Awaiting the awakening-The Media and Kevin Rudd
Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 23, 2008
By Ad astra
All of us see the world through the lenses of our own unique spectacles, finely honed over time by our background, beliefs and biases. How we view the world affects our judgements. Thus we should not be surprised that what journalists write reflects their unique biases. But could it be that it is not only the lenses through which they view the world that are giving them a biased reading, but also that their unfamiliarity with the new political order is distorting their view? In a piece dated 16 June: The rats’ problem with Rudd, The Piping Shrike says: “… it is pretty evident that the press does not understand what Rudd is about.” The article is well worth reading.
Most columnists have worked through the Howard era, some from the beginning. They witnessed a politician emerge from a political bloodbath to lead his party to four election victories. They saw him mature and gradually settle into a style of leadership and pattern of behaviour, which although not necessarily applauded, became the accepted paradigm. His actions became predictable, his style familiar, and his way of doing things accepted as the norm. Along comes Kevin Rudd. From his first day as leader he slipped into election mode. Conscious of the daily and weekly news cycles, already familiar with breakfast TV, and experienced in the workings of the public service, he set about fashioning messages for the media throughout its cycles. This was sustained throughout the official election campaign period and continues to this day. So much so that one journalist recently caustically commented that Kevin Rudd was still acting like the Leader of the Opposition, which sounds like code for ‘Kevin Rudd is still in election mode.’ John Howard, the norm by which journalists have been accustomed to judging events, would not be behaving like this. So Kevin Rudd must be ‘abnormal’. Could it be that Kevin Rudd’s media modus operandi is now the norm, and that this will continue to the next election? If so, columnists need to get used to it and adjust their perceptions and judgements to the new reality, instead of indulging in what The Piping Shrike terms ‘analysis-by-history’, or what Marshall McLuhan would have termed ‘driving while looking in the rear-view mirror’.
Many commentators have ridiculed what they see as Kevin Rudd’s focus on process, when after all, ‘it’s outcomes that count’. Educators and businessmen know that the outcomes they desire are the product of sound process. So they get the process right in order to achieve their outcomes. Political processes include enquiries, committee deliberations, reviews, assessments and such events as the 2020 Summit where opportunities to ‘think outside the square’ are provided, where new ideas provide the basis for debate. Could it be that for Rudd such processes ARE the message? Are journalists who criticize ‘process’ as familiar as they ought to be with the importance of sound process in rational decision making, and how it influences political outcomes, or are they still in Howard-era mode where there was less emphasis on process? The 10 billion water plan and the NT intervention were two initiatives characterized by minimal process – little consultation and short preparation time for what were major undertakings with far reaching effects. John Howard was lauded by some as ‘action man’. By way of contrast, examples of process-intensive initiatives of the Rudd Government are the Ken Henry review of the tax system and the Ross Garnaut report on climate change. These processes address complex issues that take time to digest. Columnists need to adjust to this level of complexity and the time frame needed for satisfactory completion of such projects instead of rashly applying to Rudd the pejorative slogan ‘all talk but no action’. Process IS action.
In the same breath they disparage Rudd’s ‘lack of long term planning’. If the following are not long-term planning, what are they? The Henry tax review, the Garnaut report, the review of Federal and State health services, the so-called digital education revolution, Infrastructure Australia that met this month, the NT one year progress report just out, the push to tackle obesity as well as excessive drinking, and a response by year-end to the outcomes of the 2020 Summit, and so on the long list goes. So many in the media either don’t see this as long term planning, or chose deliberately to ignore it so as not to undermine their ‘no long term plan’ mantra. They seem unable to comprehend that a government can have a short term agenda to match the daily and weekly media cycles AND simultaneously have a comprehensive set of long terms plans that unfold over time. The media has habitually looked to the May Budget as the prime indicator of the Government’s agenda, but after the first Rudd/Swan budget they seemed to be left wondering. They need seriously to also look elsewhere.
Not satisfied with criticizing the Rudd focus on process, they also criticize what they see as a LACK of process. Greg Sheridan in his June 12 piece in The Australian titled The new Mad Hatter scathingly described Kevin Rudd’s recent foreign policy initiatives as “…utterly amorphous content on the run, half baked, with no detail and no credible prospect of success.” The tenor of the article was cringing, expressing as it did discomfort with a PM who is not afraid to state his views on the world stage, is willing to take the initiative as a middle power leader, is prepared to express his vision for international diplomacy, and has the courage of his convictions. Notwithstanding Sheridan’s predictions of failure, Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda said he was “deeply impressed” by Rudd’s remarks in his Kyoto speech about regional cooperation and security, and Indonesian President Yudhoyono expressed similar sentiments. Clearly Kevin Rudd has a different approach to foreign affairs than did John Howard. In initiatives where other nations are involved, he seemingly prefers to promote ideas rather than offer a detailed plan, and then seek a response, in this instance via an envoy, Richard Woolcott. If much detail had been woven around the proposal before it was promulgated, would columnists have then been writing condemnatory pieces accusing Rudd of pre-empting proper debate among the nation states affected?
Those who have sneeringly referred to Rudd’s foreign policy announcements as ‘thought bubbles’ need to realize that in international affairs Rudd’s focus is to initiate a process and await the outcomes. While it’s reasonable to critique Rudd’s approach, journalists should view it not against the Howard approach, but instead adjust to the reality of a new paradigm for foreign policy.
Rudd’s comment that the G8 nations should apply the blow torch to OPEC to produce more oil evoked ridicule from the media and the Opposition, but by so doing he successfully reinforced his internationalization of the oil crisis in the eyes of his domestic audience, and underscored the relative impotence of individual governments to do much about it. Most of the media seemed to miss this. Many journalists are critical of Rudd’s ‘failure’ to tell the public unequivocally that petrol prices will continue to rise, and accuse him in advance of cowardice and lack of resolve to bite the bullet on the cost to voters of emissions trading. They seem not to ask themselves why he would do that ahead of the receipt of the Garnaut report. To oblige journalists digging for a dramatic headline? One can imagine it: ‘Rudd admits petrol costs will skyrocket when his Government introduces emissions trading’. Any prudent politician would want to handle this potentially explosive issue thoughtfully, and prepare the public incrementally for the unpleasant news so that successful adaptation can occur. As an aside, George Megalogenus believes the public may be more aware of this than is acknowledged by many journalists; adaptation may be achieved more readily than imagined.
To sum up, this piece suggests that some, but not all of the media have failed to recognize the modus operandi of the Rudd Government, and even when they have, feel uncomfortable with it after almost 12 years of the Howard Government and are therefore unwilling to acknowledge or accept it. They live in a past age when everything was different and easier to understand. Moreover, they may resent Rudd calling the media tune when they have done that for so long. So we should not be surprised at the top-of-the-front-page story in The Weekend Australian on 21 June: Anger builds around Rudd as chaos reigns at the top, a story replicated in several other papers. Forget the content, which is insubstantial and in places confected, the real message is that a large and influential section of the Fourth Estate has targeted Kevin Rudd’s character, style and behaviour, painting it as deeply flawed. It is hard to see any motive for this other than to diminish him and thereby erode his popularity with the people. Expect more of this.
Finally, a 19 June article in The Possum Box by Changa’s Boots, Australian attack bloggers and the Overton Window , suggests a more sinister process may be at work, at least among journalists who take extreme positions. In the Overton Window, what might look like unintentional bias is a deliberate attempt to make less extreme positions seem ‘middle ground’ and therefore more acceptable – a cynical mind-game, undertaken for covert political purposes. If this is the tactic of Australia’s ‘extreme’ writers, we have in our midst a menacing, calculated process to influence public thinking, almost in the manner of mass indoctrination, George Orwell style. This would be much more damaging to democracy than uninformed or biased journalism, about which we protest so much.
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