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The librarian's strategy

Date

The tango between pollies and the media is changing. But will voters benefit?

'John McTernan is courting publishers outside the mainstream media with access to audiences valuable to the Prime Minister.'

'John McTernan is courting publishers outside the mainstream media with access to audiences valuable to the Prime Minister.' Photo: Penny Bradfield

FOR a backroom boy, John McTernan attracts a lot of column inches. There's a negative perception inside the government that the Prime Minister's senior communications adviser courts publicity. Possibly that's right. But I have a different theory. Given his sharp sense of irony, I wonder whether McTernan has simply cast himself in our reality TV show. This show is called The Meta is the Message.

Political reporting is process fixated, and the Svengali myth is pervasive despite its fundamental inaccuracy - so why not play along, become The Strategy from Edinburgh, the personification of an abstraction.

The mainstream media market is fragmenting. These days, it's news agency or niche. 

Journalism craves human interest. The Prime Minister needs to project ''there's a plan''. It works in the way cartoons work: a bit of an inside joke, a bit of a wink to the ludicrousness of the status quo, that can also cut through. Or, of course, backfire.

Whatever his motivation, The Strategy attracts his share of attention, including a profile recently in The Monthly by Nick Bryant that produced a lovely fact I didn't know: he has a master's in librarianship. Libraries are places of power, of order and categorisation. This small insight tells you a lot about McTernan (pictured, centre, at a recent prime ministerial media conference).

Think of political communication as a Dewey Decimal system. There's a category that says ''Mummy Bloggers''. (It really is terrible that term, political; a means of institutionalised disdain - but it's a category, so let's stick with it.) McTernan is courting publishers outside the mainstream media with access to audiences valuable to the PM. Digital communities are a rallying point for conversation: they are quite different to television audiences, or newspaper audiences. Politics would be mad to ignore the blogosphere.

The mainstream media market is fragmenting. These days, it's news agency or niche. Political communication is following that fragmentation. Micro-messaging is the growth area: niche and neighbourhood.

Another Dewey Decimal category in McTernan's card file would be self-publishing. Politicians are looking for opportunities to ditch the middle person - those pesky journalists ''writing crap'', as the Prime Minister once observed. Technology gives politicians new tools to control content, imagery and the ''vibe''. Video messaging - no questions to interrupt. ''Selfies'' upload to social media, rather than running the gauntlet of news photography. Facebook chats. Announcements on Twitter.

Self-publishing is an attractive option to pierce the media fog or preordained constructs. This ''workaround'' instinct isn't new - John Howard used to bypass what he perceived as progressive bias in the Canberra press gallery by doing radio interviews. But it's more powerful these days, because politicians cannot only control their message, they can also exploit the profound frustration with the performance of mainstream media outlets. Nine Network political editor Laurie Oakes gave a terrific lecture on this trend recently (extracted in these pages on December 1).

This isn't simply a McTernanism - I suspect 2013 will see all Australian political parties innovate and experiment more forcefully in this space. (Who says these people can't agree on anything!)

I'm not particularly disturbed by the prospect. It's not our job as journalists to dictate the rules of engagement to politics; and, in fact, I reckon there's opportunity here. Political journalism is a craft of transactions: it's inevitable when you report on people in close proximity. I imagine sports journalism, or the crime beat, is much the same. It's a tango between reporters and sources: sometimes elegant, sometimes toxic.

Politicians seeking to revisit the terms of the tango certainly isn't the end of the world. Fewer transactions could equal more journalistic independence - more obnoxious freedom, as Tony Abbott might say. We don't have to be a colour-coded card in the Dewey Decimal box - or, as one of the lady bloggers invited to last week's soiree at Kirribilli House noted whimsically and intelligently, ''part of the strategy''.

I think Oakes' view was that inevitable change should galvanise journalists to focus on our core business: more facts, more storytelling, less conjecture, less opinion. I agree with that in large measure.

But being part of the strategy is hard to avoid in political reporting. Take the case of Steve Lewis, the News Ltd journalist front and centre in the saga of James Ashby and Peter Slipper. Steve is a friend of mine, and one of the most assiduous newshounds I know.

Justice Steven Rares evidently understood the complexity of relationships between political journalists and the principals in his ruling handed down last week. He could see that parties could be joined in a single transaction but have very different motives. He could see that the process is complicated.

Take the time if you can to read the Rares judgment. It's an extraordinary case. It's not every day you see a court determine that senior Australian political operatives have abused processes with the intention of destroying one of their political enemies, and perhaps a government.

But the story the judgment tells about political journalism is more garden variety. Political operatives court journalists and vice versa for their own related but mutually exclusive ends: they want the megaphone, and we want the story.

The Slipper/Ashby case just might be the high-water mark of that old-school, transactional Canberra game - and make implicit an argument for how it can improve.

Read all about it while you can.

Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent of The Age.

Follow the National Times on Twitter

 

73 comments

  • Katharine, thanks for your article. SteveH notwithstanding, I always had a suspicion that McTernan was actually a real human, merely using what was at hand to counter the slaughter of the truth by the Abbotteers.

    What should be becoming clearer after last year's alomost total rejection of the senior Canberra press gallery's making of the news instead of reporting it, is that people are clamouring for quality journalism. I think that will translate into a willingness to pay for it as well; it's just that we're no longer prepared to put up with the tripe that most senior people have been indulging in. We need reasonably objective voices on all our affairs, and self-publishing will never give that.

    Perhaps the old and tired need to make way for the young, brash and irreverant - as long as they don't 5take on the same attitudes of the old mob.
    Season's best to you.

    Commenter
    BillR
    Date and time
    December 17, 2012, 8:47AM
    • Ahhh ! snap.

      Not at all happy with Katharine for this article, next we will have Peta Credlin advising Abbott to be seen more with his wife.

      Or perhaps Abbott will be inviting Mamamia, Womans Agenda, Eden Riley and Anne Summers for afternoon tea in the Opposition offices or a creche.

      Hope no one advises Abbott that having a candidate on his election team who was involved (according to Justice Rares) in claims of sexual misconduct, that were comprehensively thrown out before even making it to the courtroom, is not a good look.

      Don't have to worry about the Queensland LNP having any qualms about that because their record is bring them down faster than tomato sauce on a hot pie.

      Commenter
      J. Fraser
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      December 17, 2012, 9:52AM
    • "last year's alomost total rejection of the senior Canberra press gallery's making of the news instead of reporting it"

      Say it often enough BillR and you might even start to believe it. Taking a leaf from TB's book on this one and assigning it a conspiracy gold star.

      Commenter
      $keptic
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 17, 2012, 10:47AM
    • You people really live in Disney Land. You would so much like your team to be where Abbott's team is right now, but it ain't going to happen. Your mob have had more than enough time to prove themselves, and been found wanting, bigtime. Its over for you and your mob next year, and all the texting, the twittering and face booking, and blogging on behalf of this useless govt. is not going to change it. Enjoy it whilst you can, the silent majority is your biggest enemy, not Abbott. Oh, and your poll is not worth two bob, not against the other three.

      Commenter
      annieq
      Location
      Hunter Valley NSW
      Date and time
      December 17, 2012, 11:19AM
    • annieq:
      "Your mob have had more than enough time to prove themselves"

      They have proved themselves - the best economy in the developed world: low unemployment, low inflation, steady growth, low interest rates, AAA economy (all despite the worst global economic environment since the depression); tax cuts, biggest-ever pension increases, landmark PPL scheme, NBN, 3000 school libraries built, health-funding increase, real action on climate-change, Murray-Darling reform, NDIS and Gonski on their way.

      Meanwhile the coalition have lied about everything that the government have done (with much of the MSM reporting anything they say as fact) and conspired to undermine our democracy in an abuse of legal process. Abbott is now the second most unpopular opposition leader ever (second only to Peackock who never became PM).

      Say hello to Donald and Mickey for me whilst you're there.

      Commenter
      Think Big
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 17, 2012, 12:19PM
    • I must agree with annieq......... McTernan is the master of gutter politics as his record shows. As for social media, its negative campaign against Alan Jones resulted in increased ratings for him, and we have already seen several politician's careers damaged by stupid remarks made on Twitter, etc. I would suggest politicians follow the Coalition's directive not to engage constituents on social media.

      Commenter
      pollie waffle
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      December 17, 2012, 12:26PM
    • Be specific, "annieq"....what do you want from the government that they aren't giving you?

      Commenter
      Lynne
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 17, 2012, 12:34PM
    • As I said Think Big, you live in Disney Land. And you will continue to do so whilst you think Abbott is your problem. The silent majority who do not agree with you, are your problem, and they and they alone, will kick Labor out.

      Commenter
      annieq
      Location
      Hunter NSW
      Date and time
      December 17, 2012, 12:37PM
    • Annieq:
      "As I said Think Big, you live in Disney Land."

      Unlike you I actually provided concrete examples as to qwhy it's YOU who really lives in Disneyland. I notice that you weren't able to actually refute any of my facts.

      "The silent majority who do not agree with you, are your problem"

      You don't speak for the majority - silent or otherwise. The majority of tabloid print, radio and commercial TV consumers are being misled on a daily basis and all the coalition and their supporters have to offer are misinformation about Labor policies and made up scandals. The people are waking up to it as recent polls show.

      Commenter
      Think Big
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 17, 2012, 12:59PM
    • Annieq, you constantly haunt these comment sections. Every time I read what you've written, it just seems to be a bitter rant. You write a lot but have no substance in those comments.
      There's a lot of labelling and namecalling but examples and facts are rare.
      One of my reasons for writing in these sections is because I don't see any real substance in the Anti-Labor, Anti-Progressive rants. Just bitterness. And the Murdoch media which you'll have noticed I have a disliking of, feeds that bitterness. The overcrowded conservative opinionists in News Ltd and the overcrowded radio shockjocks that we can easily access have a lot of sway on the landscape. They've also helped the Liberals win a lot of elections. They are purely partisan and share no independence of thought.
      I don't agree with everything Labor or Green, but if you're going to attack them constantly, then please give a little more insight on why?

      Commenter
      meatatarian
      Date and time
      December 17, 2012, 1:10PM

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