Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 06:17 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 06:17 | SYDNEY

The White Paper and media management


Graeme Dobell

6 May 2009 16:28

The Rudd Government achieved one clear first with the release of the White Paper — it completely ignored Federal Parliament. The formal unveiling of this key policy document at Garden Island in Sydney on Saturday was partly media management and partly the pressure of contracting time lines.

Whether a cunning plot by the minders or merely an average organisational stuff-up, the effect has been to give only a couple of days to the defence policy before the news cycle moved on.

First, consider the presidential nature of the release, and the complete absence of even a nod to parliament. Since Jim Killen started the line in 1976, every Defence White Paper has been unveiled in Canberra as it was presented to parliament. Not this time.

The planning had been for the White Paper to be tabled in parliament last week. But the message-of-the-day philosophy crowded it out. The Minder Manual states that there can be only one big government announcement per day, to guarantee maximum coverage.

Defence had one moment in the cycle last Wednesday when Kevin Rudd and his Defence Minister announced that an extra 450 Australian troops will go to Afghanistan. Then the news cycle moved in following days to the special training education scheme for young people and the meeting with the State premiers.

The White Paper got bumped from possible release in Canberra on the Thursday. Suddenly, Defence was told to whistle up a ship to Garden Island so President Kevin could do the release on Saturday. Various Defence heavies were zooming Sydney-wards on Thursday to get the picture backdrop ready.

On the Thursday and Friday, members of the Defence chattering and feeding classes (business, commentariat and media) were issued urgent invitations to attend the Saturday launch. This is message-management by last minute fiat.

When it comes to Defence announcements, Rudd follows the John Howard play book. On military matters, the Prime Minister morphs into presidential mode. The job of the Defence Minister and service chiefs is to stand behind their leader and look serious.

The minders reached out for a Garden Island release in line with one of the fundamental media management rules perfected by Ronald Reagan. This states that if the president offers up good pictures, TV will automatically do the rest. Even if the reporter’s words are equivocal or negative, strong pictures speak to the voters of a strong president.

The choice facing the minders was simple. They could have the Prime Minister do a presser in parliament in the Blue Room with just an Australian flag as a prop. Or head to Sydney where Rudd could stride decisively up the gangway onto a RAN floating stage. Plus, they could have lots of sailors standing around looking respectfully at President Kev.

Cutting out parliament had the added benefit of completely excluding the opposition from the news cycle. On Friday, the Defence Minister’s press secretary toured the Canberra press gallery and handed out copies of the White Paper to defence writers in the Murdoch and Fairfax newspapers and the Canberra Times. The ABC wasn’t so blessed but a bit of digging had all the details on the 7pm news that night.

The beauty of media management by a selective ‘leak’ ahead of a formal release is that it imposes a form of embargo. The effect is that the favoured journalists can write the story but shouldn’t ‘break’ the embargo by talking to the opposition. Thus, on the Saturday, the papers had pages and pages on the White Paper with virtually no reference to the views of the opposition.

The by-passing of parliament has gone almost without comment in the media. Self-interest plays some part. Journalists were greatly advantaged by the Garden Island gambit. The only negative comment I saw was at the end of a background piece by Cameron Stewart. He pointed to the ‘perverse decision’ to release the Paper on a Saturday ‘with barely a day’s notice’ as evidence of ‘a desire to avoid close scrutiny of the document.’