Essay

Ten commandments of spin

WE CLING TO the legitimate expectation that the noble exchange of information between elected representatives and the nation's media helps form a true view of our nation and the world. If only it was true.

In the gap between knowing and suspecting, reporting and speculating is a range of tactics that governments and political parties use to translate, defend and attack, according to the political moment. The noise you hear in the background is the whirr of interpretations being spun by the nimble fingers of the men and women who, like all good doctors, tell us that this is actually doing us good.

Mark Latham doesn't enjoy such medicine and who could blame him? After a series of rumours about the Labor leader's private life circulated around Canberra in July, it became obvious that a smear campaign was at work. It probably didn't start with the Federal Coalition. It might even have started among some of Latham's old rivals back in Liverpool when the pugnacious young man was reforming the western Sydney council. But either way, the effect was the same. Latham's character came under a fierce scrutiny that suited both the Coalition and some of his Labor opponents. Such is the potency of the smear treatment, when suspicions count for more than facts.

So how does Latham, and more importantly, how do we, sort the rumour from the fact, the innuendo from the credible, when all around there are sly and subtle twists to every tale?

Below is a 10-step guide to deciphering the code of news management and the black art of spin.

 

THE TIME LIMIT: this is a simple strategy used frequently and to good effect. The idea is for the Government to release information late in the day so that the evening news broadcasts and radio bulletins – the most watched and listened to segments of the day – do not carry all the details of the story or any substantial criticism from the political opposition or the media. This is particularly useful for a story the Government considers may generate an adverse reaction from the opposition parties, lobby groups or the electorate. It buys the Government time to either massage the message the following day or let the issue slip into the public domain with little public discussion.

Margaret Simons, the author of an analysis of the press gallery entitled Fit to Print, observed this tactic when Prime Minister John Howard announced that Australia was sending troops to what appeared likely to be another Gulf War in 1998. "The Prime Minister says he knows all Australians will wish them Godspeed. The press conference was called just in time to make the six o'clock newses, not in time for the reporters to gather dissenting opinion ... Now the six o'clock newses are playing. 'Godspeed' say the little topic boxes behind the heads of the television announcers ... 'Godspeed' says the headline in The Daily Telegraph the next day."[i] The late release of such information means that the newspapers will only have limited space for the story because, by 7pm, the decisions on the content of most of the next day's newspapers will have been made. (Unless of course it is a huge story, such as sending troops to the Gulf, which has significant national repercussions.)

Despite new technology, newspapers deadlines are earlier than they used to be. A late-breaking story might be pursued for a newspaper's second edition, but it is unlikely there will be a senior journalist still at his or her desk, and many of the necessary contacts to broaden the story will have left their offices and may not be able to be reached. The result is that a story may only have limited circulation in one of the newspaper's editions. But it is a gamble that can backfire on a government. For a start, the media can report that it had only a short time to analyse the material and highlight the view that the Government was deliberately trying to avoid scrutiny on the issue. Secondly, it may provoke a far more detailed follow-up the next day based on negative reaction, which may inflame the issue.

 

THE LEAK: THERE are two kinds of leaksthe managed and the unmanaged. Both invariably lead to scoops. Or should. The managed leak can be an effective way for a government to selectively disseminate what it considers to be high-calibre information to sympathetic media outlets or journalists. The unmanaged leak – or the real leak leading to a real scoop – is still professionally regarded as the mark of a good journalist.

When the rest of the press gallery and broader media follow up a real leak it can damage a government. The follow-up helps sustain the story in voters' minds beyond the daily news cycle. There are, however, limits on the pursuit of leaks and scoops. Not only do some scoops fail to pass the media test – that the story is substantial and true, that it is the best story of the day that overshadows all others. There is one other critical consideration to assessing the reliability of the leak/scoop and that is: who got it? Young or inexperienced political journalists trumpeting leaks are often discounted by older heads because there is a view that their information is perhaps partial, untested or unreliable. No strategy will, however, save a government if the media believe it has been trying to hide something.

The alternative occurs when sections of the Government decide it is in its best interests to "manage" a leak to a significant journalist. The former Labor minister Graeme Richardson had a reputation for leaking at the most politically sensitive times. On May 30, 1991, Richardson briefed Channel Nine political journalist andBulletin columnist Laurie Oakes about the so-called Kirribilli agreement between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating over the prime ministerial succession, one of the most significant developments in the Hawke-Keating leadership rivalry. Oakes was, at one level, a logical recipient. He commands widespread credibility in political circles and he works for the highest-rating commercial network in Australia. But there was talk within Keating's office, reported by Michael Gordon in Paul Keating A Question of Leadership, that it might be better to leak the story in Sydney or Melbourne, rather than Canberra, to immunise Keating from the damage that might occur if the leak were sheeted home to him or Richardson.[ii]

 

THE FREEZE: THIS is essentially a punishment, most likely imposed by government officials on journalists transgressing unwritten confidences or, more heinously, reporting in what is considered a partial manner. It comes with the additional threat that such an error will remove the journalist's name from the list of the inner sanctum of the Government's media favourites. This is a basic and often effective way to bring younger journalists to the Government's heel and help establish uniformity in the way the Government's activities and policies are reported.

On some occasions, the freeze is triggered at the highest levels by the most visceral of responses: animosity generated in the political debate between the prime minister and a media owner. This latter example can be the basis of a freeze that is the political equivalent of the Ice Age. A particularly good example of this was carried out by the former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, who implemented the freeze against the ABC andThe Age with rare commitment. Kennett never appeared on the ABC's 7.30 Report after a question about his private life was posed by interviewer – and later, state Labor minister Mary Delahunty – during the 1992 election campaign. Kennett's problems with The Age were more to do with perceptions of the paper's antagonism toward him and his side of government. The result, as Kennett biographer Tony Parkinson noted, was that Kennett decided to appear weekly on commercial radio 3AW. "It was a strategy that angered and frustrated many of 3AW's media rivals. Jeff was playing favourites, ruthlessly," Parkinson wrote.[iii]

 

THE SPRAY: THIS is the most basic of tactics. The intention is to intimidate, bully, silence or at least engender second thoughts about a particular story or stance. The power of the spray is that not everyone has to cop one to be intimidated by it. News spreads quickly, ensuring that journalists know that they are dealing with someone who will shout back if he or she is not happy. This tactic, often in the form of a phone call from a politician or flak, usually ends with the promise of the imposition of a freeze.

One of the public examples of this behaviour occurred in November 2000 after ABC radio journalist Mark Willacy interviewed the Federal Treasurer Peter Costello on AM. Willacy was later telephoned by the then Labor leader Kim Beazley's senior media adviser Greg Turnbull who told Willacy he had been soft on Costello and was "a sycophant". "Wait till we're in government," Turnbull said. "We've got a long memory."[iv]

 

THE WEDGE: THIS is the best explained as "divide and conquer". It is, once again, simple in intention and execution. The Government basically drives a wedge between sections of the media. Part of the strategy is to let newspaper journalists know that this is what it is doing. This generates animosity among the excluded, buts instils a sense of favouritism in the chosen ones. The favoured souls are often – to the additional horror of newspaper political reporters – not only electronic-media figures but also non-political interviewers. When The Australian Financial Review's Tony Walker was posted to the Canberra press gallery in 1998 after 20 years working as a foreign correspondent, he "...was effectively told by the PM's press office: 'It's the electronic media, stupid.' " He was clearly peeved and wrote, "In his efforts to bypass the print media, and the Canberra press gallery in particular, [John] Howard made himself a hostage to the 'shock jocks' of commercial radio, agreeing to scheduled spots – an act of stupidity if ever there was one – with the Neil Mitchells, Alan Joneses et al."

The irony of this remark is that, as with so many of these tactics, it is not new in intention, execution or effect. After Sir Robert Menzies lost office in 1941, he turned to radio to help review his political philosophy. In the 28 months between January 1942 and April 1944, Menzies made 105 broadcasts, including his legendary Forgotten People speech. In the years that followed World War II, Menzies championed radio as a campaign tool and continued to use it as a means of speaking directly to the electorate. But he was not one to give many press conferences.[v]

 

THE DRIP: THIS is rare access to information straight from the Government, often delivered by a senior figure, to journalists and broadcasters who are believed to be sympathetic to the Government. Being on The Drip is one of the most coveted positions of modern political reporting. It is another simple and telling way to ensure journalists remain loyal. While a government can use The Wedge to engender animosity that it can exploit to its own ends, The Drip draws senior people into its embrace.

It is the ideal way to disseminate a message by handpicking those journalists who can reach a particular audience, from the readers of up-market broadsheet newspapers to the listeners of high-rating commercial news services. It depends on sympathetic journalists, grateful for the proximity to power. Of all the government media-management strategies, The Drip is the friendliest. The trade-off is that those who do not remain sympathetic to the Government find themselves quickly frozen. The difference between The Drip and The Leak is that the former usually dribbles out over a long period and builds mutual dependency. A real leak is a one-off with more far-reaching consequences.

 

THE SPIN: THIS is the most talked about – and depending on your perspective – either the most reviled or most valuable tool in government-media relations. Simply, it is putting the best light on events, framing them so that you look good. Every government and opposition does it, but in its modern extreme, it can represent media manipulation rather than the more benign attempt to proffer a sympathetic interpretation of an issue or policy. Governments work spin two ways: for themselves and against the opposition.

 

THE AGENDA: THIS is really an attempt to dictate the most important issue of the day. Often it is driven by a political imperative and is part of a strategy to minimise political problems by diffusing the political row or distracting the media from it. Sometimes this tactic can even take members of the Government by surprise, as former Labor minister John Button found out in 1992. During Senate Question Time, Button was outlining the Labor Party's stock opposition to a good and services tax, while in the Lower House Prime Minister Paul Keating was saying Labor would not oppose the introduction of a GST in the Senate if the Coalition won government. This was news to Button, who asked the prime minister why he had suddenly changed position. Keating replied, "Oh, [Treasurer John]Dawkins was in a bit of trouble over the Budget. I had to switch the agenda."[vi] It worked. The story became the GST and Labor's response to it, not Budget problems.

The most prominent electronic-media stories of the day are likely to be about a new agenda rather than the old row. There is, however, an exception when the media actually engineer the political row that provokes the change in agenda. Then the media can report the Government's attempts to change the focus on the issue as an extension of the original story.

 

THE BRIEFING: THIS tactic originated from a determination to ensure a message was communicated effectively, directly and anonymously to the media. But it has, in recent years, become another opportunity for some generous spin-doctoring. It has also been diminished by disagreement over what constitutes an on-the-record/off-the-record/background/non-attributable/briefing. A result of this definitional confusion has meant that information has been published or transmitted more fully than the Government believed it should have been. This has effectively eroded trust between the Government and the media and has reduced use of The Briefing.[vii]

Briefings at the highest level – between prime minister and the senior press gallery figures – started in mid-1942 when former journalist Don Rodgers was Prime Minister John Curtin's press officer. This form of news management perhaps verged on censorship but was considered appropriate at a time of national crisis. The rationale of reliable but un-attributed background has been chorused by numerous governments when a national emergency was not only remote, but downright impossible. There is much to recommend the briefing from both sides of the political fence, if everyone agrees to the rules and plays by them.

 

THE VENUE: THE experience of overseas leaders informs this recently adopted tactic – isolate the prime minister from the media pack and put him in a "presidential" environment befitting his status – most tellingly used by the US president when he ventures onto the White House lawn. In Australia, it puts the leader of the government in the prime minister's courtyard where he can come and go as he pleases, preventing the prime minister looking like a hostage to media questioning. It also privileges television as the medium that documents and reinforces the leadership image.

John Howard's media advisers adopted this tactic after identifying problems with the allocated press room in Parliament House. The Prime Minister or minister stood while the journalists were seated in front of them. "We've got stuck in there for 55 minutes sometimes with them just lolling around throwing in questions," one of Howard's advisers said about one memorable press conference.[viii]

The psychology of the courtyard venue is clear: here is the nation's leader, a person in control, dispensing information on his terms. The media collectively accept their lot in this instance. They rationalise that at least the leader in person is better than another radio or television interview in a studio.


[i] Margaret Simons, Fit To Print Inside the Canberra Press Gallery, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1999, p. 13.

[ii] Michael Gordon, Paul Keating A Question of Leadership, UQP, Brisbane, 1993, pp. 161-63.

[iii] Tony Parkinson Jeff The Rise And Fall of a Political Phenomenon, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 2000, p. 255

[iv] Mike Steketee, "Minder Over Media – How The Flacks Control The Political Message'', The Australian, March 8, 2001

[v] Clem Lloyd, "The Media'', in Scott Prasser, John Nethercote and John Warhurst (eds) The Menzies Era, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1995, pp. 118-19.

[vi] John Button, As It Happened, Text, Melbourne, 1998, p. 242.

[vii] Mike Steketee, op. cit.

[viii] Margaret Simons, op. cit, p.86.

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