Blowing Media Bubbles Instead of Whistles: It’s Not Just Annabel Crabb Buttering Up Politicians

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In the spirit of this piece from Amy McQuire, Michael Brull blows the whistle on journalists who are too close to politicians for comfort.

“Kennedy was no fool. He knew, he understood right away. You want to get good press, a good record, butter up the intellectuals. Make them think you love them. And he did. In the early 1960s, in Cambridge, every morning on the Eastern shuttle Harvard and MIT professors were flying down to Washington to have lunch with Jackie and to say hello to Jack and talk to Dean and all that kind of stuff. And coming back in the evening just glowing with joy at how they were rubbing shoulders with royalty. And they were treating them nicely — probably making fun of them when they left — but they got a very good image. That’s where the Camelot story comes from.” – Noam Chomsky

In her terrific column on Kitchen Cabinet, my colleague Amy McQuire incisively discussed an important phenomenon, which has been, and will remain, under-discussed. That is, the easiest way for people to advance as journalists, commentators and media personalities is to serve the interests of the rich and powerful.

As McQuire observed, in the case of Crabb, she did her best to humanise former Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison (and before that, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, among others). She doesn’t spend her show humanising Morrison’s victims. If she did, it wouldn’t be a glamorous, light-hearted TV show with bipartisan appeal.

As it is, Crabb shows how loveable and down-to-earth politicians are, giving them access to a broad audience without any serious scrutiny. It increases Crabb’s access to the halls of power, visibility to the public, and a new nexus between the media and politicians is formed.

Traditionally, journalists were supposed to be adversarial, and keep the public informed about what politicians were doing and hold them accountable. Yet it is more lucrative for an aspiring journalist to simply become a conduit for this or that politician, or major political party.

By becoming known as a sympathetic medium for a particular message, a politician will release information and perhaps offer leaks through that journalist. News on politicians is generally considered news, and so the pages of Fairfax and Murdoch are filled with gossip from journalists breathlessly offering insights from the sources they’ve cultivated.

This pact between journalists and politicians tends to work out well for them; it just happens to exclude the rest of us.

We occasionally get glimpses of these relationships. Something will get leaked, and then journalists will print the speculation of others, reporting that this or that journalist is known as a favoured outlet for this or that politician.

In Australia, the problem is also unlikely to be the subject of much discussion. There are very few media outlets, and not many jobs in them. Critically discussing Fairfax, or the Murdoch press, is a good way to limit job prospects. The incestuous relationship between journalists and politicians is common to basically all major media outlets. As they mostly work together in a small pond, they tend not to critically discuss the work of colleagues.

Crabb isn’t the only example of the trend discussed above. Sometimes politicians and political groups are more or less openly connected to media figures. Below are just a few examples.

 

Fairfax

In June 2012, Daily Life columnist Clementine Ford was invited to tea with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and various other women. Ford shared her excitement and flattered ego with her readers:

She’d probably read some of my work and admired my pluck, reading bits aloud to Tim over breakfast while they guffawed at my ability to be both withering AND passionate at the same time. ‘Prime Minister,’ I practiced saying to the mirror, ‘I would be delighted to join your taskforce on the lacklustre representation of women in the media. Head it? Well, you’re right. That probably would make more sense.”

Ford acknowledged candidly why she and other women were there:

“It was a very savvy move on Gillard’s part. Women are the biggest producers and consumers of online content – if the Prime Minister’s looking to get people onside, female online media producers are an excellent place to start… Since then, a number of posts have appeared online raving about it, delivering a humanised version of the PM to a not insignificant number of voting readers. I’d say from her team’s perspective, it was a huge success. Objectively, I think it was a brilliant move… the guests were undoubtedly chosen for their influential sway over online media…

That is, she understood well that it was a public relations move by a Prime Minister seeking to court their influence on her behalf.

Ford seemed slightly troubled by her lack of influence on the Prime Minister.

I disagree with her on many of her platforms, in particular her diabolically strange opposition to same-sex marriage. While I was honoured to be invited, I found the tea party to be overwhelmingly restrictive in terms of appropriate conversation. It wasn’t a roundtable, or research for a taskforce or any of the things that might actually be able to make a difference – and when I finally had the opportunity to speak to Gillard that day, so crippled was I by the formal informality of the event that the only thing I felt safe mentioning was her fondness for vampire films.

After Gillard had been overthrown, her chief media adviser, John McTernan’s emails were leaked to the ABC. He directed a twitter army to attack enemies, and defend the interests of the government. For example, when one journalist stepped out of line, McTernan issued instructions, including “C. Direct him to twitter mockery D. Smash him.” That is, Gillard’s media team was undoubtedly interested in utilising the talents of those with substantial social media following, like Ford.

Ford soon overcame her minor qualms. Women for Gillard was created to “seek online ‘micro-donations’ from supporters’ credit cards to run digital, print and television ads.” It was launched in June 2013 with a speech by Ford.

Gillard thanked Ford “for that world-class introduction”. Her speech about men in blue ties didn’t go down very well, and soon Labor MPs started publicly wearing blue ties.

Yet a political relationship had been forged, and continued after Gillard. After Abbott won the election, Ford found a new ALP politician she thought was terrific

Tanya Plibersek, everyone’s favourite political girl crush, has been announced as the deputy Opposition Leader in Canberra today. I’ve been lucky enough to meet Plibersek once or twice. I’ve found her to be warm and engaging, while also in possession of a mind like a steel trap. So obvious are the facts of her integrity, vision and intellect that she enjoys the rare privilege of bipartisan respect. Even some of my LNP voting relatives have expressed admiration for Plibersek – and they live in Queensland…

But although Plibersek will have to, as the old adage goes, work twice as hard to be thought of as half as good, there’s no doubt that she’s more than qualified for the job. And while it’s a shame she hasn’t been elected to the leadership proper, I must admit to feeling relieved that she won’t be thrown to the wolves and torn apart before we truly need her to ascend to that position…

I welcome Plibersek’s election to the role of Deputy Leader. Heck, I’ll weep tears of joy when she becomes Prime Minister.

Earlier, she singled out for praise some ALP favourites: Plibersek, Penny Wong, and Jenny Macklin.

 

Murdoch press

Here, it’s relatively easy to show the connection between journalists and politicians. I’ll give just a few relatively straightforward examples.

Tony Abbott’s close relationship to the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt was no secret. When Bolt lost a case under the racially offensive speech provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act, Abbott immediately rallied to Bolt’s side.

As Prime Minister, he tried to change the law to protect Bolt if he said similar things in future. This attempt was deeply unpopular – 88 per cent of the public rejected the proposed changes. When Abbott eventually had to back down, he called Bolt to explain it was “off the table. I knew he would be disappointed”.

Bolt appreciated the efforts. For his part, he tended to defend Abbott against attacks in the media as best he could during Abbott’s tenure as PM. A sense of their relationship can be gained by Bolt’s column on Abbott’s departure:

Folks, you made a big mistake with this bloke. No, no. The mistake wasn’t that you voted for him. In fact, you got one of the finest human beings to be Prime Minister. In many ways he seemed too moral for the job, yet he achieved more in two years than the last two Labor prime ministers achieved in six.…

You even laughed at some of his finest qualities and emblems of his public service. Journalists ridiculed his work as a lifesaver by mocking his costume and body hair. They dismissed his firefighting service as just a photo-op. Wrote off his patriotism as bigotry.

When he defended women, he was called insincere. When he warned that our finances were in strife or that terrorism menaced us, they called him a scaremonger.

… You let people treat like absolute dirt a man who had a record of volunteerism no prime minister has equalled — working in Aboriginal communities, lifesaving, firefighting, helping people in natural disasters, and raising money for women’s shelters and a hospice for dying children.…

Now, I must declare straight up — I call Tony Abbott a friend.

So you’ll call me biased. You’ll laugh that I can write this massive praise of him when almost everyone else is horse-laughing. And you’ll say that’s why I see more qualities in Abbott than are actually there.

But you’ll just be making another mistake.

See, I don’t think Abbott is a great man because he’s my friend. He’s my friend because he’s a great man. Greater than the people who tore him down.…

Those I love best are people of honour, warmth and kindness.

Tony Abbott is one such man, and that he has been betrayed and deposed doesn’t just break my heart. It makes me fear for this country. I can only hope that Australians will one day wake up to what they’ve tossed away.…

I bet Abbott’s friends would agree that none could have been so different in the flesh from what you read in the papers — and so much better. Shame on the journalists responsible for this great slander.

And as a bonus, here’s some quotes compiled by the Monthly on Australian writer, Greg Sheridan:

BESTIES

Abbott was my best friend… We talked over everything. The meaning of life, the purpose of politics, who’d win the rugby league grand final, what girls we planned to ask out, petty squabbles we might have had with our parents. – 12 September 2012

Like Abbott, I spent some time at a Catholic seminary intending to become a priest. – 22 August 2009

In 1977, Abbott and I drove down from Sydney to Melbourne to attend an AUS [Australian Union of Students] conference at Monash University. The AUS conference was extremely hostile for two modestly conservative boys like Abbott and me. The stench of marijuana lay heavy in the air, and every communist and Trotskyist sub-group had assembled, it seemed, its entire national membership. We found the atmosphere of the conference so uncongenial, and so threatening, that we went across the road and asked the Catholic college if we could stay there for the duration of the conference. – 12 September 2012

 

COURTSHIP

The speeches he works on most show the beneficial effect of an Oxford education. – 21 July 2012

To say the Syrian conflict involves “baddies versus baddies” is almost technical in the precision of its accuracy. – 3 September 2013

Abbott’s cast of mind … is an excellent cast of mind. – 19 September 2013

 

HONEYMOON

Tony Abbott has had an extraordinarily successful first trip to Indonesia as Prime Minister. – 3 October 2013

Abbott not only maintained his message discipline in Jakarta. He showed a deftness of touch, a warmth of personality. – 5 October 2013

Abbott has had a brilliant trip in Asia. His efforts with Malaysia are important in every way. – 10 October 2013

Shortly after he was elected, our beloved Prime Minister remarked that “happy is the nation that finds itself more interested in sport than politics”. – 12 October 2013

Michael Brull

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).

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