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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Struggling with "communicative abundance" and "monitory democracy"?

Professor Jonathon Keane of the University of Westminster, an Adelaide boy still at heart, has been in Australia speaking about his almost 1000 page book "The Life and Death of Democracy." If you haven't caught up with this- the text of an occassional address at the Senate a few weeks ago will give you the gist of what he is on about with "communicative abundance" and "monitory democracy." Makes those of us who are trying to keep an eye on a little of what is happening in government feel part of a wider and important trend.

At a local level, the following struck a chord, and had me hoping the techniques mentioned are all ancient history:
"In the era of monitory democracy, government media management is partly a ‘top down’ process. Governments hack in to the system of communicative abundance using various instruments, blunt and sharp. In recent years, John Howard did this to a worryingly unconventional degree. The formula of his governments’ media strategy is clearer in retrospect: build a team of tough-minded public relations people who are good at spinning everything. Get them to cultivate the image of the Prime Minister as a dedicated, hard-working, self-made man, a leader in whom everyone can recognise something of themselves, and what they want to be. Grant access of journalists to government plans in return for favourable coverage. Put senior bureaucrats on notice that they are required to report all contacts with journalists to the Prime Minister’s office. Stop leaks from retired or serving bureaucrats (Howard called it ‘democratic sabotage’, and explained that leaking is bad because it wrecks the tradition of fidelity and confidentiality upon which the provision of frank and fearless advice by civil servants to politicians depends). If necessary, get the police to turn up on doorsteps to ask questions of suspected infidels. Pass legislation to slap bans on reporting high-priority matters, detention without trial of suspects and witnesses, for instance. Pursue journalists who are troublemakers, especially those who refuse to divulge their sources. Threaten them with prosecution for libel, or contempt of court. Cultivate deaf ears for requests for disclosure of information. Keep trusted commentators at the ready, on duty at all times. Ignore calls by lawyers’ groups, NGOs and the press for new freedom of information laws, or their reform. Say often that you favour ‘freedom of communication’, but make it clear that there are strong grounds for withholding information, such as security, public order, fair play, the rights of business, the protection of the vulnerable, the needs of government."


  1. Anonymous8:24 am

    A mildly interesting analysis. I was one of those 'spin doctors' who worked for a government department and I had absolute and total freedom to interact with the media under the Howard Government. Part of my job was understanding which issues were part of the machinery of government and which had a political edge; those I passed to the Minister's media adviser while I handled all of the routine and factual stuff doing radio and press interviews on an almost daily basis.

    When the Rudd Governmetn was elected I did ask myself, could I in all conscience work for a government that I have a philosophical difference with and the answer was 'yes' - their policy in my area was so similar to the Howard Government that I saw no difference.

    However I completely underestimated the lack of trust, the fear of losing control and the total paranoia of Rudd's minions, mostly from NSW. After six months of virtually no contact from the Minister's office, with emails ignored, and phone calls not returned ('the Minister's staff do not like to be contacted when they are travelling!!!!'), they finally issued a directive. 'There is to be no media interaction from XXXXX agency'.

    Why? There was no criticism of what I had done or said to the media. Simply a requirement that even the smallest inquiry be subject to a full written, cleared brief, agreed by the Minister's office before anyone (and they would decide who) commented.

    I've never witnessed such an overly restrictive media policy and I have worked in the private sector and as a government departmental media person for the Keating Government, Howard Government and Rudd Government.

    I don't think people yet know what they don't know and if the government won't tell them they never will. I have never witnessed such paranoia and centralised control in my professional life.

  2. So Keane's list of Howard Government ills does still have current resonance.