When Propaganda Becomes News
Politicians have been trying for years to get their message out to voters without it first being filtered by the media. Now they can bypass traditional media altogether by becoming independent producers of news.
In the past, the news media was a necessary evil for politicians. It was simply more efficient for political messages to be conveyed through broadcast or print media than door-knocking, pamphlet-dropping and stump speeches.
However, using the media in this way came with price; politicians risked their messages being diluted, distorted or even misrepresented.
So politicians looked for ways to bypass the news media but still be able to communicate with the public.
Former Prime Minister John Howard discovered the usefulness of talkback radio for this purpose. Howard rarely turned down an opportunity to chat to a talkback host and their listeners because it gave him direct access to thousands of Australian voters in their homes, offices and cars.
This allowed Howard to convey his messages to those listeners without the media acting as intermediary and interpreter.
Howard's opponent, Labor Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd used breakfast television to achieve the same outcome. And after winning government, Rudd became an early adopter of the newfangled social media, building huge popular support within the community of online Australians.
Rudd differed from Howard in one important respect: he used social media - particularly Twitter - to further build and strengthen his brand, whereas Howard used talkback radio to sell his government's policies.
These days, digitally engaged voters demand no less of their elected representatives than to be online.
No politician worth their salt would dare go without a Twitter account and Facebook page. The more adventurous even have their own YouTube channel. And of course Malcolm Turnbull goes one step further with his mobile phone app.
Politicians have also become increasingly aware that the internet provides not only bloggers and aspiring writers with a way to self-publish, but also the ultimate way for them to avoid the news media. And that is by producing their own news.
Commercial news journalist Laurie Oakes, who's worked in the Canberra press gallery for decades, talked about this evolution in a speech to journalism students at Curtin University late last year.
"To put it bluntly", said Oakes "politicians and governments can report on themselves. They are much, much less reliant on journalists than they used to be. And, because of that, they can be much less constrained about ignoring reporters or making it more difficult for them to access information."
Oakes noted in particular how US President Obama has a team of more than 20 people in the White House Office of Digital Strategy producing and publishing news.
Some are from journalism, some are computer nerds, some are policy wonks. There's a unit producing video, with the videographers having unprecedented access to the President and everything he and others in the Administration do. There are staff who specialise in social media—Twitter, Facebook, Google-plus, Vine etc.There's an analytics unit gathering and studying data to work out how best to reach people and get them to engage with the Administration. There are people writing blog posts and scripting videos and other content. And there's a team responsible for website design and infographics.... the President calls the office "my megaphone". He tells staff he wants it to get his messages through to the American people "unfiltered". In other words, bypassing the media is a key aim.
As soon as he was elected, Abbott employed a former commercial television cameraman as his personal videographer. While the appointment initially left political observers puzzled, it soon became clear when Abbott's weekly videograms began to appear on the PM's official YouTube channel.
The videos aren't necessarily that popular with the broader public, but they are religiously monitored by mainstream news media. And on slow news weekends, excerpts from the videos are often used as news items.
It's hardly surprising the PM prefers a perfectly lit and finely scripted video to some of his other television appearances, particularly those that catch him in a candid moment or stumped for words.
And it's hard not to wonder whether this was the same reason Abbott left Australian journalists and a camera crew in Dubai when he made a side trip to Iraq to visit the troops earlier this year, taking only his own cameraman instead.
The cameraman dutifully recorded a press conference that Abbott held with the Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi, but of course did not ask any pesky questions about defence force pay or other matters that might have been canvassed had there been an Australian journalist within cooee of the event.
To add injury to insult, any media wishing to cover the PM's visit then had to use the video footage and photos taken by Abbott's man. Including this one portraying the PM's questionable sartorial style:
Now there's news the PM will be adding a former news photographer to his entourage. This is another page taken from Obama's playbook, as was seen when newly re-elected NSW Premier Mike Baird emulated Obama's famous "four more years" photo with an in-house shot of his own celebrationary smooch.
What is troubling about the Baird photo is that highly esteemed Fairfax photographer Andrew Meares was reportedly prevented from having access to the Premier that night.
While perhaps only a minor matter at the time, Meares's exclusion confirms that self-publishing for politicians is not only about bypassing the media but also evading the scrutiny that comes with independent media coverage.
This has become more evident too as the PM, who is not a big fan of open-slather press conferences where everything and anything can be asked, has increasingly limited the media's access and opportunity to question him.
One example is the earlier-mentioned trip to Iraq. Another tactic has been to fly to Sydney or Melbourne during a parliamentary sitting week, when most political journalists are unable to leave Canberra, to make an announcement and hold a perfunctory press conference before returning to parliament.
And then there is the new "private audience" approach, in which the PM summons a single journalist or a "pool" camera crew to his office so the interview can be conducted on his terms, and leaving the press gallery to share the product.
This occurred in the lead up to the failed leadership spill earlier this year, when Abbott granted an exclusive interview to a political talk show host from Sydney rather than a Canberra press gallery journalist. And by holding the interview in his own office instead of the television studio, Abbott avoided having to walk through the gallery afterwards or face any questions from journalists who may have happened to be passing by.
Ultimately, political self-publishing has several purposes - some that are good and some that are not.
It can be a way to convey a more polished image, strengthen a brand, and get important messages to the public without interference from those political media who are focussed on gotcha moments and horse-race reporting.
But it's clearly also a way to avoid media scrutiny. Laurie Oakes concludes in his speech that anything that reduces the relevance of political journalism is bad for the health of our democratic system, but that good old-fashioned investigative journalism could provide a counter to political propaganda masquerading as news:
Power won't hold itself to account. Government is hardly likely to face difficult questions from its own media. Politicians will only use the new opportunities available to them to distribute information on things they want the public to know about.The only way I see for journalists to deal with what will be a growing challenge is to apply traditional journalistic skills— particularly the cultivation of sources—with renewed vigour. Consistently digging out what politicians and others in positions of power don't want revealed is the best guarantee of continued relevance.