Media review enters final phase

by Chris Griffith
Published 27 December 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


It is the biggest political story in Queensland, but you will not read about it. Yet every journalist and editor is talking about it, and some ministers are whispering about it. Even Premier Wayne Goss is being investigated because of it!

It is the review by the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC) of State Government media units and ministerial media advisers, which has now entered its report-writing phase.

EARC's report is expected to be adopted by its five commissioners in March.

Already, there is an avalanche of statistics flowing from the Commission following two very detailed statistical exercises that may, or may not, expose State Government attempts at media manipulation, and how journalists respond.

For example, 3107 (81.7 pc) of newspaper articles on state politics from June 15 to July 12 referred mainly to Labor Party MP's, 253 (6.7 pc) to Liberal MP's, and 375 (9.9 pc) to National Party MP's.

This review has generated incredible heat and debate among Queensland journalists and government ministerial media advisors.

Some regard EARC's review as an insult to experienced journalists who do not swallow Government propaganda to the extent some, including Tony Fitzgerald, QC, would have us believe.

Others regard a study of the relationship between media advisors and journalists as vital to understanding how Australian state and federal governments manipulate the flow of information and public opinion in our democracy. This is similar to the pursuits of academic Noam Chomsky in the US.

In the middle is the public, which has heard little about this review despite the heat generated in media circles. In the first study, EARC requested five government departments fax the Commission copies of press releases at the time departments released them to the media. EARC collected 257 press releases during this exercise, from June 15 to July 26.

The Commission is now studying how those press releases find their way into newspapers, radio, and television with the assistance of a media monitoring company.

This will not be completed unit late January. Yet there are early indications many press releases are rewritten as news with little alteration, according to Mr Bob Ahern, the Senior Project Officer in- charge of the review.

"In a quick look through, you can identify very easily paragraphs from press releases put into a news item with no additional information," Mr Ahern said.

"The journalist hasn't spoken to an opposition source and there's no indication of any additional information or counter view," he said.

EARC's second study involved collecting and coding every article that referred to a Queensland politician in the metropolitan, provincial, rural, and local press from June 15 to July 12.

These articles now occupy an entire filing cabinet at EARC, held in 89 vertical files neatly labelled with the appropriate politician's name. Their analysis reveals that Mr Goss was mentioned in 591 articles, Opposition Leader Rob Borbidge in 115, and Liberal Leader Joan Sheldon in 105 of the 3804 articles.

EARC has also churned out cross-tabulations for just about everything - media outlets and journalists listed by the MPs they write about, and in another table journalists are listed against the size and frequency of their articles. EARC has also established the frequency with which an article referring to an MP includes his or her photo.

The Labor MLA for Whitsunday, Ms Lorraine Bird, will be pleased to know she enjoys the highest photo percentage hit-rate of any Queensland MP. Her picture appeared in 7 (43.8 pc) of the 16 newspaper articles referring to her in that period.

EARC has also tabulated what it calls coat-tailing. This is the frequency with which a back-bencher's name sneaks into an article primarily concerned with a minister opening a building or launching a project, or visa versa.

This coat-tailing study may sound crass, nevertheless it comes at a time the Parliamentary Services Commission has rejected a previous EARC recommendation to allow the Parliamentary Library access to the Premiers Department's electronic data-base of media releases.

EARC is investigating to what extent Government backbenchers respond more readily to ministerial statements than the opposition. However, Mr Ahern acknowledges there are grave limitations on this study which he says is of secondary importance. How useful this work is remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, EARC has received little response from journalists to 28 letters sent out on December 7 to journalists and organisations named in a stinging 37-page submission from resigned Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance joint secretary, Arthur Gorrie.

In his submission, Gorrie detailed what he says were unacceptable attempts at media control by current and past State Governments, and past Brisbane City Council administrations.

He said Governments had lobbied senior media management to sack or move journalists who criticised them at news organisations including the Courier-Mail and the ABC. He said an approach had been made against a senior Gold Coast journalist who had published stories critical of the Gold Coast Indy Grand Prix - an issue now under review by the Public Accounts Committee.

Gorrie's submission was in response to an invitation in October by EARC chairman, David Solomon, issued after Gorrie had claimed the review would get nowhere unless EARC used its compulsory powers to get evidence from journalists under oath.

The 28 people approached were given two weeks to reply. By the expiry date, December 22, the Commission had received only six responses, although late replies are expected.

Mr Ahern said EARC could conduct public hearings, depending on the response. He said the Commission had the power to subpena people, and warned it was an offence to victimise anyone assisting the Commission.

Meanwhile, Mr Goss has received and responded to a "please explain" regarding Gorrie's claim that the Premier had admitted publicly he had suggested former Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) chairman Sir Max Bingham sack his media officer, journalist Marion Smith.

Goss had made the suggestion after Sir Max had asked him to sack a senior Government advisor. However Sir Max said his request was based on valid criminal justice grounds and consistent with his role as CJC chairman. Gorrie says Goss's response confirms his concerns.

EARC is also studying the timing of State Government TV ads, having observed departmental TV promotions prominent before the state election are noticeably absent now. EARC will too examine a WA (Inc) Royal Commission recommendation that Parliament employ journalists to provide a public media service. This would give the media an alternative news source to press secretaries and party machines.

The Commission, too, should look at the practice where governments fly TV film crews to far and exotic locations to interview ministers. A public log should be kept as to who pays for these guaranteed good news stories for Ministers, and where the taxpayer pays, the justification should be noted.

A happy Christmas and New Year to you all!