Why does Julia Gillard have so much trouble getting her message across?

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Thursday, 19 April 2012 17:27 by Ad astra
How many times have you heard this question asked, or its more pointed version: ‘Julia Gillard just can’t seem to get her message across’? Or as Barrie Cassidy said recently: ‘Even when she has a good message to get out, she can’t seem do so’. What a mystery it is that even the good stories don’t get out. How can that be?

These questions touch on complex issues. With all such issues, the answers too are complex. So let’s not race down the simplistic track and attempt a single explanation, and suggest a single magic bullet that will fix the problem. In medicine there is an ever-present urge to look for just one reason for a patient’s condition. Known as ‘Ockam’s razor’ it argues that when diagnosing an injury, illness or disease a doctor should strive to look for the fewest possible causes that will account for all the symptoms. Experience in the generalist discipline of family medicine though cautions against such an approach. There, complexity is so often the rule that seeking a magic bullet cure for a single entity is imprudent, and anyway, probability theory tells us that statistically it’s more likely that a patient has several common diseases, rather than a single rarer disease that explains his or her myriad symptoms. Wikipedia has more details. Politics is similar.

This piece therefore attempts to tease out the many factors, but in the end identifies one that in my opinion is the major one, one that is obvious enough if anyone looks with unbiased eyes, but not one that is easily remedied.

Any analysis of messaging would dissect the subject into the message, the messenger, the audience, and the medium by which it is transmitted.

The message
A clear statement of the issue, well articulated into an understandable message, is the starting point of good communication. If a message can be stated simply in terms the audience can readily understand, so much the better. This is not easy though when transmitting messages about complex issues, such as, for example, climate change and how to counter it. The Government has struggled to convince the electorate of the danger of global warming to our planet and future generations that will result from increasing carbon emissions. It has been much easier to create a negative message. Tony Abbott’s words: ‘climate change is crap’, although later disowned by him, turned out to be a simple but devastatingly powerful message that reinforced the views of the denialists/skeptics, and cast doubt into the minds of the not-totally-convinced believers.

The Government’s remedy, an Emissions Trading Scheme preceded by a fixed price on carbon, proved to be much harder to transmit to a generally uninformed and largely disinterested audience. It is complex both in its conception and the way it works. How much simpler was it for Abbott to create the negative message – ‘a toxic tax on everything’, ‘a tax that will drive up and up and up the price of everything’. His messages resonated with the public, frightened by the prospect of paying more and more for no immediate or tangible benefit. Abbott didn’t have to project the minds of the voters to the future, for most of them an improbably distant view of danger and possible disaster. He had time on his side, so his message could be simple – the carbon tax is toxic to households and businesses and he will get rid of it.

So the Government needed supremely sophisticated wordsmiths to craft clear messages in bite-sized bits that were suitable for contemporary media, with its emphasis on brevity and entertainment. Messaging needs to take account of the medium through which messages are transmitted. TV allows but a very short time for transmission; radio is more generous except when shock jocks set out to stir and startle; tabloids condense their messages into short strident front page headlines and the broadsheets often follow suit, even if there is more detailed material inside. It is only the more serious periodicals that regularly give considered analysis and fact-based opinion, and of course, the Fifth Estate. Yet the bulk of voters use the former media; a tiny minority read the latter.

On this blogsite we have criticized the Government’s media unit for not crafting more lucid and understandable messages about Government policies and plans, and the reasons behind them. We recognize that this is difficult because the matters are complex, and the messages likewise. But it ought to be possible to do better.

Note that the nature of contemporary media with its obsession with entertainment, its emphasis on short sharp messages, its unwillingness in most instances to deal exhaustively with complex issues in the way the ABC and SBS do regularly for their limited audiences, governs the way in which the message is crafted, and forces authors into a style of writing that is inimical to complex issues. We are stuck with our media, so the Government needs to work out how to use it effectively.

Already we see the emergence of a common denominator in the problem of getting messages across – the media.

The messenger
The Government messenger that cops the most flak by far is Julia Gillard. Wayne Swan did initially, but the media have eased off him, and now that Kevin Rudd is in the background he seems also to be off limits for strident criticism. But with our PM as the target there is plenty of scope for the media to criticize, demean and mock.

How many journalists have commented on her slow ocker way of speaking? Some have suggested that she get lessons in public speaking, even in elocution. While there is good advice that communication experts might give her about the words to use and how to deliver them, I doubt if they would advise her to change her voice. What would the media say? I already hear it saying, with lashings of mockery: ‘Is this the real Julia, or a new Julia?’ Can you imagine the ridicule? Those who dislike her voice, her way of speaking, will go on condemning her for it. In my opinion, nothing she could do to appease them would make the slightest difference. I don’t find it any more unusual than Bob Hawke’s drawl, or John Howard's way of speaking that imitators found such good fun. It’s irrelevant to those listening for the message, rather than finding fault.

Other criticisms include accusations of being ‘wooden’ or ‘condescending’. You will remember the ‘wooden’ appellation that originated with her appearances during the Queensland floods. That tag gathered momentum and was soon on many journalistic lips. It’s now in the archives waiting for resurrection when needed. ‘Condescending’ is a label often applied. This is a matter of perception. I have never found her so, but clearly others do. And when they do the media is all over it, transmitting the message: ‘this PM is condescending’. Is it any wonder those susceptible to such a suggestion quickly embrace the notion that this woman speaks down to us, and as we know, nobody likes that. ‘Schoolmarmish’ is another way of saying much the same thing. The media has the option of promoting such terms, or not doing so. It chooses generally to do so. Is that simply to entertain and titillate its audience, or is it a deliberate ploy to demean and more sinisterly, imprint an adverse image of our PM on its audience to advance a political purpose: the deposing of her and her Government? Some will regard the latter proposition as evidence of paranoia, but as a wise old physician once said to me: ‘If it’s true, it’s not paranoia’.

And if a sinister attribute can be applied to the PM, this has even more power than remarks about her physical appearance. To call someone a liar is a potent weapon to demean, to diminish, to blacken a reputation. Tony Abbott, his Opposition team, and his media acolytes have been spectacularly successful in promulgating the liar tag. How many times have you heard, or seen on TV, ‘there will be no carbon tax under a Government I lead’. It is repeated endlessly, and the Ju-liar image reinforced over and again. Is it surprising then that when an indoctrinated electorate is asked to assess Julia Gillard’s trustworthiness, as was the case in this week’s Newspoll, they mark her down? When commentators then say that she doesn’t seem to be able to shake off the liar image, the reason ought to be obvious – they keep telling their audience that she is a liar, day after day, week after week. Older readers will remember how the label ‘communist’ was used to brand ‘left-leaning’ people in a way that they could never escape, even though they were not communists. Labels can be dangerously infectious; often time, a very long time is necessary for them to be erased, and then only after the rhetoric has long ceased.

Once more, note what a powerful influence the media has in the promulgation of pejorative labels – they can do so with vicious persistence, or they can desist. They chose the former for those out of favour, but prefer the latter for their favourites. Tony Abbott has admitted to lying when speaking off the cuff, and often does so, but how often does our media pull him up? Seldom – he is in favour.

With the way the media demean her, is it surprising that Julia Gillard has difficulty getting her message across?

The audience
Politicians have many audiences, but the only one that really counts for them is the electorate. It matters little to them what school children or kids in hospital think; it is only those with a vote who count. The voting public is reached through a variety of means. There are public meetings, ‘community cabinets’ and personal representations with constituents, all of which may provide congenial settings to get across messages, even complex ones. But the media at large is far and away the most common vehicle for transmission to the wide audience of the voting public. If a good message cannot be transmitted via the standard media, it will count for little. Mail-outs, posters, advertisements, and handouts at voting booths have little potency. Politicians need to use the mainstream media to get their messages out.

But that’s not all there is to it. It is the media, not just here, but everywhere, that has created the expectations of their audiences. Based on the belief that what sells papers and programs is mainly their entertainment value, the media has fashioned its offerings to meet that criterion. Knowing that short tidbits make for easy transmission, the electronic media has concentrated on short, snappy presentations of entertaining information, bite-sized bits that are easily assimilated. The net result is that their audiences have been conditioned to such offerings, offerings that require short periods of attention. The outcome is an audience with an ever-diminishing attention span that will not, indeed cannot give more than a moment’s time to the subject. That is fine for Tony Abbott’s three word slogans, but entirely unsuitable for addressing complex issues such as global warming and what to do about it. Of course there are those who take political issues seriously enough to read widely, who attend to thoughtful articles in the serious Fourth Estate, and in the Fifth Estate. Sadly we are in a minority; politicians seeking election must appeal to and be heard by all the voters, and that requires them to make the most of the media that we have.

The audience is not like an attentive class of students keen to learn, the media has seen to that. It is not surprising then that having accustomed their audiences to expect, indeed insist on simple, short, snappy interesting messages that can be assimilated quickly like a soft smoothie that can be gulped down, their audiences reject a sophisticated meal of many elements blended skillfully to give an appreciation of complexity, but which takes time and attention to ingest and digest in all its complexity.

With audiences like that, habituated by the media, is it surprising that Julia Gillard has difficulty getting her messages across, many of which are complex?

The medium
Of all the factors that influence the extent to which political messages get across, there is none as powerful as the medium, indeed the many media. And now I’m not referring to its capacity to do the things detailed above, but to its deliberate political agenda. Although Coalition supporters would argue that there is no bias in the media in its favour, there is so much evidence to the contrary that it is undeniable. The Murdoch Empire and News Limited have been targeted as biased, and many pieces have been written about this. Robert Manne’s article in The Monthly: Bad News: Robert Manne on Murdoch’s Australian spelt out in detail the anti-Government agenda of News Limited and its flagship The Australian. Of course there have been the Manne detractors, but their rebuttals ring hollow. And the Fairfax Media are not without fault.

When contemplating this piece, I thought I would have to research instances of malicious media influence, but I didn’t have to wait long – along came The Sunday Age this week that blasted from its headlines an anti-Gillard message: that she had ‘snubbed’ the Olympics by deciding not to attend the London Olympics and also the fund raising dinner for Olympic athletes that is usually attended by the PM. It was only when one read down the page that it was revealed that only one Australian PM had attended an overseas Olympics since Malcolm Fraser, namely Kevin Rudd, and that PM Gillard was not attending the Olympic fundraiser because the date clashed with that of a G20 meeting that she was attending, one every reasonable Australian would agree held precedence. Coates failed to ascertain when our PM would be attending the G20, failed to realize that it clashed with his event, and failed to arrange another date when she could attend. Even he would not be so egotistical to suggest that our PM ditch attendance at the G20 meeting in favour of his fundraiser. It was his error. John Coates is entitled to express his opinion, even to have a giant dummy spit at our PM not being at events that are important in his life, but is The Sunday Age entitled to scream Coates’ disapproval from its headlines, to engage in a vicious beat-up for which there was no justification, as the article itself shows? No. Any paper with any self-respect would not do what The Sunday Age did. One can only conclude that its intent was deliberately to embarrass our PM and to demean her in the eyes of its audience. Those who read only the headlines would draw an adverse conclusion about PM Gillard; only those who read on would see that it was a beat-up. Fortunately, Barrie Cassidy saw the beat up before his 9 a.m. Insiders where all the panellists called it for what it was. It died rapidly, not subsequently featuring on ABC bulletins, but the damage had already been done.

This behaviour exemplifies the malicious way the media too often obstructs PM Gillard from getting her message out. By demeaning her in this despicable way, any message she wants to transmit, not just about the reasons she was not attending Olympics events, is smothered by the bad feelings that the paper has generated about her. Who listens to anyone that one despises, no matter how compelling the message?

Readers would be able to quote instance after instance of newspapers and electronic news outlets deliberately distorting information, misrepresenting the facts, cherry-picking those that suit their purpose, at times blatantly lying. And often this is for overt political purposes. The Australian seeks the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box and has explicitly advocated this in its pages. Only this week on ABC 774 Melbourne radio, Alan Howe, executive editor and columnist at Murdoch’s Herald Sun, described Bob Brown as “barking mad” after reading Brown’s recent Third Green Oration in Hobart, and went on to demean the Greens. News Limited makes no secret of the fact it is running an anti-Green campaign. How can such an organization provide its consumers with balanced, unbiased, fact-based reporting on political issues when it overtly runs its negative agenda against the Greens? That it is entitled to do so is not disputed, what is disputed is that it can purport to accurately inform the public about political matters so that voters can cast their vote intelligently.

It’s not just News Limited that has become an overt political player. Many, but not all Fairfax journalists have also taken up the anti-Gillard, anti-Labor cudgels. This week veteran journalist Michelle Grattan continued her anti-Gillard campaign in an extraordinary article on the Afghanistan announcement: Gillard on back foot on timing. While the vast majority of commentators gave the PM a tick for her announcement, even Tony Abbott, Grattan saw her announcement quite differently, of course through her own anti-Gillard optics, and ended her piece with: “The Afghanistan announcement was a case study in this government's communications problems. It needed to marshal its experts to get across to the media exactly what it was doing and when, and how that flowed from what has gone before.” So while most others saw this as good messaging by the PM, Grattan did not, and I suspect never will.

With News Limited and Fairfax both running a plethora of anti-Labor stories, many of which do not stand up to scrutiny for truthfulness and balance, how can Julia Gillard get her messages across?

In contrast, how often does the MSM take Tony Abbott to task, even when he lies? He and Joe Hockey have been peddling the line that Government borrowing, you remember ‘a $100 million a day’, is pushing up interest rates, but as Greg Jericho shows in his piece on The Drum: Government debt and interest rates have no connection, the Abbott/Hockey line is a blatant lie. His piece concludes: “To say blithely that Government debt is causing upward pressure on interest rates is just the type of thing you say if you know you can do it and not be held to account. And given Tony Abbott on Monday said it six times in the one doorstop, I'm guessing he doesn't feel under too much pressure to justify his line from those asking the questions.” Exactly, no journalist had the intelligence or the desire to challenge the lie.

Of all the factors that govern political communication, and we have examined four of them, in my view it is the media that has the most profound influence by a country mile. It influences the way in which the message needs to be presented to be heard or read; it influences the way the messenger is regarded; it influences the expectations and the reaction of the audience, which it has conditioned to a style of reporting that is inimical to the understanding of complex issues, and on top of that much of the media is running an overt, and sometimes covert political agenda as a player in the political field of play. It has its fingers in every pie.

It is because its influence is seen to be so pernicious, so all pervasive, so anti-democratic, that writers in the Fifth Estate are so articulate in condemnation. Mr Denmore, a past journalist, has given us a fine series of acerbic pieces that point to the deficiencies and malevolence of much of the Fourth Estate. He begins his latest piece: Nowhere man with “One of the cherished myths of mainstream media critics of the internet is that it is almost wholly populated by paranoiacs, single-issue fanatics, stalkers, train-spotters and sundry geeks occupying the far reaches of the autistic spectrum. Thank God, they say, for the reasoned professionals in the nation's newsrooms.” This reflects the reaction of much of the MSM to criticism of their performance, to questioning of their motives, to exposing their agenda. We saw this when Dennis Shanahan was challenged in the dying days of the Howard Government about his warped interpretation of Newspoll results. He responded angrily, as did his editor, casting aspersions on bloggers as useless, ignorant, ne’er-do-wells whose opinions are worthless, even dangerous. As Mr Denmore points out, it is a shame that George Megalogenis, one whose writings on economics are highly regarded, has felt it necessary to write about some who responded on his blog: "The problem isn’t us, or our loyal audiences, but the know-it-all." As Mr Denmore says: “Indeed, his blog entry reads as a rather desperate rearguard attempt to blame the disintegration of the mainstream media business model on a few ‘cyber bullies’, as he calls them - crazed keyboard warriors of the extremes whose cap-locked SHOUTING is drowning out attempts by legitimate journalists to tap dance for a loving and largely passive readership. Has there ever been a better example of an otherwise astute mainstream journalist completely missing the point about what interactive media means?” George must have had a bad day at the blog with ranting bloggers. We know the feeling.

I expect a similar reaction from any journalist who has persevered this far.

To so many of us in the Fifth Estate the unavoidable conclusion is that the mainstream media has a major, and too often a malicious influence on how Government messages are transmitted to the electorate. It’s tentacles reach into every aspect of communication as its distorts the message, demeans the messenger and poisons the audience to her or him, conditions the audience in a way that makes the transmission of complex messages to it almost impossible, and most malevolently by being a partisan player on the political field. Unfortunately there seems to be no magic bullet to remedy this deplorable state of affairs.

In the face of all this is it any surprise Julia Gillard just can’t seem to get her message across?

What do you think?