March 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Tony Abbott’s war on information

By Sean Kelly
Why a good media strategy is no way to run a country

Canberra is a city fuelled by secrets. In a place where people are paid well but rarely as much as they are worth, information is the real currency. It can buy you access, influence and power. In much the same way that wealth dictates glamour and hierarchy in other cities, the information you hold determines where in the pecking order you sit in Canberra. Prime ministers and their cabinets are up top, above an eclectic mix of senior journalists, bureaucrats and political staffers – mostly in that order.

Right now, we are witnessing an audacious experiment in centralised currency control. Tony Abbott and his office have issued instructions to government ministers that restrict their access to journalists and, therefore, to the public. All media requests must be approved by a member of the prime minister’s staff. Abbott himself is giving fewer press conferences than his immediate predecessors. He is perhaps harking back to a much earlier time when things seemed better, gentler, refusing to accept those days are past. But being out of date has never seemed to worry Abbott. Early in his prime ministership, when he said, “Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics,” he was following on from Malcolm Fraser’s 40-year-old line about getting politics off the front page.

That’s not to say Abbott’s general sentiment is misplaced. After the past few years, we could all do with some blessed relief. But these days it is easier said than done. News editors and journalists find themselves under increasing commercial pressure to meet not just one print deadline but infinite online deadlines spread throughout the day. The appetites of 24-hour TV news networks are more startling still. There is an endless demand for content.

Learning where the boundaries lie between what you can control, what you can’t and what you shouldn’t even try to is one of the fine arts of governing. Much has been written about the Rudd government’s obsession with winning the daily news cycle, and how that media strategy was in some ways to blame for Kevin Rudd’s eventual demise.

The critics are partially correct. I was a press secretary in that office, and that was my job: to do everything I could to ensure that what wound up on the television news that night played our way. (And make no mistake, whatever the hype about “new media”, the nightly news reports still reign supreme in politics.) Often enough, the evening broadcasts were driven by what had led in the newspapers that morning, so an enormous amount of energy was spent trying to influence them as well.

Every day, a media assistant, some bright young thing with a head for politics, would pick up the newspapers around 3.30 am and then, arriving at the office by 4 am, would compile a summary of every political story in every major newspaper in the country. Meanwhile, a specialised team of three would commence putting together the ‘Round the World’ (a brief named for the way football broadcasters would go “round the grounds” for live scores), covering the major stories the prime minister was likely to be asked about should he hold a press conference. At 6 am there was a telephone hook-up with press secretaries across government, to ensure our office knew what other surprises might be in store. If a minister were facing the media that day, he or she would receive a copy of the ‘Round the World’, so that everyone in government was singing from the same song sheet. All of this was in aid of Covering Every Base, preventing Gaffes and ensuring that the government’s message Cut Through.

I say the critics are only “partially correct” because there is nothing wrong with this as a media strategy. The problem arises when it becomes your governance strategy. One example will suffice. In late 2009, a deal was reached with the Malcolm Turnbull–led Opposition to deliver an emissions trading scheme. If that deal had held, history might have been different. Perhaps Rudd would still be prime minister today. Instead, I spent every afternoon in the press gallery, spruiking division within the Coalition. The aim was to stoke discontent on their side, leading to troublesome media stories for them and a victory in the nightly news skirmish for us. As a media strategy, it succeeded brilliantly. Not so much on the governing side: the widening split in the Opposition led to Abbott’s ascension and the defeat of the emissions trading scheme in the Senate. Never has there been a clearer case of winning the battle and losing the war.

I spent every afternoon spruiking division within the Coalition. As a media strategy, it succeeded brilliantly. Not so much on the governing side.

Political leaders sometimes overbalance in their attempts to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors. Abbott is no different. Just twice a month he has offered a press conference to the combined might of the Canberra press gallery. Relative to Rudd and Julia Gillard, he gives fewer interviews. Meanwhile, Scott Morrison, Abbott’s minister for immigration and border protection, has reduced the flow of information about the handling of boat arrivals – an area of intense public focus – to something between a trickle and a drought.

I have devoted years of my life to communications. I have seen first hand that it is possible, for very long stretches at a time, to micromanage the media cycle effectively. Even so, I believe that communication rarely plays anything other than a marginal role in the fortunes of a government. There are political analysts who will disagree but I like to think this will come as a relief to most voters: it is what a government actually does that finally determines its success. Political choices – about which policies to pursue and when – matter immensely. But what a government says about those choices is secondary at best.

So does Abbott’s constricted communication with the public really matter? Even better, if he focuses on governing rather than communicating, mightn’t this be a good thing? Might it even be the correct response to the new media environment he is operating in?

The public is flooded with content: blogs, breaking news, opinions. A fact, once reported, can spiral into countless impassioned rants coming at us via Twitter, panels of talking heads and 24-hour news channels.

The Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy, one of the most thoughtful analysts of this new phase of media, notes that in a sped-up cycle “information can assume disproportionate importance”. Fewer and fewer readers wait for daily deliveries anymore; instead, they click from their desk all day. They deprive themselves of the traditional filter of time, of experienced editors making thoughtful choices about which news deserves front-page coverage. Such curation is the great loss of the internet age. Instead, we get a constant stream of “news” that seems significant only because it has just happened.

Morrison has stopped commenting on almost anything. His office often fails to return phone calls, or answer the most basic of questions.

The absence of clear gatekeepers partly explains what Abbott and Morrison are doing. They are claiming the role themselves, having determined that the way the media now works means there are no other effective filters in existence.

In a wise article on this chaotic stage in the development of news, Liberal pollster Mark Textor had some advice for politicians. Specifically: “The most successful leaders in the next few years will be those who slow the political and comment process down enough for voters to catch up.”

It is clear Abbott has taken this advice. And it’s not just partisans like Textor who are giving it. Channel Nine’s veteran political editor Laurie Oakes, while broadly critical of the government’s tendency towards secrecy, has conceded the need for a corrective to the frenzy of the past few years.

They’re right. When so much of our public rhetoric is influenced by social media, “transparency” is too often taken to be its own justification. In his excellent book about internet as religion, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov details the case of the activist who used publicly available data to create an online map pinpointing the homes of ordinary Californian citizens who had donated money to opposing gay marriage. It was “transparency” that had enabled him to do so.

Imagine if Labor, upon coming to power, had decided, just as Scott Morrison has, not to announce every boat arrival as it happened. No doubt they – like Morrison – would have been pilloried. But imagine if they had argued that for too long Australia had made too much of boat arrivals, that planes rather than boats were the main problem in bringing asylum seekers to our shores, that they weren’t going to play into the hands of the right-wing press by pandering to the idea that every asylum seeker who arrived by boat was newsworthy. It is possible to imagine the Left taking up this argument with fervour. Instead, the Left is attacking Morrison for secrecy.

Of course, Morrison didn’t just stop announcing every boat arrival as it happened. He has stopped commenting on almost anything. His office often fails to return phone calls, or answer the most basic of questions. He limited briefings to weekly events and then replaced those weekly briefings with weekly printed statements. It’s very difficult to interview a printed statement.

What Abbott and Morrison have evidently missed, or decided to ignore, was the rest of Textor’s advice:

How do you slow down the derivatives market in analysis and help bring the consumer up to speed? By giving simple, unfiltered information … [Voters] are now in desperate need of compelling primary information to show what the truth is.

In a democracy, whichever party happens to be in power has a responsibility to conduct a conversation with the electorate. The government needs to explain what it is doing, and why. On this measure, the prime minister and his minister are failing in their duties. Of course, they can always respond: “If the people don’t like how we conduct ourselves, they will chuck us out.” But that is not good enough. Between now and the next election lie two and a half long years.

At his campaign launch last year, Tony Abbott declared the election was “all about trust”. In a democracy, that trust goes both ways. At some point, one imagines, voters will come to realise that their prime minister does not trust them with information. If it is true that governments are judged on their actions, Abbott would do well to remember that keeping secrets is an action in itself.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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