21 February, 2012

Dear Canberra Press Gallery 2 - or, Haven't we heard all this before?

In June 2010, I wrote this:
Dear Canberra Press Gallery,
Look, I know you’re bored.  I know Kevin Rudd isn’t the kind of prime minister who whacks himself in the eye with a cricket ball, or confesses infidelity, or tells the opposition leader “I’m going to do you slowly,” or makes a fawning goose of himself in front of royalty, or goes out of his way to be seen cheering any kind of sporting event... So I know that’s rather boring for you, but this is the beat you chose, so could you try reporting about things that are actually happening, rather than the things you wish were happening?
Obviously, that was too much to ask. 
Now I know what some of you must be thinking,
“But Bill!  There really was a leadership challenge happening.  Julia Gillard successfully challenged Rudd just a few days later.  You were wrong.” 

Well, yes and no.  I stand by my observation that the Gillard challenge began as a media concoction.  What is observable is that rumours of a challenge to Rudd’s leadership had been rife in the media for months – long before anyone began to take it seriously.  Leadership speculation is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you say that speculation is increasing about the leadership of the party, that in itself increases the speculation.  It’s true just by virtue of saying it.

I’ve already described how to manufacture a leadership crisis.  Say what you’d like to think is happening and let human nature do the rest.   It’s school-yard stuff really.  Here’s how you might do it…

“So, PM, do you have a response to what X said about you?”
 - Why? What did X say?
“Oh?  So you haven’t heard?”
 - Heard what?
“Oh, never mind.  It’s probably nothing.”
 - What’s probably nothing?
“Well, I didn’t hear it myself, so I can’t be sure.”
 - Can’t be sure of what?
“Well, I just overheard Y talking to Z and apparently Y was saying that X reckons you’re a bit of a wobblebottom.”
 - X called me a wobblebottom?
“‘A bit’ of a wobblebottom.  But I don’t know, I just heard Y say so.  Wondered if you had a response.”

“So X, what’s this about the PM saying you called him a wobblebottom?”
 - What?
“The PM reckons you called him a wobblebottom.”
 - Why on earth would the PM think I called him a wobblebottom?
“Buggered if I know.  Go figure!”
 - Well if that’s what the PM takes me for after all the loyalty I’ve shown, then the PM really is a wobblebottom.

“It’s true.”
 - What’s true?
“X.  He called you a wobblebottom.”
 - X really called me a wobblebottom?
“Yep.  Told me directly.”
 - After saying it to Y?
“Dunno. ’Spose so.”
 - X is a good minister and has always been supportive.  He was probably just blowing off steam.
“Maybe.  Still, it’s not a good look if you let him get away with that kind of thing.  People will question the strength of your leadership”

And, as Mr Ellis would say, so it goes.

Having got their change of leader in 2010, the press gallery is bored again.  After filling columns about Julia Gillard’s voice, hair, partner, dress sense, and even her earlobes, they’ve run out of trivia and now they want to write it so that the Gillard prime ministership was all a dream – like that season of Dallas.

It does appear that after months of relentless media agitating, the rumours of a Rudd challenge are finally beginning to grow legs, with several Labor MPs willing to comment one way or another.  This does not prove that the whole, banal soap opera was not fomented by media who would rather report personality politics than stuff that’s actually happening.

When a heavily edited video of Kevin Rudd swearing in frustration was leaked onto YouTube last Saturday night, it was fascinating to look at twitter and watch everyone claim it as proof of their own narrative.  The kind of spinning and re-spinning that used to last a week, all came one after another in less than an hour.  When the story broke, the angle was that this would be damaging to Rudd.  Therefore, it must have been leaked by those who are out to damage Rudd.  Within ten minutes, it started to become evident that it would not be as damaging to Rudd as first predicted.  Without missing a beat, it was then claimed that since it wasn’t damaging him as much as expected, that meant that Rudd himself must have leaked it in order to gain sympathy and make it look like Gillard and her backers were trying to smear him.  Naturally, everyone took it as confirmation of an ongoing leadership struggle. 

It seems a large chunk of the current crop of journalists honestly think that this is how it’s done.  It doesn’t matter if it’s relevant, it doesn’t matter if it’s important, just keep it simple enough for people to talk about.  Don’t blame the 24-hour news cycle.  24-hour news should mean more time for policy analysis, not a ravenous appetite for salacious trivia.  There is little noticable difference between the news coverage of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd and that of Shane Warne and Elizabeth Hurley.  That's a problem because unlike the cricketer and the actress, Gillard and Rudd do things that actually effect people’s lives - not that you’d know it if you watch the news.

Leave the fluff to these folks...

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