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Change of tack on media cycle proves less is more

19 October 2013 495 views No Comment

The PM has wisely realised journalism’s frantic pace in incompatible with good government, writes ROSS FITZGERALD

CHANGES to the communications landscape pose enormous challenges for the executives of companies in the traditional media of print newspapers and radio and television stations.

The loss to internet companies of the “rivers of gold” classified advertising that underpinned the profitability of ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ and ‘The Age’ is a prime example.

Other developments include the emergence of 24-hour news services such as SkyNews Australia and the availability of CNN, BBC World, Al Jazeera and others that are rapidly becoming a news mainstay.

Social media is increasingly a platform for news dissemination; bloggers are growing in influence, some sites commanding huge followings; while smartphones are a powerful news-gathering tool.

The intense competition between existing media companies and these challengers makes for a frenetic daily media cycle, with print, television and radio journalists under enormous pressure to constantly find new material.

The political class is also being tested. In 2007, then opposition leader Kevin Rudd threw himself into this increasingly manic media cycle with unbridled enthusiasm as he recognised its potential to assist him in outsmarting the wily John Howard.

Rudd fed the media’s insatiable desire for new stories with a stream of interviews, media appearances, policy announcements and stunts.

His modus operandi was to make an announcement that would generate what he hoped would be positive headlines and commentary, then make another announcement designed to distract from any detailed scrutiny of the previous one.

From the moment he took the Labor leadership in late 2006 until the 2007 election, it was one long, uninterrupted Kevin Rudd media-fest.

To his credit, the strategy was brilliantly executed and Rudd won the 2007 election convincingly, unseating the formerly invincible Howard.

Seduced by the even greater exposure that comes from occupying our highest office, Rudd used the full resources of government to dominate the media agenda more than any previous prime minister.

With his popularity in the stratosphere, Rudd could have relaxed his drive, yet his desire for even greater coverage of his daily routine, including through his large following on Twitter, bordered on the obsessive.

It took some time for Rudd to discover the phenomenon that built his popularity could just as easily turn against him and undermine it. This is because the proper processes of government are largely incompatible with the frantic pace of the media cycle.

The task of developing policy and drafting legislation, maintaining orderly cabinet processes and engaging with other parliamentarians is far too slow and cumbersome for journalists facing pressure to come up with stories on at least a daily and, more commonly, an hourly basis.

Rudd chose to compromise the process of government by applying far less rigour in order to accommodate his embrace of the media cycle.

This approach was adopted by his successor, Julia Gillard, who also appeared captive to the frenetic daily media cycle.

As opposition leader, Tony Abbott also bought in to the daily media cycle, with press conferences and photo opportunities at least daily and, more usually, many times each day. But his was a carefully choreographed campaign against the carbon tax, as relentless as it was effective.

Abbott’s three-word slogans (much lampooned by Labor) were cleverly calculated to send a simple but powerful message to the disengaged voters in marginal seats around the nation, and particularly those on the fringes of large cities.

Abbott’s commitment to this long-term strategy was tested when Rudd reclaimed the leadership from Gillard and re-adopted his manic style of 2007.

Many commentators assumed he would outsmart the slower-moving Abbott in the same way that Howard had been defeated.

It was also assumed a change of strategy from the Coalition would be required. To his credit, Abbott held firm and did not deviate from an approach that had brought down two prime ministers in four years. Yet the shift in his media strategy since the election has taken many by surprise.

As Prime Minister, Abbott has changed tack in dramatic fashion by largely disengaging from the 24-hour media cycle that he had so effectively exploited just weeks earlier.

Abbott has decided that less is more and, learning from the mistakes of the previous Labor leaders, is only making substantive announcements from time to time, without running a commentary on day-to-day issues.

Most of his senior ministers have followed Abbott’s example and have refrained from the endless round of doorstops and interviews demanded by the media.

Prior to the election, supported by the government’s constant information releases on new boat arrivals, opposition spokesman on immigration Scott Morrison was highly effective in exposing Labor’s failures on border protection.

But he has now significantly limited the number of interviews and press conferences he is undertaking and is providing weekly, rather than minute-by-minute, updates on asylum-seeker boat arrivals.

Labor has condemned this approach as embodying a culture of secrecy. It is, in fact, a smart way to deal with the siren call of the media new age.

Some in the media have struggled with the notion that the new government can influence the tone and tempo of media coverage to suit its agenda.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop received prominent coverage during her trip to the UN General Assembly, competently chairing sessions of the Security Council as Australia held the rotating presidency last month. Yet when she refused to reveal her confidential discussions with the Indonesian Foreign Minister, the Australian media pack in New York could hardly contain its frustration.

The journalists were clearly not accustomed to a foreign minister more concerned with her official responsibilities than grandstanding in the media.

Abbott and his team are right to seek to avoid the seduction of feeding the seemingly insatiable media cycle, and to focus on steady and reliable processes that will underpin good government.

This could be bad news for federal Labor, as it means the Coalition is laying firm foundations for long-term government.

Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir ‘My Name is Ross: an Alcoholic’s Journey’ is available as an e-book and as a talking book, read by Ross himself.

THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN, OCTOBER 19 -20, 2013, INQUIRER, p 18