Spinning out of Control

By Cole, Malcolm | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Spinning out of Control


Cole, Malcolm, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


By adopting the media management tactics of state Labor governments, Julia Gillard has set her government on a collision course with The Australian, writes Malcolm Cole.

Julia Gillard's recent complaints about the Press Gallery's short attention span may have some credibility, were it not for her Government's own track record in dealing with the media.

Exasperated by what she claims is a lack of interest in deep policy discussion, Gillard has laid the blame squarely at the feet of political reporters and analysts.

Answering questions at the Queensland Media Club on October 12, Gillard lectured journalists that ?not everything can be reduced to a tweet.'

'As you're doing the press conference, someone is tweeting about it. Whilst you're doing the press conference a journalist is doing a stand up using you as a back drop. By the time you've walked back to your office, journalists are interviewing journalists about what the announcement may or may not mean, and two hours later someone is ringing my press secretary saying "have you got a story for us?"'

She continued the theme in a little-reported speech to the Rotary Club of Adelaide on November 9, where she bemoaned ?the false urgency of commentators demanding a decision in time for the weekend's features.'

Gillard's charge that the media cycle rolls on faster than ever before has some merit. Stories that may once have run for several days now become ?old' within hours of their announcement.

As she says, media conferences to announce major initiatives are televised live on Sky News and ABC News 24. Stories are updated throughout the day on news websites and radio. They are pulled apart in political talk shows on both 24-hour news channels.

And the reinvention of journalists as social media celebrities means that Twitter is quickly abuzz with commentary and analysis.

All of this happens before the 6pm news, and well before the major daily newspapers have tackled the issue in print.

With such a volume of coverage -and record amounts of content needed to fill the airwaves and cyber space-it's no wonder the media is ever keen to find the next story.

But that's only part of the problem.

The Labor Party owns at least an equal share of the blame for the short media attention span of which it now complains.

It is largely the product of the media management model devised by the Carr Government in New South Wales, perfected by the governments of Peter Beattie and Mike Rann, and exported to Canberra by Kevin Rudd.

It's a model of permanent election campaigning, where media announcements are the government's raison d'être, and where the primary goal is to ?win' the evening news bulletin.

Any scandal, problem or policy failure tossed into the public domain in the morning media cycle must be neutralised by the time the news themes are played at 6pm. Not solved, not dealt with in any meaningful manner-simply made to go away in time for the evening bulletins.

Issues that simply won't go away are countered with a big ?announceable'-a genuine announcement if one is at hand, or a quickly concocted one if necessary.

In New South Wales, it's the Western Sydney Rail Link-announced and re-announced to the point of comedy any time the government was under pressure. Queensland has had Olympic bids and cross-river bridges that lasted only as long as the government's political woes.

The ultimate goal is to keep the media cycle moving so quickly that there is no time for serious scrutiny or policy discussion. It is, in fact, governing for the six o'clock news.

This model arrived in Canberra wearing a Kevin07 t-shirt and sprouting slogans that didn't stand up to serious scrutiny, but didn't need to as long as there was another topic, another photo opportunity or a new slogan to keep the cycle moving.

It continued to work in federal government for the early part-during those heady days when the promises of cheaper petrol, lower grocery prices and a solution to global warming still excited the national imagination.

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