VP Pence – sane and reasonable? What it says about journalism and political PR

One of the great characteristics of traditional Jewish humour is its capacity to change a statement from its seemingly obvious meaning to its exact opposite simply by an implied upwardly questioning tone.

A famous example is the apocryphal story about the man who went up to Stalin after a speech soon after Lenin’s death. Leon Trotsky was away from Moscow at the time, a bad decision as it turns out, and according to the story he sends a telegram to Stalin saying: “Stalin, you are the true heir of Lenin.” Stalin gleefully reads it out but the man comes up after the speech and tells Stalin that he’s got the telegram wrong. Instead, with a big shrug, he says the telegram actually says “Stalin you are the true heir of Lenin?????

The blog thought of this before and during the visit of US Vice President Pence. Before Pence arrived Australian Foreign Affairs staff were frantically briefing gullible journalists about what a great opportunity this was for Australia because Pence was the sane and sensible member of the administration. And then our Prime Minister expressed his trust in the wisdom and judgment of Pence and his boss. If Malcolm was really such a great advocate surely he could have made a general point about the US relationship without sounding like a refrain of “All the Way with LBJ”. Or perhaps the blog and the media missed the upward humour inflexion and question mark in his comments?

But, apart from the broader foreign policy questions, there is a significant question about the journalists who reported all this nonsense. Now many journalists hate PR people – at least until they need to talk to them about a job after retrenchment. But what the journalists don’t know is that many PR people think most journalists are easy prey because of the ritualised nature of their job; pressures caused by those retrenchments; dependence on their sources and assorted other things. Indeed, except for some noticeable senior and feature writing staff the blog has always thought some of them were just plain dumb, limited in their world view and imprisoned in a view of how to report news which explains much about the decline of traditional media.

There are many ways to find news which goes outside the conventional prism. The great I.F.Stone did it by trawling through government reports and data. His Australian equivalent, Tim Colebatch, does the same. Barry Cassidy did it in his interview with Pauline Hanson by silently listening and letting her hang herself.

Another tactic is the follow up questions after a media event. Sadly this is in decline because the pressure on a limited number of journalists with limited time to file a story means they rush something out and then the news cycle moves on to something else. Political PRs understand and exploit this.

If you are in a media conference you get one or, at most two, questions normally – or none if Sean Spicer is running it – and both normally relate to the immediate subject. But the follow up question is the one which goes beyond the subject at hand and draws on deep research to flesh out something else altogether. It’s best asked after the media conference if you want to keep the story to yourself. And anyway getting in extra questions is hard because the electronic and online media are getting in the way by doing bits to camera and voice to top and tail their reports or thinking about how the sub editors will convert their copy into click bait. So asking staff afterwards – whatever they reply – is a better bet.

In this case the question would be “Do you agree with VP Pence on creationism, climate change denial, abortion, gay marriage and the fact that he won’t sit down with Julie Bishop unless there is someone else in the room (not because of anything about Ms Bishop other than the fact that she is a female and may have lived in sin in the VPs eyes) and do you support his belief that ‘intelligent design’ should be taught in schools? Does the PM stand by his trust in the wisdom and judgement of the Vice President on these subjects?”

By the way, this Pence belief about being in rooms with females alone frankly confuses the blog. Does he believe they will try to seduce him? Does he harbour some deep twisted tendency to abuse women which he avoids as reformed alcoholics do booze? Or is it just another part of his freakish fundamentalist religion?

Foreign Affairs got away with its briefing because, among other things, you don’t rock the boat on VIP visits unless you want to lose access; they knew not too much background checking would be done; and the people in the PM’s and Foreign Affairs Minister’s offices would have punished journalists who upset the visit tone. Plus, of course, some of the journalists are so committed to the sanctity of the US alliance that they can’t see the realities. It’s a bit like the UK’s ongoing delusion about the ‘special relationship’ they have with the US.

This ‘not the rocking the boat’, of course, now relates more to the US relationship but once it related to the UK and the monarchy. The blog’s uncle was a barman at, among other places, a long-running pub in Nicholson Street Carlton now demolished. On a visit a Royal, the blog can’t remember which, with full entourage of security people, coppers, palace officials and reporters (as they were called then) enjoyed a great knees up at the pub post- Victoria’s six o’clock closing hour, and not a word appeared in the media.

And as for rocking the boat: there is not much to like about Mark Latham other than the fact that Gough Whitlam once saw something in him; and that, in a similar situation to Malcolm, he did raise a question about the “conga-line of suck-holes” meeting George Dubya. Malcolm probably wouldn’t use such language, although something similar might be used by others to describe his attempts to keep his party’s zealots on side, but the Latham sentiment was a breath of fresh air in Australia-US relations even if not as eloquently put as those of the late Malcolm Fraser and more recently Paul Keating, Gareth Evans and others.