The Politics    Monday, April 13, 2015

How politicians read newspapers

By Sean Kelly

How politicians read newspapers
Getting out the magnifying glass

Today, I want to zero in on a short article of apparently little consequence. Darren Davidson at the Australian reports that Malcolm Turnbull has been snubbed by the prime minister, who has chosen to meet with the heads of channels Seven, Nine and Ten without him, despite the fact that Turnbull is the communications minister, and therefore responsible for commercial television.

It’s interesting because it highlights how very differently people in Canberra read news compared to everyone else in the country.  

A simple interpretation of that article rests on its reported facts: the communications minister probably should have been invited to the meetings, but wasn’t. This may or may not be a sign of tension between Abbott and Turnbull. It may or may not affect media reform. End of story.

But those in Canberra are reading the article through a filter of guessed-at motivations, most of which surround the Liberal leadership.

The main guessing game would revolve around who alerted the press to the story, and who wanted the snub angle in there (news of the meetings, though without the snub accusations, first ran in the SMH). The article quotes “a high-placed observer”, who says that it was “unusual” for Turnbull not to be invited: “If the government had a meeting on economic reforms, you would expect Joe Hockey to be there.”

“High-placed observer” is a brilliant term of art. It sounds important yet is incredibly vague. “Senior government source”, in comparison, is still vague, but at least you know it’s somebody involved in government, perhaps a senior staffer, possibly a minister. “High-placed observer” – let’s call him or her the HPO – could be anyone: a TV executive, somebody in Abbott’s office, a senior Liberal MP with influence, perhaps even Turnbull himself. The term may have been the invention of the journalist, or of the source; most likely it was agreed between them.

In the next paragraph, Davidson states that a spokesman for Turnbull “would not comment”, which some might think puts Turnbull in the clear. On the contrary: it is not unheard of for an MP to provide an anonymous comment while deliberately keeping their spokesperson in the dark in order to facilitate the “no comment” response later on. It hasn’t happened to me (so far as I know) but I know it’s happened to others.

In other words, “no comment” gives us no clues at all.

The HPO argues that Turnbull should have been invited to the meeting, which might suggest the HPO is someone on Turnbull’s side. But Davidson follows that up with implicit criticism of Turnbull’s previous handling of media reform, something you are unlikely to read in a story that came from Turnbull or his supporters.

The anti-Turnbull camp would respond by saying that’s just a red herring: if anything it’s the clumsiness of the attempt to divert attention away from Turnbull that proves he’s at the base of it.

Then there would be questions about the purpose of the leak. Is it a warning shot from Turnbull to Abbott? Don’t act on media reform without my input or I’ll come at you. Is it an enemy of Abbott, trying to build tension between the two to stoke leadership debate? Is it a show of strength from Abbott to Turnbull, telling the potential leadership challenger that he won’t be backed into a corner on media reform or anything else? Is it an attempt by a TV executive to get Turnbull into the meetings, believing he is more sympathetic to the cause than Abbott?

Insiders will have observed the identity of the journalist too. Darren Davidson is a media reporter, not a federal political reporter, which might be an attempt by a federal politician to throw observers off the scent, or might just mean the story came from the media rather than political circles. Or is the fact that Abbott, Turnbull and Davidson are all from Sydney significant?

A lot of this is silly, obviously. Some of the speculation above is ridiculous. But it’s also how politicians think. And while it seems absurd, it’s also understandable – in the absence of clear facts, trying to string together disparate clues is all they have.

As I said at the outset, this particular article probably won’t change the course of politics in Australia. But as we approach the all-important budget, and the mooted June deadline for Liberal MPs to decide on whether Abbott gets to stay in his job, articles that prompt feverish speculation will flourish. If the politicians are going to be playing guessing games, I see no reason you should be excluded from the fun.  

Two polls out today from parallel universes, one showing a resurgent government, the other showing a dead-on-arrival government. Which should you pay attention to? Neither, of course – single polls are meaningless. I’ll rant about this another day, but for now the Financial Review has put together some great interactive graphs on the different polls and their average. My tip is to look at the trends over time, and draw your own conclusions.

The very-important-despite-being-entirely-predictable prize goes to Hillary Clinton for her announcement that she will run for president, with a two-minute video. Think-piece writers, start your engines. The best analysis I’ve read was this, explaining what the video tells us about Clinton’s campaign strategy. Vox has a history of campaign videos and an argument for why this is different. EJ Dionne says Clinton should model her campaign on the 1988 victory of George HW Bush. Oh, and she has a new logo. Cue the Benghazi memes.   

Why Australian politicians feel the need to buy into domestic US politics I do not know, but here they go, with Joe Hockey and Josh Frydenberg leading the charge. Their comments don’t sound quite as non-partisan to my ears as perhaps they had intended.

Yesterday, the prime minister announced that parents who do not vaccinate their children will not receive childcare payments and some family tax benefits. This is a good move. Refusing to vaccinate children imposes health risks and costs on the rest of the community for no good reason. Well done, Mr Abbott.

Violence against women is finally getting attention in public debate, though not always the right kind. Kate Iselin on why women don’t want to hear safety tips anymore – “not because we don’t want to change our behaviour but because we already have”.

A growing number of voters – still a minority, at 37%, but up from 30% a year ago – say they would support a GST increase. If that number climbs much higher the GST could still sneak onto the agenda for the next election.

Big media news: Ryan Stokes was today named Chief Executive of Seven Group Holdings, which has a large holding in Seven West Media, owner of Channel Seven and various print outlets. Stokes is a son of the chairman of Seven Group Holdings, Kerry Stokes. 

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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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