Politicians and the media: nothing new?

Shelly Savage, University of Sydney

Bridget Griffen-Foley Party Games: Australian Politicians and the Media from War to Dismissal, The Text Publishing Company, 2003 (304 pp). ISBN 1-87700-864-8 (paperback) RRP $32.00.

Prudent citizens are suspicious of the necessarily complicated and close relationship between politicians and the media, and so this relationship has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. Despite this scrutiny, two questions confound. First, have politicians and the media become closer over time and so corrupted their separate capacities to serve citizens’ interests as charged? Lack of historical evidence makes this question hard to answer. Without evidence we cannot judge whether current corruption reflects a worsening relationship or how things have always been. Second, do media figures influence the outcome of political elections out of self-interest? Again historical evidence is important. But the complexity both of influences on electoral outcomes and of media and political motives makes it difficult to isolate and measure the extent of media power.

We have more evidence now, in the form of Bridget Griffen-Foley’s Party Games. This book explores the often intimate personal and professional associations between key political and media figures between 1945, when television was first introduced into private homes, and 1975, when Governor-General John Kerr sacked the Whitlam government. In a rich set of anecdotes, Griffen-Foley examines the enduring interest of prominent media families in Australian elections and the sustained efforts by political parties to promote their policies and personalities in the media. Placing these anecdotes in the context of electoral history, she hints at their political potency.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE?

In 1942 Australian Liberal Party federal president Dick Casey introduced the party’s parliamentary leader Robert Menzies to a public relations technique he’d discovered while visiting the United States. Casey showed Menzies how American communications experts sold ‘free enterprise’ by linking it to ‘Americanism’ (p. 29). A short time later the Liberal Party employed this device in a preliminary election campaign. It commissioned radio advertorials featuring commentary by the jingoistic character John Henry Austral. Griffen-Foley describes them: ‘Built around a neighbourly but knowledgeable observer, the programs, accompanied by the strains of “Waltzing Matilda”, were designed to drive home the threat to private enterprise, productivity and the “Australian way” posed by Communism, socialism and the welfare state’ (p. 31). The advertorials attributed these threats to Labor policy and condemned them as foreign while advocating Liberal Party policy as quintessentially Australian.

Do media figures influence the outcome of political elections out of self-interest?

Australianism resonates in political advertising and rhetoric 62 years later. It features in Medicare television commercials where archetypal Australians contemplate the merits of changes to Medicare policy and in the constant criticism by political leaders of their opponents’ ideas as ‘un-Australian’.

Griffen-Foley also describes how in the early 1950s a young Rupert Murdoch, while college secretary of the British Labour Party at Oxford University, ‘struck up an unlikely and rather precocious correspondence with [former Australian Labor Prime Minister] Chifley’ who, in turn, ‘indulged the son of Australia’s leading media baron’ (p. 42). She describes how, in 1964, Prime Minister Robert Menzies briefed Frank Packer’s oldest son Clyde before the political novice gave his maiden speech as a Liberal member in the NSW Legislative Council. She describes how Clyde Packer, who was employed as a journalist in various Australian Consolidated Press (ACP) publications before his appointment to executive positions in his father’s company, continued to act as an ACP executive while serving as a member of the NSW Parliament (p. 124).

It’s interesting to compare Chifley’s and Menzies’ encounters with the sons of media magnates with the recent letters from Liberal Minister Dana Vale and Australian Broadcasting Authority Chairman David Flint to radio commentator Alan Jones. It seems that Australian political actors have long cultivated personal relationships with influential media figures at the expense of propriety. For instance, Griffen-Foley explains how in 1961 Labor leader Arthur Calwell asked Warwick Fairfax why the traditionally conservative Sydney Morning Herald planned to back Labor at the coming federal election. She reports the media proprietor’s reply: ‘If you were running a newspaper and you found that your classified advertisements had fallen drastically … you would want a change of government, wouldn’t you?’ (p. 98). To this end Fairfax arranged discounted advertising rates for Labor on its affiliated television stations. Meanwhile, Fairfax Assistant general manager Lou Leck and managing editor of Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review Max Newton prepared speeches, statements, and questions for Calwell.

A recent episode of Media Watch demonstrated how remarkably flawed dealings between the commercial media, reliant on advertising revenue, and politicians, keen to secure positive media coverage, can be. Media Watch (2004) reported that an FPC Courier-owned newspaper offered candidates in a local government election guaranteed editorial column space, to be personally written by those candidates, in return for the purchase of advertising. These historical and contemporary examples add weight to Sally Young’s (2003) speculation about the threat to fair media coverage when government policy jeopardises the profit of industries that advertise extensively and about how reporting is influenced by substantial revenue from political party and public sector advertising.

Australian political actors have long cultivated personal relationships with influential media figures.

Undue influence of the media and politicians over the other’s field of endeavour; the perpetuation of elite power structures; a perversion of government and media processes; and collusion between politicians and the media in policy making particularly on media are serious problems (see Blumler & Gurevitch 1995). But Party Games suggests that these problems are not worse now than in the past.

Indeed, some researchers warn that criticisms of the media risk comparing evidence from the real contemporary media against the imagined qualities of a previous ‘golden age’ of uncorrupted media that never really existed (Smith 1979). Perhaps this is because there isn’t much material available that considers the history of the relationship between politics and the media systematically and in sufficient detail (Tiffen 1999). For this reason Party Games makes a particularly useful contribution. Certainly, Griffen-Foley clearly demonstrates that 1945 and 1975 was no golden age in Australia.

A QUESTION OF INFLUENCE

Party Games helps us understand how we arrived at Australia’s current political media environment. But although the book does evaluate media influence on political outcomes, it doesn’t quite capture how complex the determinants of electoral outcomes are. Griffen-Foley examines major events and personalities through a narrow media focus without satisfactorily discussing the direction of influence or other contributing factors such as the relationship between audience and media profit; voting habits and the electoral system; institutional arrangements and election outcomes; or indeed the direction of influence between broader public opinion and the opinion of journalists and media executives.

For instance, Griffen-Foley’s account of Labor’s successful bid for government in 1972 under Gough Whitlam’s leadership (pp. 177–234) focuses closely on conditions in the media. She notes other factors, but these play second fiddle to her media focus. Griffen-Foley’s approach is useful for alerting readers to the possible influence that the media had on the election outcome, but it underplays other influences. From the account in Party Games one could conclude that the combination of a slick, media focussed campaign with the support of the Murdoch newspaper network won the election for Labor against a non-media focussed Coalition who enjoyed only the support of Packer’s television network.

Yet alternative accounts indicate that the Whitlam-led opposition was hungry for government, bursting with new ideas, and united behind its charismatic leader. In comparison, the Coalition had governed for 23 years, was divided over leadership, had few new policy ideas, faced economic difficulties including increasing unemployment, and was confronted by protests against the Vietnam War denouncing the unpopular conscription policy and its uneven socio-economic effect (Maddox 1996; Singleton et al. 2000). It’s easy to draw the conclusion that a dynamic and united new government with a charismatic leader would be more attractive than a static and divided 23 year old government with an awkward leader and the deaths of young Australian men on its conscience.

Party Games helps us understand how we arrived at Australia’s current political media environment.

Also important to the ALP’s victory was the changing voter demographic, with the youth vote increasing as baby-boomers came of age. Whitlam’s ability to tap the enthusiasm of this group and that of the emerging middle class intelligentsia with youth and post-materialist orientated policies can’t be discounted as an influence on the election result (Tiffen 1999).

When considering the question of media influence on politics, it’s useful to contemplate the complex ways that media and public or consumer interests intersect. If the media influences the public, does the public not also influence the media? In the case of the 1972 election, a bright, young media entrepreneur seeking to expand sales by attracting an emerging baby boomer consumer group might be better placed to reflect this group’s opinions rather than to persuade them to a different position. Perhaps Murdoch followed public opinion in 1972 rather than influenced it? In Party Games, Griffen-Foley doesn’t discuss the complicated nature of causality. For this reason the book is more likely to stimulate rather than satiate the curiosity of readers interested in the nature of influence. However Party Games does, as the author intends, provide a very satisfying ‘political history of Australia through the prism of the nation’s media dynasties’ (p. 7); and offers an excellent point of comparison for those interested in the contemporary state of the political media.

REFERENCES

Blumler, J. & Gurevitch, M. 1995, The Crisis of Public Communication, Routledge, London.

Griffen-Foley, B. 2004, ‘A life at the centre’, Griffith Review, Autumn, pp. 57–66.

Maddox, G. 1996, Australian Democracy in Theory and Practice, Longman, Australia.

Media Watch 2004, ‘Candidates pay, or else’ on Media Watch, Australian Broadcasting Commission Television, 15 March [Online], Available: http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s1066383.htm [2004, Aug.10].

Smith, A. (ed.), 1979, Television and Political Life: Studies in Six European Countries, Macmillan, London.

Singleton, G., Aitkin, D., Jinks, B. & Warhurst, J. 2000, Australian Political Institutions, 6th ed., Longman, Australia.

Tiffen, R. 1999, Scandals: Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Young, S. 2003, ‘Killing competition: restricting access to political communication channels in Australia’, AQ: Journal of Contemporary Analysis, vol. 75, no. 3, May-June.

Shelly Savage is a doctoral candidate and casual academic in the Discipline of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include media, public relations and public policy.

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