Ross Gittins gives that impression in his piece in The Age on 27 July: 'Tough' talking PM is all spin. In it he analyses Kevin Rudd’s latest essay The road to recovery that appeared in the 25 July issue of that paper.
Exactly what is ‘political spin’? Wikipedia says: “In public relations, spin is providing an interpretation of an event or campaign to persuade public opinion in favour or against a certain organization or public figure. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, ‘spin’ often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics. Politicians are often accused by their opponents of claiming to be honest and seek the truth while using spin tactics to manipulate public opinion.” [more]
The techniques of spin include:
Selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one's position (cherry picking)
Non-denial denial – a statement that seems direct, clear cut and unambiguous at first hearing, but when carefully parsed is revealed not to be a denial at all
Phrasing in a way that assumes unproven truths
Euphemisms to disguise or promote one's agenda
‘Burying bad news’ by announcing one popular thing at the same time as several unpopular things, hoping that the media will focus on the popular one.
When used in a political context, the term ‘spin’ is almost always being used pejoratively. But it is a generic term, one that has a spectrum of meanings from the relatively benign intent of presenting a case in the most favourable light, to the malicious intent of outright deception. To use it without qualification leaves one wondering at which end of the spectrum the spin in question sits. The usual assumption is that it sits at the malicious end. It would improve debate if the generic term ‘spin’ was not used at all, and instead the intent of the spin was described – whether the spin is just trying to make things look attractive, or designed to dishonestly manipulate the facts. But then that’s contrary to the intent of those who use the word, which is to paint as bad a picture as possible. That’s why the ‘all spin, no substance’ mantra is so popular with Government opponents.
Using the Wikipedia guidelines, how much of the Rudd essay really is spin?
Although not stated until paragraph eleven, Rudd says: “The purpose of this essay is threefold: to review progress in dealing with the immediate crisis; to look beyond the immediate crisis to outline challenges likely to arise during recovery; and to define the core economic challenge for the decade ahead, the ‘Building Decade’, as we embrace a bold strategy to boost Australia's long-term global competitiveness.” His piece follows that order: it is informative, well written, understandable, logically sequenced and comprehensive.
But some struggled to read it all. Gittins begins: “I have done it. I've forced myself to read every bit of Kevin Rudd's latest 6100-word diatribe on economic recovery. Now I know what it must be like to sit through one of Fidel Castro's three-hour speeches.” Poor Ross. Fancy a journalist having to read a whole 6100 words before writing his reply, and a 6100 word ‘diatribe’ at that. On ABC’s Insiders the day after the essay, and again today, there were similar cries of anguish at the 6100 words, and during the week from ABC 774 Melbourne’s Jon Faine. 6100 words, what an imposition. Is this just media groupthink – let’s all bag the length of the essay – or is it disinterest or worse still, laziness? For the sake of MSM journalism, let’s hope it’s simply groupthink.
For whom was Rudd’s essay written? Not for journalists – it seems some haven’t the time to read all those words anyway. No, it was written for the general public. We know that while many will not have read the full article, some would at least have glanced at the headings and the italicized summary that followed each heading, and thereby gained a general understanding of what the piece was about. Rudd would not be expecting a thorough analysis by the general public, but by taking the trouble to lay out his message in detail he made it available for those who wanted to discover it. Some of the media concede the public might appreciate its PM communicating with them in this way, but there are as many who having regularly bagged Rudd for his use of tiny sound-bites, now bag him for making a comprehensive statement. He just can’t seem to get it right.
So where is the spin?
First, as Gittins points out, “Rudd nowhere acknowledges the role of his Liberal predecessors in pursuing the policies that left us so well placed in the global crisis. It was the Libs who formalised the Reserve Bank's independence...” He continues: “Rudd quotes the IMF's praise for our medium-term fiscal strategy, but fails to acknowledge that it was formulated by, and inherited from, his predecessors. He fails to admit that the relatively low ... levels of public debt...are the product of his predecessors' budget surpluses and zero net debt. The Libs also deserve credit for the good shape our banks are in. It was they who reformed our prudential supervision system...” What Gittins says is correct. Rudd could be seen as ‘cherry picking’; his omissions could be regarded as spin, even although Gittins does not label them so.
Acknowledging the contribution of opponents might be seen as a political no-no, but I suspect it attracts kudos rather than the opposite. Politicians find it a hard thing to do.
Gittins says “The notion that the Libs could be fairly described as ‘neo-liberal free-market fundamentalists’ is laughable.” Rudd has pointed to what happened in the US where it is widely acknowledged that neo-liberal free-market fundamentalism, poor financial regulation, incompetence and greed were critical contributing causes of the GFC. Although he has never directly accused the Liberals in Australia of causing the GFC, by drawing a parallel between the US neo-liberals and the ideology of the Liberal Party, he could be seen as ‘phrasing in a way that assumes unproven truths’, and therefore what he said could be categorized as spin.
Gittins is one who believes, along with others, that we are in recession, and therefore when Rudd says: “...the Government's budgetary stimulus is keeping Australia out of recession”, Gittins hints that this is spin.
Gittins then says of Rudd “.... he bangs on at length about the ‘paradox’ of how terrible the recovery is going to be. It will be ‘a long, tough and bumpy road with many twists and turns’.” He berates Rudd for saying "As growth returns, the economic conditions facing many families will deteriorate." Gittins concedes that unemployment is a lagging indicator but is sarcastic about Rudd saying “...there is likely to be upwards pressure on interest rates which will put ‘additional financial pressure on many families’.” That happens to be the opinion of many economists – What did Gittins expect him to say?
When Rudd rightly asks "Australians to accept difficult and unpopular budget to cuts...involving some painful and unpopular decisions that will affect many Australians", Gittins says: “I'm starting to see the motive for all this ‘tough times’ talk: you make it sound terrible so that, when it turns out it isn't so bad, voters are more relieved than angry. It's spin, in other words.” So Gittins thinks it might not be so bad, and that Rudd’s warnings about hard times are not genuine, just spin. It’s curious that although the word spin is used in the title, this is the only time he uses in the text.
Gittins then acknowledges Rudd’s ‘sustainable economic recovery strategy’, but ends on a sarcastic note “Oh dear; 18 months ago climate change was the greatest social, economic and moral challenge of the age, now it's last on the reform list, lumped in with water. How Rudd's enthusiasm wanes when decisions really do get tough.” Clearly Rudd should not have allowed a little blip like the GFC to distract him from fixing climate change. He should have kept it at the top of his list and let the GFC look after itself.
If you haven’t read Rudd’s piece, I believe it is worth the trouble of reading its 6100 words. We have a PM who is attempting to inform the nation about where we are, how we got there, what’s been done, the effect that has had, and where we should head to ensure a sustainable and productive future. That seems both justifiable and laudable. I cannot remember previous prime ministers doing this, and I for one value this form of communication, even if it does contain some elements of what might be regarded as spin.
To return to the title of his piece, why does Gittins include ‘all spin’ in the title while making only one mention of spin in his article? Even if some parts of the Rudd essay could fit the definition of spin, that doesn’t that make it ‘all spin’? Does Gittins genuinely believe what Rudd has written is ‘all spin’? Is that what he’s really saying? Perhaps it’s not Gittins’ headline at all. Could it have come from a sub-editor cherry picking from Gittins’ article to create a catching, albeit misleading title?
On 25 July Phillip Coorey wrote a piece on the Rudd essay in the SMH, Rudd's recipe for recovery, and in The Age Michelle Grattan wrote Rudd warns of suffering as economy recovers without once mentioning the word 'spin'. In Shaun Carney’ piece Orthodox spin in The Age, the word ‘spin’ was used in another sense; there was no mention of spin in his article. All three were balanced and effective analyses.
Because Gittins’ piece is so acerbic and sarcastic, it has contributed little to an understanding of the Rudd essay. Instead, it has inserted a jarring note that detracts from thoughtful assessment. I read the Rudd piece first and found it enlightening. Then I read Gittins’ analysis and asked ‘What is he trying to achieve?’ I still don’t know.
So why not read Rudd's latest essay and check for yourself if it's all spin.
Let's know what you think.