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Labor’s media problem

May 24, 2019

One reason Labor lost the election has to do with deliberate lies and distortions of its policies. Labor’s Tony Burke pointed this out in his interview with Patricia Karvelas (ABC Afternoon Briefing, May 23, 2019): “Much of our time at polling booths was spent telling people there was no death tax and negative gearing would not be removed from properties they already own.”

A related reason has to do with Labor’s inability to explain things, to defend itself, to counter lies and to call them lies—in short, its inability to fight (the franking credit refunds policy is the perfect example). Labor has an inability to remove its jacket, get down and dirty and fight for what it believes in. The sort of news media crap that Labor has been experiencing for some years now would not have happened to Bob Hawke or to Paul Keating. They could speak directly to the news media or the public and make it stick.

During Julia Gillard’s era I complained a number of times that Labor was unable to fight for itself. Gillard took a wrong turn on this when, in response to a rambling question in the National Press Club, she responded with “Don’t write crap.” You can’t counter journalists by insulting them; it aggravates them, making matters worse. Her Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, rushed out a media reform bill early in 2013, at the beginning of the longest election campaign ever. He wasn’t serious about it (possibly because it was a hurried effort), tossing it on the table with a “Take it or leave it” comment.

Conroy’s bill was met with furore, mainly from Murdoch’s News Corp print media. The Daily Telegraph, and others, likened Conroy to certain tyrants. Labor responded with anger, official complaints and warnings. The main objection was to censorship, although the bill had nothing to do with censorship. It proposed a Public Interest Media Advocate (PIMA), an individual with two functions: to ensure the regulations the media had previously agreed to were enforced by the media regulator  and to oversee takeovers and mergers of existing media outlets which, at the time, were subject to limitations.

The real source of media’s anger was the PIMA (which was seen as a barrier to future takeovers) rather than the lie and furphy of censorship. See what the federal LNP government has done since with media takeovers and mergers. While claiming before and after that Australian news media is now more diversified than ever due to publications appearing on the internet and across social media, more print media is now in the hands of News Corp and TV channels are being merged. There’s now less diversity, not more.

Bill Shorten eventually became Labor’s leader. Shorten needed to take public speaking lessons, along with the MPs standard course in dealing with the news media. There was no doubt he needed them. I’m sure they would have been suggested to him, but he was probably offended by the idea. His delivery was soft-ish, usually, with frequent digression as one thought seemed to need more detailed explanation or led to another thought, leaving things unexplained. Sentences would often end in a way that completely lacked emphasis. The gentle pumping of his left fist would have me shaking mine. I wanted him to shout and thump the lectern occasionally. I wanted to see some real passion. It never emerged.

To solve its problem Labor ministers could turn to people already in their offices: the senior news media advisers. These people usually are journalists seasoned in politics or other fields; they are experienced communicators and observers of political and public reactions. If anyone knows how journalists think it is another journalist. I can’t tell you who the Labor or Liberal senior media officers are (I no longer work in that area), but I can imagine where the Liberal advisers worked previously. LNP ministers’ campaigns sound like Daily Telegraph page one headlines—short, punchy and to the point, even when misleading everyone. Gillard made another mistake in hiring a media consultant from the UK. Although he’d worked for UK Labour, he was out of touch with the Australian version and the Australian people. Whoever these advisors are now, I can’t believe ALP MPs are paying any serious attention to them. Perhaps they only hire them to write flowery speeches, being careful not to offend anyone.

Why doesn’t Labor take News Corp on? Some say News Corp is fading, no one takes any notice of News Corp today. Others say taking on News Corp would be political suicide. The LNP federal government’s preferred approach was to make a $30 million donation to Murdoch’s Fox Sport, supposedly to publicise women’s sport, a gift that no other TV channel received. I think Labor should go into battle every time News Corp starts one of its nasty campaigns. Failure to do so leaves them open to a litany of lies and distortion that is time consuming and frustrating to deal with. You can’t deal with it if you haven’t developed the necessary skills.

 

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