Are today’s pollies scared of news media?

By Barry Tucker          January 27, 2013

Where have all the punching pollies gone? Why are Australia’s federal Labor politicians in particular putting up with so much negativity, distortion and bias in the news media? It is hurting Labor in the polls, and it is making the Liberals look rather nasty at the same time.

John McTernan

John McTernan

Are they waiting for John McTernan, Director of Communications for the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to pull a rabbit out of his hat?

They had better not wait too long. According to my research, Mr McTernan does not have a single political victory feather in his cap. Quite the opposite, in fact. As a political operator and strategist, he makes a good librarian, which is what he is trained to be.

Mr McTernan can play the cranky Scotsman at the drop of a hat. He verbally abuses journalists who ask awkward questions or otherwise make nuisances of themselves. He must be beavering away in the background. But if he thinks softly softly will get Labor over the line he’s wrong. It’s not working. Labor’s slowly improving in the polls, but this year will be the nastiest in living memory and the mainstream news media (MNM) has barely shifted in its negative and biased view of the Australian federal Labor government.

Despite a hung parliament, despite unprecedented personal attacks on Prime Minister Gillard, during the past two years we have seen one of the most progressive, innovative and constructive federal governments since the early days of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government (mid 1970s). But, due to the combined efforts of the MNM and Mr McTernan, you wouldn’t know it.

Earlier today I was researching Perth’s daily newspaper The West Australian. This newspaper has unashamedly supported Conservative governments since its inception in 1833. It has a colourful and controversial past, has changed hands many times and has been chopping and changing to cope with the pressures of News Limited competition and the innovation of online media.

The other thing that caught my attention was the few paragraphs below, which I’ve lifted from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_West_Australian) purely for the purpose of illustration and edification regarding the fighting spirit of an earlier generation of politicians.

“The paper was labelled in February 2005 by former prime minister Bob Hawke as “a disgrace to reasonable objective journalism”.  Academic Peter van Onselen substantiated this attack, identifying 10 pro-Opposition front page headlines in the lead-up to the 2005 State election, but no pro-government headlines.

[That’s the same Bob Hawke (there was only ever one) who described ABC Nationwide’s Richard Carleton as “a damned impertinence” for his determined questioning and the funny look on his face. I include it here as a training guide for Mr McTernan and a bit of a giddy-up for today’s timid Pollies, Tony Windsor excepted, oh, and the singing, dancing Craig Emerson, and I guess the PM for her “misogyny” slap-down. Three fighters out of 73 is pretty poor but.]

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Back to the Wikipedia bits I’ve borrowed (for educational purposes):

“In May 2007, then Attorney-General and health minister Jim McGinty described the newspaper as “the nation’s most inaccurate and dishonest newspaper”. He went on to attack the editor, Paul Armstrong, saying that “the board of West Australian Newspapers needs to sack the editor. It is personally driven by a particular individual”. Armstrong responded by saying he “could not give a fat rat’s arse” about Mr McGinty’s comments and was then virulently attacked by the Premier [Carpenter].

[It’s been a long time since anyone threw “a fat rat’s arse” in a political debate; too long, in my humble opinion.]

“On 15 February, 2008, The West reported that McGinty’s staff had banned its reporters from attending his press conferences. The West continued to denigrate Carpenter’s government until its defeat at the 2008 election in September.”

Banning reporters is a good old trick that also seems to have fallen out of favour. I was reporting NSW State Parliament in the days of Neville Wran’s Premiership. Someone from the ABC upset Mr Wran, and he blacklisted the whole mob. Then he had some trouble with his throat, resulting in a rough and raspy voice. Before a press conference got under way, Mr Wran would occasionally spot a new face. “Are you from the ABC?!,” he would growl in his gravely voice.

Oh for the good old days, when pollies could stand up for themselves.

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2 thoughts on “Are today’s pollies scared of news media?

  1. Nailed it Barry! I would, at least, like to hear a Labor minister say “When you start printing the whole story … I’ll answer your questions. Next’

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