Melaleuca Media
Getting past spin cycle

Now more news comes from flacks than hacks, what should the hacks do about it? Journalism courses have made use of this musing on the quandries posed to journalism and democracy by the huge increase in the size of the PR industry and the sophistication of available techniques for media manipulation and management. Can the now outnumbered and relatively under-resourced journalists prevail over omnipresent spin? Phil Dickie thinks so, but journalistic technique might need to adapt.

This work is offered here in the interests of sparking and fuelling debate - in particular among journalists and public relations practitioners, those flirting with the notion of becoming a journalist or public relations practitioner or those engaged in serious studies to that end. This is something of a work in progress so commentary and suggestions of further lines of inquiry are welcome. Use the contact facility on this web page for comments, queries and publication requests.


Problems in Getting to the Story and Getting it Out

All theorists agree that the media has some role in keeping government accountable - usually ranked somewhere behind the electorate generally and the parliamentary opposition and marginally ahead of assorted other institutions of democracy like auditor-generals and corruption commissions.

Theory is all very well. In Australia, the institutions and mechanisms of accountability can be seen to be under pressure in a general sense. In a State like Queensland where the electorate can't hedge its bets with a legislative council assembled differently than a legislative assembly and where the parliamentary opposition is a squabbling and unfocussed rump, the scope and requirement for a strong media role in accountability is correspondingly greater. If media outlets rise to this challenge, it creates a whole new set of tensions - with their other role as businesses out to make a mostly honest buck and with governments used to mostly getting their own way on most issues with a minimum of fuss.

The most unaccountable State

Queensland may well qualify as the least accountable of the serious States. It has but one house of parliament, no great tradition of independence on the part of the speaker, and only a fairly new and certainly not a very feisty heritage of parliamentary committees. This is probably best illustrated by reference to current speaker Ray Hollis, in a former life the chair of a committee which ventured some very mild criticism of the Goss government. Words were exchanged behind closed doors and Hollis emerged sprouting strenuous disagreement with his own report - "arguing with himself" as the wags put it. Estimates committees, a gloriously productive and usefully mischievous institution in the Senate, exist in Queensland only in a carefully choreographed way. Despite the highly restrictive interpretation of what estimates might be, a promising line of questioning may start - but the rules allow for its almost immediate interruption.

Members of the governing party who venture an opinion on something as innocuous, for instance, as nude bathing on secluded beaches face stern and instant discipline; what is worse perhaps is that they accept it so meekly.

Our auditor-general, technically an officer of the parliament, has done some useful work but isn't really in the league of notable recent Auditor-Generals from the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Victoria. The role, however, along with that of other officials like the ombudsman, comes with some quirky straitjacketing about what can be looked into and how it can be looked into.

A State which does not accept that parliamentarians are much entitled to information is hardly likely to extend any special privileges to journalists or, for that matter, the inquisitive elector. Queensland is obviously not the only jurisdiction to show itself much more adept at demolishing freedom of information than it was at introducing it. In line with general practice, documents are now buried under a pile of restrictions and huge retrieval costs, and further insulated from discovery by blatant abuses. A recent case involved interested parties being invited to make submissions on a development application to which access could only be gained through an FOI process taking longer than the submission period, where only a portion of the application could be accessed anyway, and then only at an exorbitant price. However the case may have highlighted possible loopholes which could be exploited by public-spirited old age pensioners with an intimate knowledge of departmental document retrieval processes.

More than a decade ago, Fitzgerald directed the attention of his new Electoral and Administrative Review Commission to the anti-democratic activity of the growing cohorts of government media advisors. Some dust and feathers flew while a report was compiled, and the media generally suffered some embarrassments over revelations of how much copy was being more or less directly written and provided by those allegedly under analysis and scrutiny. It was perhaps not surprising that this report did not enjoy much shelf life, but now might be a good time to dust it off. A useful context might be other recent controversies on the unaccountable power exercised by ministerial staff.

The trend in government is to remove from the public service all rights of information provision to the media, even at the highly technical or specialist level. The only officer licensed to comment then becomes a ministerial media advisor who covers the whole field from relaying (or making up) the political commentary of the minister to passing over (and often getting tangled up in) the nuts and bolts information held by field officers, prosecutors and researchers. With the best will in the world a ministerial media advisor or even an advisor or two could often not deal adequately or appropriately with every query.

That's being charitable - the role is more usually interpreted as being much, much more about covering the ministers' proverbial against all possibility of embarrassment than as providers of information, which is presumed to be public information unless there is some very compelling reason for it not to be. Among a sizeable, and growing, grab bag of techniques for not answering questions are:

Simply not responding to calls or not being available. The expectation, borne out often enough to make the tactic worthwhile, is that the absence of a response will kill the story. Variations on this theme include promising responses which never eventuate. This can approach being a whole of government response directed at a particular troublesome issue, journalist, or publication. But journalists do not have to let them get away with silence - if it is impenetrable, it should be met with exposure and ridicule.

Passing the platitudes The answer is meaningless twaddle or relates to some other question not asked. In general terms, one expects an answer to have a level of detail commensurate with the question. Often generalities do fit the bill, providing the overall flavour or colourful quotes to illuminate the issue. However a political discourse conducted entirely at this level is a meagre meal. The real story is almost invariably only revealed with some specifics, some analysis and some questioning on that basis. The ease with which many journalists can be passed off with a few platitudes is of enormous comfort to the trade of authority.

Queensland Transport Minister Steve Bredhauer issued a release in which he claimed the State was the "provider of one of the best public transport systems in the world". For any journalist familiar with virtually any other city including Bogota, Columbia, this should have provoked uncontrolled hilarity and led to merciless lampooning. It passed largely without comment.

Playing favourites Announcements or stories of general interest and applicability are given as presents to journalists who are perceived likely to treat the material in a sympathetic manner. The initial treatment often sets the tone of subsequent coverage.

An argument can perhaps be mounted that to glorify mere prior announcements of government policy with labels like exclusive or reference to highly placed leaks is fairly disingenuous on the part of media outlets. Their journalists and their own hunger to be first are merely being harvested by governments seeking to set up the story with the most coverage on the best spin. Fitzgerald and EARC certainly had the view that if it was an announcement or a release it should be made available to all.

The term leak should be reserved for the juicy stuff they do NOT want out.

Running up to deadline There was a considerable contrast between the way in which Australia's first and second State of the Environment reports were released. The first, prepared under a commendably independent process, was released to journalists under a three day embargo to allow them time to digest the weighty tome, before it was released at a lunchtime event with copious talent available. The second, full of bad news, had no prior release - journalists were presented late in the afternoon of a busy parliamentary day with an abbreviated summary report and the balance of the 1270 pages in relatively inaccessible CD-ROM. Most hacks not surprisingly relied heavily on the positive spin release from the Minister's office, and the story quickly died from then on.

That's not a story. This is a fairly familiar attempted kill-off line that the flacks serve up to the hacks all the time. It is also surely something for the journalist or media organisation to decide. However, the line often works with over-busy or insufficiently savvy reporters. There have been cases where media personnel and organisations have checked to see whether the government thinks a particular issue is a story - and then taken the advice given. This is just asking for management.

Burying the news and other diversions There are often attempts to bury or deflect anticipated embarrassments with a diversionary announcement. In one case, which shows almost breathtaking audacity, the Queensland government long and strenuously opposed the declaration of additional protected areas within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. When forced to the wire by the Commonwealth, a quick release emerged from Premiers to claim the credit for protecting the reef, while the Commonwealth fumed in the background.

The spoiler Another tactic when being pressed hard on a particular embarrassment by a troublesome journalist is to release part of the story heavily glossed with positive spin to a rival. This can kill off any publication of the full gory details. An example from my own casebook comes from pre-Fitzgerald days when the police minister who wasn't answering any of my questions offered the paper an interview with another journalist. The paper fell for the gambit. The proper response of course was that the paper, not the minister's office, should be taking the decisions about which journalists should be doing the stories.

It's all in the timing Governments often exploit the media's need for immediacy in news. A report issued at midnight or an embarrassing debate held in the wee hours is unlikely to be covered in the next day's papers and has a good chance of being considered old, stale news the day after. Embarrassments can also be dropped when media resources are stretched covering budgets or attending Christmas parties. The Federal Government slipped the committee report on the International Criminal Court into parliament on budget night.

It's all in the staging The media can also be kept busy - usually with the relatively inconsequential. This is quite easy with the television, where there is a lot of truth in the old adage no picture, no story. A large part of media management is the staging of various stunts, complete with photo and filming opportunities. A parliamentary reporter can be kept busy with a continuous stream of press conferences which have to be covered, but also take limited resources away from other possibly more troubling activities.

Playing the person, not the ball This is a particular and perennial problem with issues based articles and it is essentially a major diversion. Attack may be the best form of defence (or diversion) - but where there is an issue at stake, it is and should be treated as irrelevant or peripheral. But such attacks often work and many, many serious issues get lost in a barrage of accusations and counter-accusations.

"You know how the game is played," said one advisor crossly to a journalist recently who was persisting in getting an answer to a question from the minister instead of a fob-off line from a "spokesperson". But that is the trouble - the public does not know how the game is played. The name of the game in fact comes most revealingly from those on the government side of the equation, from Joh's famous "feeding the chooks" line to the more technocratic preference of the Goss era to putting journalists "on the drip".

As a former senior government advisor recently confided, "what you do with journalists is you feed em and feed em and feed em and every so often you call in the favours".

Fumbling towards more scrutiny

The most significant development in journalism in recent decades may well be the increasing size and sophistication of the effort to manage the news and manage the media. It is not a development much covered in the mainstream media. Even in academia, many more resources are devoted to turning out public relations specialists than to examining their effects.

The key question to be continually considered by the more thoughtful journalists and editors might be "just who is setting the agenda" - both in general, and in relation to particular issues. Our ability to attain the state of being relaxed and comfortable might then have some relationship to the degree to which we in the media set our own agendas, rather than being kept diverted or occupied by the trade of authority. This is not quite equivalent to an earlier dictum of journalism - where the role was defined as afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted - but there is some common ground.

There is, admittedly, room for lots of heated debate over whether unelected media organisations should be setting the general social, economic and political agenda. It is a vexed and tangled issue but what is being stressed here is that we should be setting our own agendas rather than having them established for us. At any rate, what is in the papers or on the airwaves, however it was initiated, does have a bearing on the policy discourse and priorities.

In Queensland, the Courier-Mail has an enormous ability to shift and shape the political agenda. The only other news organisation that can come close is the ABC, and usually it doesn't. Some decry this influence, some lament that the paper doesn't use its influence wisely or well and some point out, quite correctly, that it is a sad commentary on moral, policy and other vacuums in government that the newspaper has this sort of influence in the first place.

An illustration might be useful. Queensland has long been afflicted by blatant racketeering in its property marketing industry, and a long tradition of ineffectual regulation has meant that occasionally racketeering verges on being the dominant mode of property marketing in areas like the Gold Coast. The form changes - from selling underwater real estate to time share - but the game essentially has remained the same. The most recent variant - flogging off the slums of the future as sure-thing tax effective investments - has been running strong since the early 90s. Governments effectively took no action until aggrieved investors started heading seriously for the courts and the media took a concerted interest in the issue. With The Australian on the case, a junior minister conducted investigations and held consultations and took a package of reforms forward. The process was always at risk of being derailed from pressures being exerted elsewhere in government and the reforms were extensively watered down in the usual way to avoid offence to developers and floggers of property generally. Then the Courier-Mail's talented Hedley Thomas picked up the issue and most importantly kept at it. The government was spurred, remarkably rapidly, into action from the boss down which was surprisingly intolerant of industry whiteanting. Another pronounced bout of Courier-Mail interest would now probably be sufficient to produce a model compliance regime.

Great influence, whether sought or not, does carry some corresponding obligation of responsible exercise. And, indeed, as editors and journalists are often painfully aware, the paper is often berated around town fairly and unfairly for various alleged sins of commission.

It is harder, of course, to get a handle on sins of omission. But what is not poked into or written about or followed up may well have a greater significance. In the example above, the Courier-Mail can fairly be criticised for not picking the issue up more effectively much earlier. But, going further, unchecked marketing abuses can be shown to have had disastrous consequences on the reputation, landscape and future taxpayer liabilities of south east Queensland. These underlying issues have received scant attention, even when the media has run hot on the marketing issue. On analysis, the articles have been about victims, villains and fumbling governments.

The largest area of omissions concerns issues and processes. The media is geared up to handle people and events and think in those terms. Covering issues and processes is hard work, and a lot of the invitations and opportunities to do so end up being consigned to the fairly sizeable "worthy but dull" receptacle that hangs somewhere around the back of every newsroom - usually somewhere near that too hard box.

But when government says one thing while intending to doing another, or more usually, do nothing, the feat is usually achieved by devising some process which will produce the desired outcome. This may well involve finding people with the necessary competence, amenability or, even, incompetence to do (or not do) the job. Much of this vital activity goes on under our radar screen but, even if it is noted, we media often lack the necessary techniques and outlets to tell the world.

Tied up in balancing

What we in the media are concerned about are allegations of bias or imbalance. Fairness is all, but the attaining of a position of perfect balance between two positions on an issue is something else entirely. The pursuit of balance has lead to vast slabs of inadequate copy that can be characterised as "he said-she said" journalism. This holds that the story is adequately handled if you go first to one side then the other and line the comments up side by side. What might be said might be highly misleading or completely untrue or just meaningless drivel but who cares - journalism is about collecting and collating opposing comments.

There are a myriad of difficulties with this approach. Who said there is only two points of view to most issues? Usually in the political arena, we go to the so-called conservatives and the so-called socialists for our views. But if our party system is a Tweedledee and Tweedledum affair of two sides equally and mutually scared of upsetting the same bunch of horses, the comments can usually be predicted pretty perfectly and won't amount to much anyway. The usual suspects for comment will be those with their hands up, and those least likely to have anything new, different or challenging to say.

The alternative view is that the story is not done, unless you are telling the punter what is really going on. Simply collecting and collating the he saids and she saids won't do that, but requiring comments to be meaningful and challenging those that are untruthful might. This usually implies going to he and she for their comments after a bit of basic digging into the story, rather than going there first and only there.

Journalists strapped into a he said-she said straitjacket are fairly easy to manipulate. What if one side just won't come to the table? It often happens and it often just kills off the story. Manipulation without effort.

What should journalists do?

Some suggested ways journalists and media organisations might successfully subvert the rising tide of public relations, keep the bastards accountable and advance the public interest.

Journalists of the opposition

Queensland has seen a fitful debate over whether the media, the Courier-Mail in particular, is now the real opposition to a State government rolling in the luxury of a gigantic majority. This is dangerous territory for journalism. If we, as individuals or as media organisations, are perceived as overt players, it damages our credibility as the prime witness. The existing players resent our intrusion and, although they don't pay it much heed themselves, will invoke the rhetoric of democracy against us. The readers, listeners and viewers are understandably suspicious of whether the copy has been coloured by the demands of game play.

Our proper role, if the opposition is hopeless, is to tell this story - not to leap into the breach. Part of any "the opposition is hopeless" story, naturally enough, may relate to whether the government appropriately respects and resources the "opposition" role.

An initial proposition might be that the media should be careful not to usurp the role of democratic institutions. The Whitton thesis is that the media virtually invented parliamentary democracy as we know it and are therefore duty bound to protect it.

I'd argue for going further. The media should not seek influence. We should concentrate primarily just on the job of doing the story, the whole story and nothing but the story. Influence follows whether we seek it or not, but the sort of influence that is not sought is easier to live with. This doesn't rule out a good campaign on an issue or an injustice: one of the neglected dimensions of many stories is a journalist prepared to stay with it

We certainly need to be more inventive story tellers, to keep up with the challenges of freedom from information, commercial in confidence and a discourse of sound grabs. And, far more than we do, we should leave the theory of relativity to the physicists. The question is not whether the government is doing better than the opposition, it is whether the government is doing its job. Which of course leaves the way open for further questions - Is the opposition doing its job? Are other institutions of democracy and accountability doing their jobs?

The difficult topic of course will always be "Is the media doing its job?".

Letting the public in on the game

If more and more news is being offered up in more and more devious ways, perhaps we owe it to our readers, listeners and viewers to bring the flacks more into public focus.

This would, of course, be a considerable corrective in itself. Not that many of us would feel comfortable with public confessions of how we were used and abused. The recent Kernot affair (about the affair) has seen a lot of the who leaked what to whom and when and why being hinted at if not quite coming out; while it has been fascinating for the professionals, it has been quite revealing and unexpected for the general public.

Alan Ramsay, with a commendable degree of mea culpa, was moved to write, "I wait, joylessly, for the day a journalist, myself included, attributes a story to some 'self serving politician or staffer or party official whose back (he or she) scratches in return for information, preferably in document form".

Forestalling one likely line of criticism, nothing said here implies any lessening in a journalist's duty of care to sources and their need to remain confidential. It is all about Premiers and others of similar ilk not being aided and abetted in a little kite flying or casual knifing by being dressed up as senior government sources.

Many of the techniques of media manipulation are utterly dependent on remaining in the background. The group Mothers Against Pollution lost all credibility and faded into oblivion when it was revealed as a wholly owned subsidiary of the producers and purveyors of Tetra Paks. The Australian Banking Association lost interest in the endorsements of John Laws when it was revealed that his abrupt switch in opinion on banks generally coincided with a generous funding commitment from the Australian Banking Association.

All it takes usually is a throw away line or two in an article, as in:

"King Cotton, which transforms itself at the first sign of danger into a cluster of community organisations, has won every battle but one with government for more than a decade.
"You won't find Cubbie Station mentioned in any of the usual utterances of the Balonne Community Advancement Committee, the Dirranbandi District Irrigators Association, the St George Water Harvesters Association or on www.smartrivers.com.
But all these organisations - employing scientists to dispute "government science", sticking up urban billboards and running a slick website - operated to a significant degree from the same public relations office in Fortitude Valley that has long handled media queries for Cubbie station."

Exposure of their antics is the only viable long term response of the media to the more devious manoeuvres of the media relations industry. If it were to become our standard response rather than the very occasional shot over the bows it is now, the PR industry might have to revert to its proper role of running off to find the truthful and complete answers to the questions being directed at it.

Crusading on a sure thing

Crusading is a dangerous business for media outlets. It tends to be columnists bashing away on populist no brainers - they are often wrong anyway and risk invoking the law of unintended consequences. Example? Our periodic paedophilia panics have on the whole had a common theme of stranger danger. On the evidence, however, children are in most danger from people they know and often people they are related to and are more often in danger in dysfunctional homes and institutions than they are on streets. The campaigns have had the effect of deterring strangers from lending a helping hand in case they are accused of something, discouraging worthy entrants into professions like teaching, and frightening the fearful from the streets thus making them less safe for everyone. Similarly, the elderly are actually the least likely to become victims of violent crime but their fear of crime is regularly fanned. Consequently, more of the elderly come to harm locked up inside during house fires or heatstrokes each year than fall victim to criminal acts.

But there is very little downside, if any, for newspapers campaigning on accountability issues. It goes directly to the areas where media outlets are prone to trumpet their achievements and is undeniably "in the public interest". In the past, we have tended to editorialise on the issue, perhaps put in a submission to an inquiry with a predetermined result. But there could well be scope for a little creative direct action as well. Take a current issue - the effort by governments to render FOI laws meaningless by attaching exorbitant charges to limited document releases. What, for instance, would be the result of the Courier-Mail putting a modest surcharge on government advertising to defray the costs of public interest FOI charges? It is hard to predict but the chances for a reconsideration of State policy at least are probably pretty good with a Premier given to folding in front of a few farmers. Bringing similar pressure to bear on the equally onerous Federal FOI regime would entail bringing a few more newspapers on to the campaign.

It is also possible to imagine the parliamentary press gallery getting up to a little co-ordinated useful mischief to underline a requirement for an answer on a burning issue. Ask the same question and no other and see what comes first - an adequate answer or the chance to film the runaway.

Accountability campaigning need not necessarily be restricted to areas where the media interest is a direct one. The myriad ways executive government seeks to nobble parliament, its members, committees and officers and the occasional fiddles that turn up on the fringes of the electoral system are a fertile field for consideration. As a general rule, governments that talk of increasing the efficiency or reducing the cost of accountability measures or institutions are acting from base anti-democratic motives and not pure managerial ones.

Is it really an information-free environment?

It has been argued that the practice of journalism has become immeasurably more difficult as the government and other institutions have closed down access to information - in part in response to past media successes in ferreting it out. While this is undoubtedly true, it doesn't necessarily provide a defence for sloppy or incomplete inquiry. Government still releases a vast mass of information and always will. A variety of legislative and other instruments compel this release, and will continue doing so into the foreseeable future. What media organisations often lack is any system for systematically collecting, analysing and making telling use of the information in gazettes, reports, advertisements, parliamentary answers and so on.

It is true that complete information is rarely possible - but sufficient information to draw the appropriate inferences is another question altogether. Corruption, for instance, is the ultimate crime committed by consenting adults in private. But it leaves a trace in peculiar decisions and strange outcomes and rank public hypocrisy; the key to its exposure is to tease out the traces and put them up in undeniable detail. The journalist's particular skill is to weave a story around the circumstantial evidence and the verified or at least plausible hearsay that leaves the inference clear while maintaining some defensibility in the courts; the story should hopefully, and this is perhaps the hardest part, be a good read as well. It is not easy, but it can be done. I've done it myself. Evan Whitton is a past master:

"Scrabbling through all those yellowing files, mastering and marshalling all that material, and checking all those facts, requires a high threshhold of boredom and some stamina, but the work should amount to a useful public service. If the art of journalism is getting it in, the art of politics is brazening it out: it is easier to brazen out one fact than a dozen."

Journalists have few statutory rights to information that are not available to John and Joan Citizen, however, we probably have more access than John and Joan Citizen to people who do have rights to information. Friendly or just amenable politicians often jump at the chance to assist with a little ferreting and lines of questioning can sometimes be fed to lawyers in courts and inquiries. Queensland's reliance on only one legislative sausage machine seems to have deprived us of the full potential of one dynamic which can be seen more elsewhere - a story takes off in the press, is pushed along parliament, taken up in the press, given another shove along in parliament and so on. But the increasing presence of the odd independent in the Legislative Assembly should provide some avenues for the indirect asking of questions and procurement of information.

Internalising accountability

Newspapers are fond of parroting accountability achievements, but internally we don't have any measures of how we are performing. Perhaps we should.

No doubt there are academic theorists around just itching to work out suitable yardsticks, but your average busy newsroom is never going to get around to the quantitative measures and the specialist accountability quotient assessment section would probably be better off employed writing troublesome stories. However, there is a need to get a handle on a publication's performance in accurately reflecting society to itself, paying particular heed to its assessment of the performance of the trade of authority. If there is a strong newsroom culture that this needs to rank well up there alongside making money for the proprietors and shareholders as a matter of practice as well as rhetoric, then all that is going to be necessary is to schedule the occasional free for all meeting on the topic.

As a basic defensive measure, institutions that claim a role in keeping others accountable need to look to their own performance as accountable institutions. Potential conflicts of interest should be at least declared and where appropriate, avoided altogether. Every publication needs to operate in accordance with well-publicised and accessible codes of professional conduct or charters of operation, and to have well publicised, accessible and transparent complaints procedures. There should be reasonable grounds for the public to believe these standards are generally being followed and that there is some prospect of adverse consequences to a relevant somebody if they are not. All letters to the editor and similar feedback should be logged and the logs should be accessible. If no-one ever wants to look at the logs, it can be taken as a reasonable indication that the scribbling community is confident that their opinions are being fairly or at least representatively handled.

Media organisations, which if they are doing their job will be throwing around more brickbats than bouquets, should not be too thin skinned themselves. A lot of criticism should be taken on the chin. If not warranted, ignore it. If warranted, the best response is to do something about the basis of the criticism rather than seek to do something about the critics. Many of the protestations of outraged villains touched up by the paper will not need elaborating on; the public can probably be reasonably trusted to reach the conclusion of "They would say that, wouldn't they". Sending in the character assassination squad or excluding public intellectuals who have been mildly critical of the media from the opinion pages is an unwarranted and unproductive response - it only engenders contempt from the thinking end of town. Chattering classes they may be, but some of the chatter sticks as effectively as mud.

The growing trend in responsible business is to seek meaningful engagement with stakeholders, particularly critical ones. While this is often undertaken as a purely defensive measure, many organisations have found it pays off on a range of yardsticks including better economic performance.

Good journalists can do worthy but not dull - if they are allowed

"Down the corridors of power comes a faint echo of 'Don't you worry about that'," I wrote recently of a cluster of looming issues where the State government is responding mainly at the rhetoric level - much to the alarm of scientists, other specialists and other levels of government. But they are issues without obvious heroes and villains and we in the media haven't much got to grips with these issues because they are associated with labels like policy and planning and get dumped into our capacious worthy but dull receptacles.

This is misguided of us. What is being argued in the scientific and government forums will have much greater effects on the lives of our readers, listeners and viewers than the antics of any number of celebrities. We will all still be living with the consequences of poor planning when all of the parliamentary manoeuvres we so carefully follow are long forgotten. Governments historically and usually get these big picture things quite wrong because they are afraid of offending any powerful vested interest - and the cost in dollar terms and in missed opportunities dwarfs the sums involved in corruption, crime and scandal.

Our relative inattention to the panicky, offend no-one blunderings of the average government faced with a serious issue are of great comfort to the trade of authority. Conversely, if we were to sharpen our focus on policy and decision making and the nitty gritty of performance (or non-performance) it would have a dramatic effect on the quantity, quality and impact of public discourse. This would be great for democracy and in the long run probably also for newspapers, but we don't need to invoke any image of journalists charging about like zealous crusaders. We just need a good long hard look at why we categorise issues as worthy but dull and find the interesting ways to tell the real stories.

As journalists, we and our publications need ways to:

communicate significance;
assimilate and incorporate detail;
relate process ( or non-process) to outcomes or likely outcomes.

This surely is the challenge of good journalism. Any dill can tell an obvious story, but it takes skill to build an engaging yarn out of what is merely important.

Who is setting the agenda?

We especially need to get away from what is happening in front of our noses, because a lot, if not most of it is arranged to happen in front of our noses. It is not news, it is choreography and we've been assigned particular steps in the dance. OK, sure some of it has to be covered and it is true, journalists on the whole are very cynical about the process. But the public is not aware of our cynicism and they need to be equally cynical. We need to expose and show more of the direction and less of the dance steps. Some suggestions would be:

Don't go. Do something else. Try and find out what is being released, debated or not covered somewhere else. Go there instead.

Go, but take the different drum. They have made themselves available to answer your questions on anything. They might think you are there to absorb their spiel on the topic of their choice. That's not your problem.

Work on "the making of" and not on the act. Why this, why now, why here and why them. The story of the day - or their story of the day.

We are much manipulated in the media and much too genteel to our manipulators. A more robust, rough house response to the manipulation would both win greater respect from the community and deliver more interesting news.

Some of those trying to choreograph our content would merely be getting their own back. It is far from unknown for a politician who has refused to answer questions or supply even basic information on an issue to then ride their high horse into parliament and give the journalist and the media outlet a great spray for getting it wrong.

These sentiments of course are threatening to a host of cosy relationships which are productive of a great deal of news. It would be hard, and counterproductive, for journalists and media organisations to totally abandon cosying up to the powerful as a way of acquiring information. Hard ethical questions are involved here, but my suggestion is that such relationships and their consequences need to be managed closely at the organisational level. With significant institutions and on significant issues the cosying up cannot be allowed to colour the coverage. If it is productive for some journalists to be at least in the same bedroom as the sources, this should be balanced by directing other journalists to ransack the house - the good cop, bad cop approach. If this caper is met with the threat to turn off the tap, it should be viewed as an opportunity to test the thesis that they need us more than we need them.

Away from phony balance and he said-she said journalism

There is the thorny question of what I have called he said-she said journalism. Some allowance has to be made for the fact that the position of he or she might make whatever they say newsworthy, but I would counter that in general too much allowance is made for the relevance of position. When the Premier pedals twaddle, by all means report the twaddle. But we should find the ways to expose the twaddle to the reader, listener and viewer and the most cost effective way to do this initially is surely to challenge the Premier there and then on the twaddle quotient. This is a fundamentally different way of operating than wandering off to the opposition leader to get some twaddle in response.

More and more these days, they are declining to answer what it doesn't suit them to answer. All reasonable questions should be answered, whether they come from a parliamentarian (representing the public) or a journalist (representing the public). Moreover, the answer should be commensurate with the question - at least as far as depth and coverage is concerned. We should have no patience with two modern tendencies exhibited by the powerful in politics; the attempt to pick and choose which questions to answer from which questioners, and the effort to answer nearly every question with a platitude or meaningless theatrical drivel.

The content of debate and discourse on public affairs should not be mostly meaningless. No doubt it is comforting to the trade of authority to keep debate at this level, but it also engenders enormous frustration and ultimately resignation on the part of the broader public. It is surely not asking too much of the media that we take a pivotal role in paring back the platitudes and requiring some rigor in public debate - although, it must be said, this would require many media commentators to re-evaluate the way they operate.

The most free area of the free press

The position of commentary and those who produce most of it - columnists - deserves special mention. Columnist do have an enviable amount of freedom from the constraints of news and news features. They can say things that need to be said but are hard to fit into the news straitjacket, and they can explain more. In theory, it is the best writers who get the columns and the regular commentary spots, the ones who can make it not dull no matter how worthy the topic is. One of the most engaging writers of modern times, John Kenneth Galbraith, specialises in economics.

In modern jargonese, commentators can value add considerably to a newspaper's performance in the credibility stakes and in the keeping the bastards accountable stakes. Sadly, they often don't.

First, any publication has limited space for commentary. The amount of space should, in publications with pretensions of seriousness, compare reasonably favourably with that allocated to people essentially just writing about themselves. There is a place for those whose talent is in writing about themselves. But there shouldn't be too many places.

Second, there is commentary and there is commentary. Some culling of the ranks of those who are merely opinionated and those pushing barrows around the political landscape is probably warranted in favor of those whose energy for digging and talent for analysis at least equals their talent for holding an opinion. Culling a columnist is never going to be easy, but there is both opportunity and need when two or more columnists of the mainly opinionated variety are found to essentially have the same opinions. This will save embarrassment when two rants on the same topic get run in the same issue. The correspondent with the most pedestrian style should be shown the door.

Where a newspaper is going to pay a range of people to mainly just sprout their opinions on a range of issues, the paper owes it to the public to ensure a range of opinions is sprouted.

On any issue of matter of current concern there will be a range of views on what ought to be done. Some of these views will be fashionable, some not, and it is always going to be very easy to find a writer to run with a fashionable view. But broader is better on issues; the fashionable view on an issue is usually going to be the shallow view, the view most unchallenging to the more powerful players around it. The fashionable view, therefore, is often about the wisdom of doing nothing or nothing much. A commentator needs to be aware of this, but sadly many are not. There is often more insight, utility and interest in trying to discern which of today's heresies is on its way to being tomorrow's orthodoxy.

Some of these views on the potential for commentators to trash the PR blather, handle the worthy in an anything but dull way, and tell the punter what is really going on were formed experimenting with the column format in a Sunday tabloid. I set some basic rules: I wouldn't write about myself; I would steer clear of the mob bashing every passing public prejudice; and I would go for the substance, not the froth and bubble. In the course of writing this column I ferreted around in the basements of government departments, tramped through the halls of academia and made surprising contact with many community and professional groups. Important public issues were being discussed and decided. Mainly, I was the only journalist around - and I shouldn't have been. A highly scathing take no prisoners style of writing and a resort to vivid metaphor served to keep the reader's interest up while I delved into such esoterics as planning law reform. The view was frequently from left field (metaphorically not politically), although in the years since I have noted that my old left fields on many issues are now much closer to the centre. The column was originally to be called "Watching the watchers", soon shortened to "Watching" because it was thought the initial title might licence me to flick some scorn in the direction of the media. "Watching" broke quite a few stories, visited a lot of areas not much visited in the media, demonstrated the thesis that worthy could be anything but dull, upset many in the trade of authority who usually managed to pull strings from beyond the public gaze and lasted about three and half years longer than I thought it might.

The other format for getting at the real story is the sketch - a la Matt Price on Federal parliament, Emma Tom on sometimes the most amazing topics. The best recent Australian example of the breed is still perhaps Evan Whitton's nearly two years of daily sketches of proceedings at the Fitzgerald Inquiry - totally irreverent, up to and including a regular chiding of the lawyers for the questions they'd neglected to ask. Whitton, QC, as he was soon being called, notes that the sketch has an ideal length of about 750 words:


"Under relentless press of deadline, even the stone-cutter can manage this in a couple of hours. The techniques available are elements of neo-journalism: a bit of description, dialogue, mood, atmosphere, analysis, comment, an insight if possible, and a joke or two."

It is also, and this Whitton didn't say, a good way for the quality print media to underline how utterly inferior most television coverage is.

A creative response

On balance, I am convinced that pervasive spin need not dominate the news and the analysis of the news. But only if the response of journalists, editors and outlets is energetic, robust and highly creative.

When you survey the media, it is apparent that a lot of usefully irreverent copy is coming from a host of journalists anyway. What is lacking is an overall professional and management response to a recognition that journalism now has to operate in a fundamentally changed environment. Media relations is not, anymore, mainly about being the interface between the institution and the media. More and more, it is the sophisticated strategic business of fashioning perceptions and setting agendas, and the short term tactical science of frustrating inquiry, providing diversions and tying up media resources.

If we foster, in the public interest, a commitment to counteract spin then the techniques will naturally follow. The essential elements will, however, include the following:

Spin needs invisibility. It is obvious then, that the machinations of the manipulators need frequent and derisive exposure.

Spin creates an imbalance in media access between organisations that have it and organisations that don't. Journalists must make allowance for this, and consciously correct for the imbalance.

Spin is approaching scientific exploitation of our quest for balance, our need for freshness, our limited resources and our deadlines. We need to be less exploitable. We can be if the focus is on the well told story, on fairness and comprehensiveness rather than he said-she said balance, and if the test of mere newness is balanced with a test of significance. Spin also exploits our preference for people and events - we need to find better ways to keep issues and process in the frame.

Spin attempts to set our agenda, and through us, the broader social and political agenda. We should set our own and direct some specific scrutiny to what is being pushed on us and why. Left field is the most fertile place to look for the usefully countervailing view although you might have to sort through a few contending lunacies to find it.

The trade of authority knows what's best for us. This is rubbish, mostly they get it wrong. The cartoonists get it much more right more often and a lot of our columnists should stop writing about themselves and get in there with them.

When we are caught up in the froth and bubble, we are not much of a bother to anyone. The story is somewhere else.

What democracy needs is more hacks, less flacks. If they - the trade of authority - are comfortable and relaxed, then we are not doing our job.