The Day of the Great Leadership Challenge, about which I wrote yesterday, confirmed in me that I should offer some candid advice to the next Prime Minister about how to deal with the media. I should make clear at once that I do not know personally who that will be, and doubt that he or she (as we have seen, politics is a funny business) is an ardent reader of this website. I’m not sure that my advice will be heeded, even if it is read, but I will feel better for having discharged my duty.
My advice comes from having been a close student of Australian politics since the late 1950s, and from having been a commentator in print, and on radio and television, since the mid 1960s. I also care about the quality of our political system and its life, which at the moment I think is at a low ebb. So here it is, in six parts.
1. Politics ought not to be a form of entertainment
Our current Prime Minister likes to say that she has important things to do, and governing the country is hard work, and she needs to get on with it, and so on. In fact hardly a day goes by where she is not on television, talking to a reporter, going to a soldier’s funeral, seeing a work site, visiting a school. None of this is governing, and it is unnecessary. She has Ministers to do much of this kind of work, and if the Government has to be represented at the funeral of a soldier, the Governor-General is the right person to be there. Above all, the Prime Minister needs to be taken seriously, and that means keeping a distance. When politics is a form of entertainment things are not going well.
2. Make clear from the beginning what your rules are, and stick to them
I suggest that you meet with the press gallery in Parliament once a week, and that otherwise you do not give interviews, door-stop comments or say anything to any microphone placed in front of your nose. Insist from the beginning that you will not answer any questions about your private life, and whatever else you regard as off-limits. Stick to that. Insist that your Ministers follow your rules. They are not to be on television or radio every day. They too have a job to do, and being accessible to the media at all hours is not part of it. Yes, I know that John Howard started this, and that he was in power for eleven years, and that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard followed suit. But it has cheapened political life, and makes you a creature of the media. Don’t worry about being liked. Prime Ministers are not there to be liked, but to run an effective and successful government. That’s your job, and it will take everything you’ve got.You don’t have to say something, or announce something, every day.
3. Don’t have media cronies
There will be times when you feel that what you are doing is being misrepresented because the media people don’t understand the reality of it all. Resist the urge to take one of them into your confidence. Once you do that you will have broken your rule, and that will make you much less credible. Deal with that matter at your next weekly media conference or, if it is most important, get your able speechwriter to build it into a speech. You will be giving speeches from time to time — not too many of them, and each one to be consistent with what you have said in the past.
4. Don’t worry about the Leader of the Opposition
If you follow this advice the Leader of the Opposition will think that he or she will have a field day, and can take over the space that you have vacated. Great! Within a month or two the public will be bored witless. All attention will turn to your weekly moment with the media, and for that you have to be well prepared, consistent and coherent. These will become major occasions, and they are yours. Oh, and treat the Leader of Opposition with great respect and consideration, especially when he or she is nasty to you.
5. Be the first, not the last, to announce bad news
If something really bad has occurred, depart from your ordinary rule, and call a special press gallery conference. Deal with that matter as candidly as you can. Don’t hedge and conceal. And don’t talk about anything else. Bad news is bad, but it won’t last, especially if you deal with it at once.
6. Put up with the anger of the media at being reduced in status
You will be told that the public has a right to know, and that you are aloof, distant and other objectionable things. Reply that you take the public into your confidence each week, and that the public has other things to worry about. Put up with the adverse stuff.
If you do all this you will have the time and space to able to be run a good government, and before long everyone will get used to the way you do it. And my guess is that the public will get on with their own lives, and feel a tad happier about things than they do now.