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How the Government controls the news
The Age com au ........ July 1, 2005|
Media advisers are being paid from our taxes to spin us a line, writes Sushi Das.
Spin doctors, or propagandists, to use their old name, are a strange breed with disagreeable mannerisms that set them apart from the rest of the population. They have the extraordinary ability to be insincere, obscure the truth with irrelevant claptrap, hang up the phone mid-sentence and still be able to sleep straight in their beds at night.
Without them, the federal and state governments would barely be able to control the point of view presented in the media, or "spin" stories, as it is called. Premier Steve Bracks' media unit employs 20 advisers. Several of the state departments also have media officers. Here are a few examples of how they go about doing their jobs.
Last week I called the media unit and spoke to Kate Leonard, a media adviser to Transport Minister Peter Batchelor, in the hope of arranging an interview to discuss the Spencer Street Station redevelopment. I was subjected to a barrage of questions about my "agenda". I soon realised it would have been easier to ring Buckingham Palace and get an interview with the Queen.
First, Leonard asked me to submit a list of questions I wanted to put to the minister, presumably so he could script his answers. I refused. Then I was asked what the "angle" of my story would be. When I said I didn't yet know, I was asked whether it would be a "soft or hard" story. The conversation went round and round before she said: "I don't want you to ambush the minister."
"Little old me? Ambush the minister? I hardly think so," I said. "I'm sure Peter Batchelor is well across his portfolio."
Days later, Leonard rang back to tell me the minister could not make himself available and could I please ring back in six to eight weeks, when the Government would have "more to talk about in terms of new developments that haven't already been out there in the public arena". That's code for: ring back when it's convenient for the Government and we might give you some innocuous information that other journalists don't have yet.
"Political language," wrote George Orwell in 1946, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
It was ever thus.
Political spin is just bullsh1t (bovine excrement) by another name. Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his recent book On Bulls1it (bovine excrement), points out that bullsh1t (bovine excrement) is a bigger enemy of truth than lies. The truth-teller, he argues, is guided by the "authority of truth", while the liar refuses to meet the demands of that authority. But the bullsh1tter (bovine excrement) , he argues, simply "ignores these demands altogether", making bull----ting (bovine excrement) a worse crime than actually lying.
Anyway, not wanting to be thwarted in my attempt to glean information, I called a number of people employed by companies contracted to redevelop the station. But I was told no one could be interviewed until the minister had given the go-ahead. One executive told me: "We're managing the release of information in a controlled manner. And that's just a policy decision we've made."
These days political leaders appear more visible because, as we know, they would sell their grandmothers to get their faces on TV. But in reality they are less accessible to detailed questioning by informed interviewers.
I have heard on the journalistic vine of grapes that ministers or their minders sometimes ring reporters, offer them "exclusive" press releases, or comments, on the condition that they do not seek alternative points of view. Any reporter foolish enough to accept this deal would be allowing the government's spin to be reported uncontested. I've also heard that government advisers call lobby groups to spin them to "react" to stories in a way that favours the government.
Of course, spin-doctoring is nothing new and will no doubt continue until media advisers realise that what they do for a living offends democracy, decency and their own dignity.
More galling is that media advisers' salaries are paid for out of the public purse. I understand they earn between $60,000 and $120,000 a year. In other words, the government uses our taxes to pay media advisers to obscure the truth, block access to ministers and protect politicians from scrutiny. It keeps the public in the dark.
It's worth asking: what are the accountability mechanisms for media advisers? Can they be hauled before committees for questioning like ministers and public servants? Exactly who are these people?
It is imperative that journalists reveal how they get their stories and report any behind-the-scenes deals that politicians try to engage them in. Failure to do this makes the media complicit in hoodwinkery perpetrated by politicians on the public.
On ABC radio recently, John Lloyd, editor of London's Financial Times magazine, had this to say: "We have created a system in which both parties (politicians and media) collaborate in producing media-ised politics. The problem is that the medias continue to report politics as if they were a neutral, almost invisible observer."
The media co-command the stage with politicians, said Lloyd, so any narrative of politics must also contain some kind of narrative about the media.
I know it's hard to remember everything when you're a busy politician. But one thing should not be forgotten: an independent fourth estate is a vital component of democracy. Ultimately, the news media are essential for our freedom.