost him personal support. His daily media appearance in a fluoro vest or hard hat is losing its appeal and appropriateness as the Opposition Leader needs to become more authoritative and considered.

Does the gallery really mean it this time? Have they finally set their forensic scopes on the Opposition Leader? Will we see sustained pressure on Abbott over the coming months to relinquish his mantra and deliver policies that are not only costed but funded?

I doubt it. The Christmas holidays are too close and the 2013 election is too far away (in relative terms). Aside from a few more demands for “less door stops and more policy”, I suspect most of the political media will close up shop and take an early vacation as soon as parliament rises at the end of November.

Yet again, Tony Abbott will win a reprieve. Whether this is enough to win him the 2013 election is another matter altogether.