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Reporters or players? What is the media’s role in leadership struggles?

Leadership struggles are between ostensible allies. AAP/Sam Mooy

Reporters or players? What is the media’s role in leadership struggles?

When we think of news coverage of politics, we tend to think of the most frequent conflict in the news: that between the major political parties. In the two-sided contest to form government, the conflict is zero-sum, winner-takes-all and decided by public opinion. It is zero-sum in that if one side’s prospects are improving, the other’s are necessarily declining. It is winner-takes-all in that there is a chasm between winning and losing.

No matter how close or one-sided the result, one party is in government, the other in opposition. It is decided by the swinging and uncommitted voters, sometimes seen as those least interested in politics.

The publicity interests are clear. Each side is constantly looking for chances to criticise the other; to magnify the appearance of conflict between them; to discredit and destroy their opponents. There are few incentives for restraint.

The logic of this contest is pursued by both sides ever more ruthlessly and cynically; the result is the sterile and predictable mutual negativity which so commonly passes for political debate.

The publicity interests in internal party conflicts are very different. In leadership contests in particular, the media’s role is often markedly different from the competition between parties.

The distinctive nature of leadership conflicts – and of the media’s role in them – can be summarised in seven key points.

In the party’s interests

Leadership struggles are between ostensible allies, so normally need to be contained in the larger interests of the party.

Electoral strategists uniformly believe that disunity is death. In the 1990 election, with the Liberal Party divided between those supporting Andrew Peacock and those supporting John Howard, Bob Hawke repeated over and over:

If you can’t govern yourselves, you can’t govern the country.

So, electorally pragmatic and cohesive parties attempt to minimise the appearance of internal disunity. In normal circumstances, criticisms are not personalised, and differences are understated. In the climax and aftermath of a leadership coup, however, the discipline often slips – and treacherous assassins are at least temporarily accused.

A deeply personal conflict

Leadership struggles are the most personal of all political conflicts. The contenders typically have an extensive direct personal relationship and, in addition, one refracted through the media.

Most political conflicts are conducted at a distance, or in stylised, limited encounters. Their conduct is relatively impersonal. Party leadership challenges are unique among political conflicts because of the complexity of the relationship. The contenders are not only simultaneously allies as well as antagonists, but, in addition, they have frequent and wide-ranging interactions with each other, and a direct, even intimate, personal relationship.

Paul Keating biographer John Edwards observed of Hawke and Keating that:

They had after all worked more closely with each other over the last eight years than either of them ever had with anyone else. Both of them believed the work they had done [together] was the most interesting and important they would ever do.

The mixture of public alliance and private opposition would be a minefield anyway, but the difficulties are magnified because news reports are biased towards highlighting the most dramatic aspects, focusing overwhelmingly on the degree of conflict between the leaders. News reports then often impinge directly on issues of trust and reading others’ intentions.

Paul Keating (right) replaced Bob Hawke as prime minister in 1991 after a period of leadership tension. AAP/Paul Miller

In public and in private

The publicity strategies in leadership struggles are typically marked by public correctness and private criticism.

Except in times of great stress, public correctness is the rule. However, background briefings and leaks, by the contenders themselves or their proxies, are typically much less inhibited. American media observer Howard Kurtz observed the same process in presidential primary contests:

Day after day I watch the candidates gently criticise their rivals. And then [behind a curtain of anonymity] I watch their spinners and spokesmen eviscerate the opponents in language that their bosses would never dream of using.

In his public statement the day after his overthrow, Tony Abbott was very bitter about the media in general and leaks in particular:

The nature of politics has changed in the past decade. We have more polls and more commentary than ever before – mostly sour, bitter, character assassination. Poll-driven panic has produced a revolving-door prime ministership, which can’t be good for our country, and a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery.

And if there’s one piece of advice I can give to the media, it’s this: refuse to print self-serving claims that the person making them won’t put his or her name to. Refuse to connive and dishonour by acting as the assassin’s knife.

Tony Abbott addresses the media after the leadership spill.

There were equally bitter criticisms by those who felt that Abbott and his office had leaked against them. Arthur Sinodinos, for example, agreed to stand down from the ministry while a NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry was ongoing. Three days before he was due to announce this himself, the news was leaked to the media. A furious Sinodinos blamed Abbott’s office, namely chief-of-staff Peta Credlin, for the leak.

Sinodinos would later confess to colleagues he felt the prime minister’s office was “dancing on his grave” for briefing against him. He said:

There has always been gossip and innuendo in the past, but the leaking was never like this. It has been on an industrial scale.

Cloak and dagger

So much of the action in leadership struggles is subterranean that it provides challenges for the news media. And it is impossible for the public to gauge the accuracy of reporting, especially at the time.

After Abbott’s overthrow, there were contradictory accounts of the timing of key decisions, about who switched their allegiance and when. Deputy leader Julie Bishop’s version is that she went to see Abbott on the day of the coup to advise him of the moves that were coming, but at the time had not changed her allegiance. It was only with Abbott’s public announcement in the afternoon that both leader and deputy leader positions would be opened that she considered herself sacked and changed her allegiance to Turnbull.

Others, however, think that Bishop changed much earlier. The Daily Telegraph claimed that she “moonlighted with Malcolm Turnbull for more than six months”.

These are competing accounts of public events. At a time when there is no declared challenge it is even more difficult to know what is occurring, to get a sense of momentum or changing numbers. It was often charged that news accounts during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership exaggerated Kevin Rudd’s numbers in a coming challenge, but the situation was too murky for any external observer to be certain.

There are competing accounts of Julie Bishop’s role in Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the prime ministership. AAP/Lukas Coch

The role of the partyroom

The key group in leadership struggles is not the public, but the partyroom.

In the 1960s, the legendary Labor machine politician Pat Kennelly said he could not understand why all these political science departments were springing up in universities. There was only one thing you had to do in politics, and it could be summed up in three words:

Get the bloody numbers.

At the least this overlooks, as Labor machine politicians in those days were prone to do, that the numbers inside the party and outside in the public may not align.

It may be that the factors that are more likely to lead to success internally make success more difficult externally. This was the case with the influence of the Tea Party and Fox News on internal Republican Party politics in the 2012 presidential election. While UK Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, won a clear majority among Labour members, many are already pronouncing him unelectable by the wider public.

Rudd was much more popular with the public than Gillard, but among Labor MPs this was not the case for much of the period of tension between them. Similarly, Turnbull was always more popular with the public than Abbott, but until the coup there was a large group inside the party determined that Turnbull would never be leader again.

In both cases, electoral desperation among their colleagues seems to have been a central factor in bringing internal numbers into line with the public ones.

Sometimes leadership coups go in the other direction, however. Keating was never as popular with the public as Hawke, but this did not prevent a majority of his colleagues voting for him.

A bumpy road

Precipitating a leadership spill is a problematic, idiosyncratic process. Between elections there is no routine institutional moment for changing leaders, and so a spill occurs only when there is a sufficient sense of crisis among the MPs. The media are often implicated in bringing events to a climax.

For the challenger, mounting a challenge is a hazardous and poorly charted process. How to translate latent discontent support into active support, how to promote the struggle without producing accusations of disloyalty, how to force a showdown without alienating support – these are all full of uncertainties.

When a crisis is at its height and speculation unstoppable, almost any public comment, or a refusal to comment, can feed the story. This can bring on the feeling that the issue must be resolved so that the party can move on. Even so, there is often much suspense over whether and how a spill will occur.

Fairfax journalist Peter Hartcher has a perhaps unique distinction. He did stories almost two decades apart which were both instrumental in producing a spill.

In December 1991, amid a growing crisis, Hawke decided to move John Kerin, the person who had replaced Keating as treasurer. But that factional chiefs Graham Richardson and Robert Ray had advised this was leaked to Hartcher. It meant that the reshuffle was seen as an admission of failure and a panic move, and weakened rather than strengthened Hawke’s position.

In June 2010, there had been considerable signs of party discontent with Rudd, but his deputy Gillard had refused to join the rebels. Hartcher and Phillip Coorey wrote a story that Rudd’s “most-trusted lieutenant”, Alister Jordan, had been talking privately to MPs, and he concluded that Rudd “does still enjoy solid support in caucus” and that Rudd:

… does not necessarily trust the public assurances of his deputy Julia Gillard that she is not interested in the leadership.

The story angered Gillard and led to crisis meetings. The following morning she was elected unopposed to succeed Rudd.

Julia Gillard (front left) replaced – and then was replaced by – Kevin Rudd (back right). AAP/Julian Smith

An uncertain future

The aftermath of leadership contests is not always definitive. In the short term the question is how much the media will focus on a post-mortem and how much on the way ahead. In the longer term, the issue is how united the party will be around the new leader.

Perhaps the most famous question in Australian interviewing history came in 1983, when the ABC’s Richard Carleton asked Hawke on the evening he had replaced Bill Hayden as Labor leader:

Could I ask you whether you feel a little embarrassed tonight at the blood that’s on your hands?

Hawke’s snarling response did his cause little immediate good, but Malcolm Fraser had already solved the problem for him. By calling a federal election on the same day, Fraser ensured that the bulk of media coverage would be on the coming election rather than the lead-up to the leadership change.

Richard Carleton interviews Bob Hawke the night Hawke took the Labor leadership.

The longer-term question is whether there will be unity and reconciliation in the party, or whether there will be continuing recriminations and destabilisation. Although the Hawke-Keating leadership challenge was full of bitterness, once Keating succeeded the party united behind him.

In contrast, in 2010, the coup plotters seem to have assumed that Rudd would simply disappear once he was deposed. Instead he began the longest and most determined stalking of his successor, finally becoming the first person to again become prime minister by replacing his successor.

Despite the agonised cries of Ray Hadley, the Daily Telegraph and sundry Abbott loyalists, and despite several accusations by Abbott himself, Turnbull has largely won the battle for post-coup media coverage. Given Turnbull’s earlier problems with the conservative sections of his party and the Coalition, many will be wondering if he can maintain unity in the longer term.

It is likely, though, that electoral pragmatism will prevail – even if, in Abbott’s words, some of them have to do it through gritted teeth.