Prime Minister. Listen carefully. The media is powerful, very powerful. Our journalists write newspaper columns that lots of people read; they create news bulletins and current affairs programmes that many people hear and see; they conduct talkback to which countless people listen. We have enormous influence. We can make and break governments and bring down prime ministers. You should not get us offside. We call the shots, not you. You’re beginning to make us annoyed. Watch it, we can get you, and probably will.
So here’s some advice. If you take it, we might let you run a bit longer, but if you don’t, remember you were warned. [more]
First, you should know that many journalists have experienced only two prime ministers: you and John Howard. We didn’t necessarily like Howard, but at least he was predictable. As one of our young sketch writers wrote about him only this weekend: “...you always had the feeling that Howard would look and sound exactly the same even in the most extraordinary of circumstances, whether called upon to address a group of transgender fisher-people in Alaska or abducted by aliens. You'd still get that wooden little lecture about Australia being a country built on mateship, and so on.” Howard was not all that inspiring, but he was predictable. He created in our minds a notion of what a prime minister was supposed to be, a model that seldom surprised us. He was like a comfortable old lounge chair – we knew how any encounter would feel.
There are of course older journalists who have known many PMs. They seem to be able to write in a more insightful way, with the wisdom of experience, but it’s only those that are older and in the ‘elite’ category who read what they write. Be aware PM that most journalists are younger, and they are the ones most of the people read. Many write for the tabloids, read by the majority of the people, so it’s what they say that really counts.
Before you were elected you claimed to be an economic conservative. You even said there was not a cigarette paper of difference between you and Howard on economic matters. You portrayed yourself as a younger John Howard - a safe pair of hands. But you’ve turned out to be a chameleon.
No sooner did the global financial crisis sweep over us than you were talking a different language. Your conservatism and fiscal rectitude vanished. You began pouring money into the economy to stimulate flagging activity and preserve jobs, just when we expected you to do what we think Howard would have done – nothing. Sure that might have resulted in a big slump in retail sales and the loss of lots of jobs, but we would still have had ‘money in the bank’ left generously to you by the Howard Government. Then you brought in a budget, a deficit budget at that, one that required borrowing lots of money. The Opposition quite rightly castigated you for such profligate spending and borrowing. You should have taken its approach and pretended that the GFC did not exist, that the loss of mining boom revenue wasn’t happening, and that over $200 billion had not disappeared from the revenue side of the budget. We’re not sure how they would have made up the shortfall, but what we do know is that those superior economic managers left over from the Howard days would have thought of something. Instead you reverted to Labor’s old spend, spend, spend. We pointed out that your behaviour was Whitlamesque, but as most of our younger journalists and many of our readers didn’t know what that meant, we didn’t run that line for long.
How could you change your colours so quickly, just because the world was sinking into the worst financial crisis in three quarters of a century? You should have stuck to your economic conservative guns; we would have cheered you and waved flags as the country sank beneath the waves. Consistency, not adaptability is what we want; it is consistency and predictability that makes us comfortable.
Next, you should realize that we have lots of expert economics correspondents on our staff. They predict outcomes before events happen – they’ll always have a punt about interest rates, national accounts figures, labour forces statistics and anything else you like to throw at them. Like most of their colleagues in the so-called economics profession, they are often wrong, but their guess is a good as anyone else's. You should read what they say and learn. You should not pretend you know more than they do and rush into ridiculous essays, like the one you wrote condemning neo-liberalism and blaming greed, unfettered free markets and poor regulation of the financial institutions for the catastrophic financial mess into which the world has sunk. Although you pointed out that these had been the factors that had brought down financial institutions in the US and Europe, and that this had not been the case in Australia, the link you made between neo-liberalism and the Liberal Party lead some of our less thoughtful journalists, and of course the Opposition, to conclude that you were blaming them for the GFC. You should be aware that some of our younger journalists are not so bright; you should give them no cause for confusion.
Another thing – your language! Now that has really, if we may be permitted to use a colloquialism, upset our apple cart. You see, we are trying to work out who you really are. When you first appeared on the scene as shadow Foreign Minister, you looked and spoke like a nerd. Your square glasses, your measured speech, often bordering on the academic, and your bland demeanour fitted that notion. We got used to that, but when you took over from Kim Beasley in a bloodless coup, we saw you had other attributes – planning ability and perseverance. Others might say cunning and pushiness. We can use whatever term suits us at the time. Much to our surprise the people took to you, and soon the polls were running in your favour. We’re still not sure why. You won the election and did things people liked – you signed Kyoto and said ‘sorry’. Your popularity kept rising. You mixed well with all sorts of people from the man in the street to the US President and the Chinese leadership; you even spoke in Mandarin – to Chinese students in Beijing – and they loved it. Then last week you assaulted us with those never-to-be-forgotten words: “fair shake of the sauce bottle”. We were shocked. Some of our younger journalists had never heard that expression, let along knew what it meant. You should be more careful. If you want them to understand, use words like ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’, or even just the old fashioned ‘fair go’ or ‘mate’, which Johnny would have used. But ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’ – really! What’s more, when we researched the phrase we found you’d got it wrong, that you’d mixed two expressions. We can’t have that – colloquial purity is essential for any PM worth his salt. But it did give many of our journalists something to relieve their boredom with the world’s worries. They set about creating countless comments on this matter of national importance, in the papers, on radio and TV, on talkback, and of course online, where a video clip of you uttering these words – three times in the one interview – can be replayed over and again.
But there’s something more sinister here. Why use those words? We’re sure we know. It’s because your spin doctors have told you that you need to appeal more to ordinary folks, to be more 'blokey', so you must speak ocker. We see you’ve got quite a range of ockerisms, including one about the rough end of the pineapple. We’ve assumed for some time that you’re addicted to spin and that your behaviour is the product of daily briefings from your press secretaries, the spinmeisters, and of course focus groups. We’ve suspected that you are a robot, and now we’re sure you’re programmed daily to utter whatever phrases are extant for the day. You couldn’t really be genuine with that sort of talk. Some of our most senior journalists say that’s the way you really speak, that your somewhat old fashioned expressions are straight out of rural Queensland where you grew up. In fact one did this weekend. But we don’t place much store on what these old geysers say.
Be assured, we’re watching you and we’re not much impressed with what we see. Remember we the media are entitled to critique, indeed criticise anyone and everyone we please. While we try to get our facts right, we feel no obligation to report them accurately or in full. First we decide what our angle is to be, then we fit in the facts to support it. We usually avoid telling outright lies and generally try to check the veracity of the facts, but sometimes that becomes too difficult or takes too long – we’ve got deadlines to meet you know. Another device we find useful is to mix fact and opinion so that the reader is uncertain which is which. In that way we can represent our opinion as fact. Be aware how powerful this is. Our editorial writers are even more powerful. While mostly they are journalists who have risen to the top of the pile and have no specialized knowledge of much of what they write about, because they write with the profundity of a sage, their words are given great credence, arguably much more than they should. But that’s the power of the pen, which you will know ‘is mightier than the sword’. They can write killer editorials, especially at election times.
You probably ask how the media can pillory anyone it likes for whatever reason it chooses, but no one can get back at it? Well that’s just the way it is, or should we say the way it has been. Lately though we’ve seen some pesky blog sites crop up who have had the temerity to criticise us! And there’s that online ‘paper’ Crikey that regularly has a go at us. Still not many read their stuff, so we’re safe for the time being, that is so long as newspapers survive.
But we come now to the most cogent reason we’re warning you PM. We’re becoming increasingly upset about the way you’re treating us. After all, given how important we are, and how much power and influence we have, we deserve more respect. You sometimes call press conferences at short notice, or arrive late, or cut them short, or don’t facilitate all the reporters, cameramen and sound-recordists we want along. You often take too long to answer a question, or repeat yourself too much, as if you’re trying to get a message out to busy people who don’t dwell on the news all day long like we do. It’s so boring. We want some soaring oratory, something new, something controversial, a scoop, something for which our editors and producers can give us a pat on the back, and maybe promotion down the line. Yet all we get is the same old message. If you’re not careful everyone in the country will have heard it, but we will have died of boredom. Remember we call the media shots, not you. We feel you’re having a piece of us with your tightly scripted media arrangements, and we don’t like it.
Why can’t you be more like John Howard? Why do you chameleon-like adapt to every situation? Why do you have to talk soothingly to a bushfire victim one day, give a eulogy the next, answer curly questions at doorstops every day, attend construction sites to advance ‘nation-building for the future’ and jet off overseas to Singapore and back all in the one day? You’re making our heads spin. We can’t really believe that it’s necessary to be in such a state of frenetic activity, and have your poor staff working so hard they never see their kids, and getting sworn at to boot – surely there must be a quieter way of running the country, even with the GFC waves crashing around us. Relax, so we can relax too.
Anyway, you’ve been warned. Lift your game and be more like what we became used to when Johnny was around. After all we’re human too, and it all a bit too much for us the way it is. Remember, as we said at the beginning, we can get you. Don’t tempt us.