Those ‘of a certain age’ will remember the 60s’ TV show Get Smart
that featured the brilliant writing of Mel Brooks as well as the incredible acting of Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Edward Platt. Don Adams was Agent 86 in the US Secret Agency known as Control; Barbara Feldon was Agent 99 and Edward Platt was ‘Chief’. Their nemesis was an organisation called Kaos. Those who know the show will instantly remember the ‘Cone of Silence’, a piece of ‘high technology’ equipment. It was supposed to ensure that if microphones were planted in the Chief’s office, they would be useless. While the Cone of Silence may have been a good idea, the implementation left a lot to be desired. (For those unfamiliar with the concept – this clip explains how it failed.)
In a complete turn-around from his actions in Opposition - where appearing in an industrial setting with freshly ironed hi-vis vest was de rigueur
- the Prime Minister now wants to control the information flow to the media differently. It seems, now that the LNP has won the election, the Prime Minister wants to operate in a Cone of Silence. Will it be any better than the version that people have been laughing at for decades on TV?
Tony Abbott has declared at a news conference that he will only speak as Prime Minister when he has something to say and that he won’t be feeding the 24-hour news cycle. It has also been widely reported that all interviews with Ministers have to be approved by the Prime Minister’s Office 24 hours prior to the interview. (It is ironic that the decision that all Ministers must seek approval prior to participating in interviews was leaked!)
Evidence of this ‘cone of silence’ policy can be found in three recent events:
- Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announces that refugee boat arrivals and ‘turn backs’ will be only discussed at a weekly briefing due to ‘operational security’ rather than as the event occurs.
- Treasurer Joe Hockey announces that the Federal Government’s finances are being investigated line by line, while having to announce a better than expected result from the last financial year.
- Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with her Indonesian counterpart to discuss refugee boats and declares the meeting details will not be disclosed or discussed.
A month or so into the term of the Coalition Government, just how is this policy panning out?
After Abbott’s announcement, there had been plenty of muted supporting comment from the media: Jacqueline Maley’s ‘Don’t feed the chooks’
; Barry Cassidy’s ‘Abbott wise to pull back... but not too far’
; and Dee Madigan’s ‘Tone it down’
Then on September 26, Fairfax headlined a piece ‘Abbott assures nation he is hard at work’
. Perhaps Abbott realised that ‘refusing to participate in the news cycle’ could be construed as ‘nothing was happening’. Obviously this was a message the Prime Minister didn’t want to send.
And a rather interesting piece in the SMH from Tony Wright
followed on 27th September:
Small factory in the suburbs? Check. Fluro jacket? Check. It is as if Tony Abbott never wanted the election campaign to end.
Mention the carbon tax? Promise to get the budget back in control? Stop the boats? Build the roads of the 21st century?
Check, check, check and check.
This report continues:
He could barely keep his hands off the containers of laundry powders and stain removers. His craving for a factory photo-op satiated, the Prime Minister offered himself to cameras and journalists for precisely the sort of doorstop he held every day of the campaign.
Scott Morrison’s clampdown on refugee boat announcements has gone equally as well.
Someone on Christmas Island has been using Twitter to advise how many people arrive on each boat. On 27 September the ABC and commercial media were reporting that 10 refugee boats had arrived since the election date, three of them since the Coalition Government had been sworn in. Over the weekend of 28 and 29 September, a news story unfolded on the commercial television networks reporting that people had drowned in another refugee boat heading for Australia. The reporters were stating clearly they were not getting comment from the Government – and that was simply not good enough.
Now that the Prime Minister and Foreign Ministers have spoken to their Indonesian counterparts, apparently the LNP policy wasn’t to ‘turn around’ refugee boats
Morrison said the Coalition had “never had a policy of towing boats back to Indonesia” and blamed “misrepresentation over a long period of time” in the media for that impression.
In late September Joe Hockey released the final accounting for the Federal Government’s 2012-2013 Financial Year where the headline was an $18.8 billion deficit (down from a projected $19.4 billion on August 2, 2013).
According to Michael Pascoe in Fairfax media:
It's yet another case of politics overshadowing economics: while newbie Treasurer Joe Hockey insinuates otherwise, the final count for the 2012-13 federal budget is an outstanding achievement, a monument to a skilled Treasury performance in very difficult circumstances.
Hockey certainly didn’t give credit to either his Department or the former Treasurer for a job well done. However, he has ‘deferred’ the surplus promised by Abbott while listing how often Swan promised the same thing.
The new Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, met her Indonesian counterpart at the United Nations in New York to discuss, amongst other issues, the Coalition Government policy on refugee boats. According to the Foreign Minister, the conversation was private and Australia’s position was explained.
The Indonesian Government had a differing opinion – it released the notes of the discussion while stating that the policy of ‘turning back the boats’ was not supported. As reported by the ABC:
The ABC's Indonesia correspondent George Roberts told PM, the statement is a rare move from a nation that is usually much more circumspect in diplomacy.
"Even in recent history, the foreign minister has been very reluctant to speak openly and has been very diplomatic about it," he said.
"So this kind of language is quite strong and quite interesting indeed.”
While there would be little support for yet another three years of election campaigning, does PM Abbott really expect that all of the fourth and fifth estates will, now that he is in power, concede ‘there is nothing to see here and let’s move on’?
Early in October, an opinion piece by Mark Kenny
In one of the lighter moments towards the end of the recent presidential-style election campaign, Labor's campaign headquarters issued a press statement configured as a faux police bulletin.
It said grave fears were held for the whereabouts of once high profile Liberals, Peter Dutton, Sophie Mirabella, and Eric Abetz.
The respective health, industry, and workplace relations shadow ministers had become almost invisible. Labor was desperate to draw them on to policy terrain usually judged as stronger for the ALP.
The crux of the article is the ALP’s claim that while disciplined media management is a positive in Opposition, it is a negative in Government. Abbott is maintaining the same management policy in Government, which leads us
as the employers of the Government to believe they are doing nothing. When the inevitable ‘crisis’ happens, not only are the relevant Ministers unprepared for the attention it will place on their shoulders, they will be an easy mark for the more critical elements of the media pack.
It is often said that those that don’t remember history are bound to repeat it. Probably the most relevant example of this is the former Premier of Victoria Ted Ballieu. News reports at the time of his overthrow (who said the ALP was the only political party to turf out current leaders while in power?) suggested that a large part of the reason for his demise was his lack of connection with the media, leading to the Victorian Government becoming almost invisible. Ballieu is still a member of the Victorian Parliament – but no one outside Victoria hears anything about him.
By contrast, when the self-confessed ‘media tart’ Peter Beattie chose to run in a southern Brisbane seat in the recent Federal election nearly a decade after being Premier of Queensland he was the subject of national media coverage. Beattie knew how to participate in the media. He had been re-elected as Premier in 2001, and in 2004 in the middle of a scandal involving members of his Government – promising to ‘clean the mess up’. While publicity may not have helped Beattie win the Federal Seat in 2013, one never knows if the result would have been worse for the ALP if Beattie had not run.
Politicians in general like to control the message and in this respect Tony Abbott is no different from those that preceded him. Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard attempted to manage the media in different ways: Rudd by going into infinite detail when questioned and Gillard on occasions by literally standing there and taking all questions until there were no more. Both of them had good policies and decisions to publicise but limited success in crafting a story that the media accepted. Ultimately, the lack of the ability to craft and generate ‘good’ news stories about life in Australia led to their demise at the hands of the members of their own political party. In both cases there were other factors at play as well. Rudd’s apparent ‘control freak’ tendencies, and various sections of the ALP never resolving their differences with the way in which Kevin Rudd was replaced by Gillard, certainly didn’t help. It could be argued that internal tensions didn’t help concentrate the previous Government’s mind fully on projecting their message to the country.
Despite the ALP Government’s success at managing the negotiation of a hung parliament for half the time they were in power, as well as leaving a number of programs that will benefit Australia for generations, they will be remembered for a largely self-inflicted loss of the media battle.
The Cone of Silence used on Get Smart
was designed to be an object of fun and derision. There are already signs that the media is treating Abbott’s Cone of Silence with the same derision. Fairfax media has been ‘crowd surfing’
recently, asking people to help them find examples of ‘travel rorts’, while Abbott would have been much happier if his contribution to the current APEC conference in Indonesia was the only news. Will Abbott eventually find the ‘sweet spot’ between Ballieu and Beattie’s media styles?
Will he ‘trust’ his Ministers to be the ‘adults’ he claims make up his Government?
What will the media do if Abbott continues the policy of non-engagement as media control? Will the reporters and editors that have been on a controlled drip feed from the LNP Opposition for the past three years make it up, look for leaks or accept the status quo as the Coalition Government ‘turns off the easy story tap’?
What do you think?