Melaleuca Media
Come in spinner

Pity the poor voter. Sometime later this year they have to make a choice on their preferred State government - to opt for more Borbidge or try a little Beattie instead. Possibly, if the Senate continues to neglect to co-operate with the Howard government on the Wik matters, voters might need to make a Federal choice as well.

The choice will be hindered rather than helped by the fact that some of the finest marketing minds in all the country will momentarily divert their energy from flogging personal hygiene products to flogging political parties instead.

To the marketing mind, there is essentially no difference anyway. Too many voters, however, still have a disturbing tendency to believe that the choice between Labor and Liberal is of more consequence than choosing between a Pepsi and a Coke.

We all know that when the election campaigns are in full swing all political announcements, paid or otherwise, should be automatically suspect. And although the politicians occasionally talk about codes of "truth in advertising" we don't take this too seriously - at least subconsciously, we know that all advertising is a con of one sort or another.

Danger, however, also lurks in the spaces between the advertisements, in the news columns, on the evening news. To a greater and greater extent the content of the news is being contributed, directly and indirectly, by the public relations industry - the spin doctors.

Public relations has always been with us. Well, nearly always. But my experience, over the fifteen odd years I have spent in journalism is that the political and corporate public relations industry is steadily increasing its influence

The media, to a regrettable extent, is abdicating its responsibility to tell the punters what is really going on (hard work at the best of times) and to make interesting what is significant. Instead, we suffer a relentless trivialisation of nearly everything and reams and reams of "he said-she said" spakfilla.

Meanwhile, the workings of government and society have become much more obscure and complex than previously. Instead of continuing the holy struggle to understand and make clear, the media more and more is just repeating the messages of the most powerful interests in an increasingly divided society.

For instance, the lives of ordinary Australians have been greatly effected, usually for the worst, by the rantings of economists. It should, therefore, be a matter of compelling public interest when the economists are shown to be involved in dubious practice and the government can be shown to be covering up for them.

The antics of the highly influential Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics in recent years have been almost comical, so much so that if they were fully and frequently reported, no-one would take ABARE seriously. But despite a wealth of information in the public domain, a book by a respected journalist and some professional disdain from other economists, not much reporting of the antics of ABARE has occurred.

In the most recent case the Commonwealth Ombusdman just last week took ABARE to task for taking a bucketload of coal industry money to produce an economic model (the MEGABARE) which produced greenhouse predictions that, surprise, surprise supported the coal industry's case (which, surprise, surprise also seems to be the Federal government's case as well).

This should have been news and it was in most papers (except for The Australian, which is incredibly trusting of economic rationalists and had been helping out in the past by blowing the MEGABARE trumpet very loudly indeed). However, the ombudsman's report was rather overshadowed by the simultaneous release of a huge ABARE report on what a rosy future our coal and uranium industries have now that the government has adopted the very sensible policies advocated by the sort of economists who think that ABARE knows what it is talking about (very, very fully reported in The Australian, naturally).

Arranging for a negative report to be utterly swamped has the stamp of spin doctoring all over it. Who cares when the latest hugely positive ABARE forecasts unravel in the usual manner - no-one then will be much interested in pointing this out.

For the tendency of the media of course is to judge newsworthiness on the basis of age rather than significance, putting most of the emphasis on the new and precious little on the worthy. This is analogous to having an information diet composed mostly of just squeezed grapes with a very occasional glass of wine.

This might be called a chronic temporal attention deficit or a limited concentration span, something which if it happens in children in classrooms can be occasion for a psychiatric report. Whatever it's called, the tendency to evaluate with the accent on the new and not the worthy is ruthlessly exploited by the public relations industry.

The techniques include making what isn't new and isn't really news look really new in the hope that the media will confuse it with real news. Alternatively, what is real news but bad for the corporate or political image might be able to be kept out of the news through the fairly simple expedient of hiding away or saying nothing until it would be old news and therefore not news anymore.

This latter technique, of trying to kill off the negative story by not being available to comment or of refusing to comment and of staying assiduously out of camera range works surprisingly well most of the time. Rarely will journalists return to what is seen as an "old story".

The intent of spin doctoring is to change the story to what suits you, i.e. to put your own spin on it. You would think subtlety would be essential to the enterprise, but this is not necessarily so with a media that simply accepts so much of what is put on its plate and asks so few questions about it.

The master of the say anything no matter how outrageous and hope that it just gets reported school is probably redneck developer, Keith Williams, of Cardwell Club Mud fame. Only rarely is he pulled up in his efforts to portray himself as having more knowledge than the scientists, more environmental sensitivity than the conservationists and more concern with the public interest than the bureaucrats and politicians. Admittedly, his habit of talking loudly over the top of everyone else can make him fairly difficult to pull up but printing his twaddle without no comment on its veracity or even probability does not make for good journalism.

The sad truth is that often, if the authority figure does tell a porky or something that verges on a porky, the majority of the time they will get away with it. It was a dictum of a Dr Josef Goebells that if you were intent on telling political fibs, they should be big fibs, simple fibs and you should fib a lot. But more often in political discourse the complicated truth is bludgeoned out of existence by the big, simplistic half-truth.

The mass media does not handle complexity or detail all that well. It is a pity, because the detailed case painstakingly built up in the media is capable of bringing all manner of crookedness undone. Detail can be very hard to convincingly deny.

Some time ago, I asked Liberal minister Ray Connor whether he had been encouraging his then department to buy up land down the road and around the corner from his Coomera scrub residence. He said no; any Housing Commission interest in nearby scrub had started under the previous Labor government.

This turned out to be poppycock - Labor had certainly been offered some scrub but weren't interested in connecting services to and stimulating the real estate market of that bit of Coomera.

A whole array of news management techniques was employed to deal with this. Some media interests checked with the government to see if there was a story in this; the government said no and they apparently went away happy. Others broadcast some version of what had been in the Courier-Mail, but didn't pursue it in the face of the Minister becoming suddenly all unavailable.

The official line that the story was all wrong was assiduously pumped out and it was let slip that Mr Connor would be giving Mr Dickie and the Courier-Mail a writ. (I sit by the letterbox, Ray, but the writ it has not yet come.)

The story, as was intended, died. The minister - accident prone on a number of fronts - resigned, for totally unrelated reasons of course, shortly thereafter.

There was a final news management card to play - that of finding a scapegoat, any scapegoat. Connor, now a backbencher, rose to his feet in Parliament and accused a Nerang real estate agent of being a Labor stooge out to get him. In truth, whatever his past associations, the agent had been an innocent bystander posed some questions by the Courier-Mail, although the Courier was to prove regrettably uninterested in setting the record straight.

News to an unhealthy extent has become a commodity sold to journalists, with a wholly familiar emphasis on packaging and marketing providing cover for what is often a distinct lack of content. Under such a regime, it is hardly surprising that some journalists have become just a tad lazy.

No longer is there such a requirement to venture out into the world, find out what is happening and make it interesting and compelling to editors, readers, viewers and listeners. Increasingly, there is someone else who is willing to determine the agenda, contrive the angle and construct the story. Someone with a barrow to push.

Fortunately there is still enough of a tendency to the cynical and the disrespectful in journalism to counteract a few of the marvels of modern marketing. But it is definitely a case of let the viewer and reader beware.

There is only one defence against the public relations industry of course. That is for the media to effectively report on how the news is manufactured. Now let's see - who'll start.