The Coalition government has been taking flak for its minimalist approach to media relations since taking office. Concerns have been expressed about the virtual media blackout surrounding the arrival and treatment of asylum seekers, along with consternation that the Indonesian government and media have been more open in their approach to information.
Coalition ministers are strictly constrained in what they can say without the boss’ prior approval, and the prevailing public relations strategy has been - as the Soviet Communists used to put it circa 1984 just before Gorbachov came up with the idea of glasnost, or “openness” - “say nothing, and if you have to say something, say as little as possible”. In the Sydney Morning Herald some time ago, cartoonist David Rowe portrayed the government with their lips zipped shut. In the accompanying article Bianca Hall reported that the policy was creating “ructions within the federal public service”.
As one would expect, the political media haven’t been too happy about it either. They were even madder that the prime minister would invite senior News Corp journos to a private function at Kirribilli House, where no doubt the issue of governmental transparency was discussed. Under conditions of strict confidentiality, of course.
Let’s acknowledge that Abbott’s approach has some logic and merit to it. Lindsay Tanner complained in his 2011 book Sideshow that the Labor government of which he had been a member was far too exercised by the perceived need to produce regular “announceables” for the media. All too often PR trumped policy, and the desire to manage the media agenda overcame the public interest in the performance of good government.
We can’t blame politicians for this, not entirely. We live in a chaotic information environment, where a proliferation of news and commentary outlets form a 24 hour news cycle requiring constant nourishment in the form of “story”. Editors compete to be first with the best story, and will often combine to transform whatever facts they have into unsubstantiated, exaggerated rumour and gossip, often with catastrophic consequences for the politician concerned.
A Tory minister in the UK was accused of calling some policemen “plebs”. He was hounded from his job by a media which cared less about ideological allegiance to a party or politician than the juiciness of the story they can extract from his or her misfortune. Today, those who accused that minister are under investigation for corruption, while he remains out of a government job.
It’s this kind of scenario which provoked Tony Blair to refer to the political press pack as the “feral beast”, and it applies just as well to the Australian media-politics interaction. Information flows rapidly across borders and continents, such that minor perturbations in the political process can become major news storms before the key players are even aware that there is a story out there they should be responding to. Crisis management becomes a core skill for today’s politicians, as does the kind of public relations which allows one to lead, rather than be led by the whims of the story-hungry media.
Tony Abbott’s argument is that this trend towards policy by press release often makes for poor government, and he isn’t wrong. The question is – will his alternative, retro approach lead to an improvement in the quality of Australian governance?
By denying the media the information they need to support their always-on operations, the stated aim is to slow down the media cycle, to calm it, permitting ministers to govern without constant reference to what the media might say in knee-jerk response to this or that announcement. It is an approach which rejects the highly professionalised media management techniques of Labor in Australia (and New Labour in the UK, who excelled in the dark arts of spin) and asks us to trust in its underlying honesty and integrity. Australians are asked to deviate from the global trend towards greater official transparency in favour of quiet ministerial competence and hard work.
Fair dinkum, as Tony would say, but it’s risky. In the digital environment - chaotic, turbulent, fast-flowing, unstoppable - information finds a way into the open. It leaks out, and onto the net. It goes around the world, to every lap top and tablet and mobile phone on the planet. An Australian, Julian Assange, has proven that to be true in the most dramatic way, and Edward Snowden’s leaking of NSA files has added to the sense of rising governmental panic around the world that something our spy chiefs like to call ‘national security’ is being eroded.
In 2013 a government’s right to keep secrets, and to determine which secrets it will keep, is in question as never before in democratic history. Leaders must argue long and hard to persuade their publics that in an era of borderless, uncensoreable communication there is a case for keeping some things under wraps.
People are growing used to institutional transparency. They increasingly expect it. To deny them, by denying the journalists access to the information they say they require to do their jobs, is audacious.
The first example of information kept secret for no reason other than the good reputation of the Abbott government – and it will come along soon enough, as surely as the next tropical cyclone – will bring the mother of all media storms down on the Coalition. Only then will their media management skills truly be put to the test.