Rats unsure which way to jump

Thursday, 16 August 2007 

Labor’s attempt to make something of the leadership disunity between Costello and Howard in parliament yesterday was pretty lame.

Not surprising as there was no disunity to make something of. Just as the Haneef affair was a row between the government and the legal profession posing as one of civil liberties so this incident is a row between the government and the media posing as a leadership challenge.

Giving comments and then calling them ‘off the record’ is how politicians discipline the press gallery and that discipline is now breaking down. But the press is still uncertain how far it wants to break with this government. Despite the edginess with Costello in a strange little doorstop interview yesterday morning, the press gallery still seemed reluctant to defend the integrity of their colleagues.

The equivocal response of the press gallery reflects their increasing defensiveness as many of the assumptions built up during the Howard ascendancy have been undermined over this year. They have consistently over-assessed Howard’s initiatives and under-assessed the resilience of Rudd’s lead. This mis-reading of the polls has led to a concern that came out in the reporting of the Costello story, and exploited rather effectively by Downer on Tuesday, that they are too focussed on ‘Beltway’ issues like the Liberal leadership and losing touch with the electorate. This in turn has led some in the press on a search for the elusive hip-pocket issue out in the electorate that will explain why the government is lagging in the polls, something Rudd has taken advantage of by claiming the government is out of touch on issues like housing affordability and grocery prices.

Unfortunately, such an approach by the press only leads them further astray. Firstly, it mis-reads why the electorate is turning against the government. Secondly, reporters pretending they are sitting in a real estate office in western Sydney rather than the nation’s capital turns political reality on its head and misses the real story, how the government is losing its grip on power. It means the press ends up again tagging along behind the government as it also leaves the national stage and so they over-assess Howard’s recent attempts to try and find a state or council issue he can have an impact on. (For a political blog one of the more intriguing aspects of the uncertainty of the press in Canberra has been the reaction of The Australian. In its attempt to become a paper of influence in the corridors of power, they have clearly struggled with a shift in that power. It is probably this, more than the deficiencies, or any supposed rising influence, of the political blogs that has encouraged the paper to have a go at them in several articles in recent months.)

There is one other problem for the press under this transition – what is coming. Australia looks as though it could soon have a Prime Minister who will have the least developed relations with the press gallery in living memory. This is not just a result of Rudd’s limited time on the national stage. It is also embedded in his ‘anti-politics’ approach to by-pass the normal media routes of national political life. As seen by the unpleasantness that has surfaced between Rudd’s office and the stalwarts of the press gallery over such media issues as the Anzac Sunrise fuss, the type of cosy understanding between the political class and the press, that was exposed by the Costello affair, may be coming in for a rude shake-up. [Update on the Tuckey challenge, apparently it wasn’t the silly old fool’s fault, it was a girlie to blame.]

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 16 August 2007.

Filed under Media analysis

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