Unless you are senior and well endowed with gravitas, if you want to stay within the Journos' Club, stick to the club rule – don’t praise the PM. Otherwise you may end up on the outer, shunned by the majority – the timid compliant majority too inhibited to flout the rule.
Yesterday, in his introduction of Kevin Rudd as a panellist in the opening session of a conference to discuss global issues at the Clinton Global Initiative think tank, Bill Clinton said: “In my opinion, he is one of the most well informed, well read, intelligent leaders in the world today.'' Clinton detailed Rudd’s diplomatic background in East Asian affairs, portrayed him as an expert on China, commended his recognition of the need to take urgent action on climate change, and welcomed his advocacy of the G20 as the best forum to deal with issues such as the global financial crisis. He mentioned that for his 52nd birthday on Monday, his wife, Therese Rein, had given him a book of Revolutionary War maps. ''In other words, this guy's pretty smart.'' [more]
That news item evoked a headline in The Age this morning: Nerd-in-chief Kevin is Bill's celebrity pick, which began “John Howard was the man of steel. Now Kevin Rudd, it seems, has been anointed the world's nerd-in-chief.” Not to be outdone, The Australian’s Brad Norington in a piece When it comes to being smart, our Kev fits the Bill - quite a nice headline - began with “Kevin Rudd has given Bill Clinton a dose of the nerdy know-all side to his personality - and the former US president is impressed. Mr Clinton described the Prime Minister yesterday as ‘pretty smart’, rating him one of the world's most intelligent leaders.” Norington goes on to say “He [Clinton] described how, as the pair shared breakfast two days earlier, Mr Rudd went into ‘excruciating detail’ on George Washington's strategy to defend New York against the British during the American War of Independence.’ Then in case his readers continued to be impressed with Clinton’s view of Rudd, Norington reported “But the former president's admiration did not prevent one slip as he referred to the Prime Minister as ‘Mr Rude’, to which Norrington added gratuitously “It is not clear if Mr Clinton is aware of reports in the Australian media in the past few days about Mr Rudd's temper-fuelled use of bad language at home.” What a clever put-down.
These articles are pointers to how you journalists should handle laudatory remarks about Kevin Rudd. Report the comments accurately (don’t forget the quotation marks – you wouldn’t want readers to think this was your opinion) but create a headline that takes off some of the gloss; not too nasty, just putting him down a little – ‘nerd’ is a good choice. Norrington’s reference to ‘Mr Rude’ adds a nice dash of mockery, and his mention of ‘bad language’ is a reminder that Rudd sometimes swears, just in case any reader had missed it.
Rudd has been in New York now for several days. Apart from meetings with executives from major financial institutions, hedge funds, ratings agencies and other big corporate players to try to get them to invest in Australia, his breakfast meeting with Clinton and his contribution to the Clinton think tank, Rudd joined more than one hundred leaders for a special UN summit at which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had assigned him the role of co-chairing a climate change round-table. After attending the UN summit, he gave the keynote address at the Foreign Policy Association Forum and was awarded the Foreign Policy Association Medal. He addressed the UN General Assembly today. His address was the last, and was pushed back a couple of hours because of lengthy preceding speeches. He also met leaders of several nations including the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Tomorrow he will attend the G20 meeting of leaders in Pittsburgh where he will talk about Australia’s exceptional escape from recession and severe unemployment. Since he arrived on Saturday, Rudd has been calling for urgent action on climate change, and wants Australia to be seen as leader in the reform process.
With that degree of involvement in high level talks, with all the accolades being heaped on him by international high-flyers, it takes skilled journalism to take the shine off his contribution to international discourse on crucial issues such as climate change and the global financial crisis and its sequelae. Taking the piss out of Rudd is difficult when he’s flying so high, but it can be done, as the articles quoted illustrate. Confronting him immediately on his arrival in New York with the story of his dressing down of backbenchers who were trying to change his mind about printing allowances, was a great start. When an Australian PM, especially a Labor one, is overseas on an important mission, make sure there’s some local beat-up to distract him. And, when the vision of Rudd’s speech to the UN today comes out, if there are empty seats occasioned by the lateness of the speech, do focus on them to take attention away from what he’s saying and pull him down a peg or two. Today, when Barrie Cassidy appeared on ABC’s 774 Radio Melbourne to sum up the week’s political events and mentioned the high praise afforded Rudd during his busy schedule, it evoked a down-putting comment from the compère: “Yeah, typical Rudd, tries to cover too many bases.” So even in the face of praise for our PM by others, there’s always a comeback you can use to take off some of the glitter.
There are some journalists who can get away with praising the PM. Paul Kelly, Laurie Oakes and Michelle Grattan have the seniority and gravitas to do so, but even they seldom give unqualified praise; there’s usually a gentle put-down added for good measure. They will never suffer rejection from the Journos’ Club. But lesser mortals will if they dare to stray from the convention – don’t praise the PM.
As all you journalists know, the danger of praising the PM or his Government lurks too on the home front.
Take the stimulus packages. You have illustrated how to diminish any achievements that the packages have brought about. There is now a solid body of opinion that the stimulus program has been an important element in enabling Australia to avoid recession and rapidly rising unemployment. Of course there are sceptics such as Henry Ergas and Michael Stutchbury, but their views are weighed down by the positive views of a host of local economists and international bodies. Even when the evidence obliged the giving of credit, there were still techniques you used to effectively take off the gloss, and for spreading vague doubts about the beneficial effects.
First, you pointed out the great state of the economy inherited from the Howard years, the stimulatory effects of interest rate cuts and the influence of China’s resources hunger; and you used any other factor that could be drummed up to dilute down the effect of the cash element. Next, you avoided the official term for the initial cash stimulus: a 'cash bonus’, and used instead words with a pejorative slant like ‘cash splash’, ‘cash splurge’, ‘cash handout’, or ‘sugar-hit’. You threw in words like ‘wasteful’, ‘poorly targeted’, ‘reckless’ or ’profligate’ and sometimes embellished them with ‘drunken sailor’ – words all conveniently provided by the Opposition. Next, you insisted that the cash would be saved not spent, and would therefore have no effect. No supporting evidence was advanced, but when you felt you must offer some, you found an economist of that opinion. When all the evidence pointed incontrovertibly to the fact that the money had been spent and had supported retail sales and employment, you found an anti-Keynesian economist who argued black and blue in favour of Friedman’s idea that tax cuts are better than cash stimuli, no matter what the facts said. Above all, you cast doubt.
Take now part two of the stimulus, the schools program. This is large: 24,000 projects in 9500 schools bringing employment to local tradesmen and business to local commerce and industry while re-building run-down school infrastructure. Local communities all around the nation are pleased and appreciative. But there were some problems in implementation; the number of complaints soared to 49, and has now passed 50, about 2 per thousand of the total projects. It was pretty hard to knock a program with that level of success. It was pretty hard to avoid giving praise to the PM, his deputy, Julia Gillard, who is overseeing the program, and indeed to the Government for this initiative.
But you didn’t despair. A technique for countering the good news was initiated by The Australian – The Heart of the Nation. It decided that a campaign to expose the difficulties experienced in implementing the program, being rolled out rapidly to achieve quickly its aims for employment and local business, was in the ‘national interest’. So it carried a running total, replete with gory details, photos and quotes of the difficulties being experienced. It even had a dedicated online section for anyone who enjoyed keeping count. This of course was fodder for the Opposition when it embarked on a blitzkrieg of questions in Question Time. Remember always that one negative story is worth a hundred positive ones. Readers will lap up the difficulties, the disasters, the stuff-ups, but will scarcely take the trouble to read the good news stories, even if the media bothered to put them out. Remember The Australian’s campaign when similar success attends the Government’s efforts.
In conclusion, you can avoid praising the PM, even when others are profuse in their tributes. There’s a plethora of pejorative words, put-downs, doubt-raising comments, complaints, distractions, and a long list of past media-generated Rudd transgressions that can be recycled. The media’s response to this week’s events in New York illustrates just how much can be done to pull down or put down our PM when he’s overseas on important missions, ‘strutting the world stage’.
Remember two things: First if you applaud the PM on these occasions, if you show pride in his contribution as an Australian to global issues, if you take satisfaction in the respect afforded him by leaders of other nations, you are likely to find yourself getting the cold shoulder from your colleagues, and being quietly extruded from the inner sanctum where the cynical journos live.
Next, never forget that in this country the tall poppy syndrome afflicts much of the population. It would never do if a Prime Minister of Australia became so highly regarded internationally that he ‘got above himself’. After all, we are just 22 million down-unders, weighed down by a long-standing cultural cringe, and except in the field of sport, we have no right to expect top billing.
It is your duty as loyal Aussie journos to keep it that way, and you can – just don’t praise the PM, ever.