Most of the media coverage of the September 14 Federal election date has focussed on the problems facing politicians and parties but big problems also confront the media itself and, to a lesser extent, the political PR staff.
First, the media: It is noteworthy, as I wrote at the time, that not one member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery was on to the 2010 coup against Prime Minister Rudd until it actually happened. A few people tried to pretend that they had canvassed the story but in fact no-one got it. Now, the biggest political story so far this year – the announcement of the election date – was also missed by everyone in the Gallery although one reporter did break the news a few seconds before it was announced. Of course, there were people who talked about September October because that was in the agreement with the independents but that is not the same as missing the date announcement story as they did. Now the Gallery churns out masses of information and predictions every day but what is clear is that unless someone actually points them in the right direction they rarely find out important stuff for themselves. There are, of course, notable exceptions among those who – as I.F.Stone did – trawl annual reports and official data for insights and stories, but the striking thing about most of these stories is that they don’t fit into the predictable agenda of Gallery coverage and end up well back in the paper or the broadcast when they get covered at all.
The media is also going to look less and less relevant if their reporting in the next eight months remains fixed within their normal frame of reference – speculation, leadership rumblings, personalities, conflicts over slightly different phrasing of views etc etc. One can safely bet that the likelihood of any sustained reporting of policy issues, other than in the context of channelling some vested interests opposition to a proposal, will be high.
Second, political staff: The position for the government staff is somewhat easier because being in government automatically generates a number of announcements and initiatives. News Limited will always find some way to portray any announcement as misguided, wrong or dangerous but much of the news can be disseminated through other channels even if online means that the reaction to an announcement becomes the news lead a few seconds after it is released. The simple response for the Opposition is to make their own announcements but the only really noteworthy ones will be on policy and that will be fraught with risks as well. More importantly, even in today’s 24/7 election campaigning starting the day after the last election the sheer physical and emotional pressure on staff will be enormous. Expect some meltdowns.
A problem for the Gallery and the Opposition will be how they respectively treat/protect Tony Abbott and whether the Gallery can produce an antidote to soundbites. On Wednesday Abbott got away with a three minute statement consisting of sound-bites and took no questions. At some stage, one imagines, a few people in the Gallery might start pushing for Abbott to hold some all in media conferences. If he can get away with not holding any, or even few, it will confirm how good the Opposition staff are and how ineffective the Gallery is.
Meanwhile, if anyone really thinks there is a chance that the media might just report the next eight months with a degree of significant analysis and seriousness just look at the front page of The Age on January 31. Up there with the election date and the inevitable speculation about what it means, who loses and who wins was coverage of the PM’s glasses. And The Age is supposedly a serious broadsheet.