The librarian's strategy
'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.