Come in Spinner

There are three things to avoid in life and work – doing the wrong thing, doing dumb things and doing things badly.

In politics the thing to avoid most is doing all three at once.

The recent controversy over a strategy prepared by a Victorian Government media adviser illustrates how getting the trifecta can be a bit of a problem.

Now, the Opposition will make a synthetic fuss about the document pretending they would never employ anyone who would do such a thing, the media will pursue the matter for a while, the person involved has been moved on and inevitably the controversy will pass.

But, more importantly the strategy (published on the ABC website) illustrates some broader problems with ‘the adviser class’, as a friend of mine describes them in an allusion to Djilas, which are endemic to politics in the Western world.

These sorts of strategy are not only wrong, and dumb to put on paper and make public, but far worse – they are both not very good and misguided. They are relentlessly instrumentalist, tactical and media-obsessed. There seem to be no over-arching objectives or strategic framework – just a series of tactical responses to various situations driven by how they might play in the media at a time when modern communications are much more complex and the media is just one channel among a myriad of others.

The second problem is that the ‘adviser class’ in governments and oppositions in Australia, the UK and the US in particular, have started to behave in ways that confirm Umberto Eco’s view of hyper-reality. The Mafioso characters in The Sopranos frequently speak and act in ways which mimic the speech and acts of The Godfather just as the real Mafia apparently do. There is a circular re-inforcement in which fiction influences reality and that new reality then influences fiction to the point where no-one – particularly those in the centre of it all – have much of a hold on reality any more. In politics the same process takes place around The West Wing or, in my generation Yes Minister. The fiction becomes more real than the real – in other words hyper-real.

The problem is really a problem of journalists turned advisers. Most politicians are too smart to get involved in, or approve such activities, if only for risk-minimisation reasons. I would also bet that the Victorian Minister involved would not have commissioned or approved the work. There are also many political advisers who give intelligent and strategic advice. But everybody in politics, lobbying or the media has tales of coming across young, arrogant media advisers who simply don’t know very much about very much at all while imagining that they are a cross between Karl Rove and Tony Soprano.

Steve Bracks’ former speechwriter, Michael Gurr, wrote a memoir, Days Like These, which recounts one of his problems with journalists turned political staffers when discussing a speech he was writing for Steve Bracks. He wrote: “Meeting for the speech. I’d asked for the meeting to be kept small but there were about ten of us. The media office hadn’t read the speech – but immediately started flicking through it dismissively. “I can’t write a press release from this. There’s no substance – this is all emotional.” (p 47) Later the media advisers object to some introductory words to a speech because they are “warm and fuzzy” and not “punchy.” Another media adviser objects to the use of the word “ethos” but is over-ridden by Steve Bracks, although later Gurr hears two of the advisers talking: “What’s with this f……n ethos stuff?” (p189).

The media advisers probably didn’t know that Bracks’ speechwriters – Gurr and Joel Deane – were outstanding writers and literary stylists. Deane, as well as writing good speeches and prose also wrote a wonderful and very funny poem – Hansard (included in his collection Magisterium) – about politics and the ‘art’ of speech-writing.

The hyperreality becomes even more hyper, so to speak, when the media come into the equation and they end up reporting the spin as the story and participating in a symbiotic relationship with the ex-journalist media advisers.

I remember stumbling towards an understanding of this symbiotic process back in the 1970s when I was being interviewed by Rod Tiffen for what eventually became his book, News and Power.

Later, Rod sent me a copy of the book, and I discovered he had articulated it in a way I, as a participant, had not quite grasped. He called it ‘coterie communication’ in which the coterie operated in a ‘hall of mirrors’ in which they are “audience one minute, actors the next; targets of some messages, sources of others.” (p 93).

Rod should also have the final word on spin (also from News and Power) with his comment that “the most heartening feature of political public relations is how often it fails.” (p 85)

Ritual declaration of interest: Having been in the business for more than 40 years it is very hard not to have some conflict of interest or perception of vested or personal interest with most PR issues and/or events which arise. In this case I have to declare that I was a not very successful media adviser whose boss lost his job.