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In an attempt to slow the media cycle, Turnbull has borrowed from US presidents: speak only from a podium, and only on big issues. By Sophie Morris.

Inside Turnbull’s media strategy

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the media.
Credit: ALAMY

For David Koch, the media strategy Malcolm Turnbull should adopt as prime minister is pretty simple: “Just be yourself.”

It’s basic stuff, but it’s something the past three prime ministers have struggled with.

Just weeks before Tony Abbott lost the prime ministership, the man universally known as Kochie tried in an interview on the Seven Network’s Sunrise program to draw him out on his deep interest in Indigenous affairs. Abbott was visiting a remote Aboriginal community, as he said he would do for one week of every year he was prime minister.

“I asked: ‘Why are you so passionate? Is it good for your soul as a human being?’ I just got political speak. It was ridiculous,” Koch tells The Saturday Paper.

“The problem is they get manipulated by all these advisers and the research and the polling, and you look at these people on TV or the media and think: Is that really the person I was having a good chat to the other day at the footy? And that was always my issue with Tony Abbott. He just… he wouldn’t waver, he wouldn’t give any insight into Tony Abbott, the bloke.”

Since Turnbull replaced Abbott on September 14, the new prime minister has rationed his interviews. As he reboots the government, he’s also trying to slow the frenetic media cycle by refusing to bow to the insatiable demands for fresh content.

The style is almost presidential. He attends events, where he makes public comments, so he is seen to be governing and leading. But he’s avoiding getting roped into constant post-event doorstops, where journalists hurl questions and demand answers. He’s talking, but on his own terms. “Picfac only, no doorstop,” say most of his recent media alerts, advising there will be an opportunity for photos but no questions.

It’s early days, but the strategy thus far borrows from another famous Coalition credo: he’s deciding what he says and the circumstances in which he says it.

His office is resisting the pressure to insert him, or a minister serving as a government spokesperson, into the media cycle to respond to or seed the story of the day. They have taken the decision that, as prime minister, Turnbull need not immediately comment on every story that is running.

When he does speak, his office is of the view that it should lend gravitas to an issue. Still, he knows he needs the media.

Turnbull shows light touch

And Kochie’s vast audience in “middle Australia” is crucial.

After swearing in his frontbench, Turnbull did a round of interviews with broadcasters. Kochie was one of the first.

Turnbull is not, like Kevin Rudd, a creation of Sunrise. Rudd and Joe Hockey built their public profiles by sharing a regular sparring spot on the program before Rudd became Labor leader. Turnbull, by contrast, has a bigger following among the viewers of Q&A.

Kochie was pleased that, in his first Sunrise interview as PM, Turnbull seemed to understand what works on the show, which is beamed into hundreds of thousands of households getting ready for work and school.

It’s an audience with limited tolerance for politicians – Koch says live ratings updates show that some 60,000 tune out immediately when a politician comes on – so interviews need to be engaging.

They canvassed the mechanics of the leadership change and his stance on several policies, but there was also some banter. It’s those insights into a politician’s personality that the Sunrise audience likes.

When Koch asked if Turnbull considered it an insult or a compliment that he and wife Lucy have been compared to Francis and Claire Underwood in the political drama House of Cards, the new prime minister joked that the only thing they had in common was a rowing machine.

He also played along with a dig about the colour of his tie.

“That gave me hope that we may have a PM that shows the type of person he is and is prepared to have a laugh and connect with people. I hope that continues,” says Koch. “He’s a very erudite guy, the only PM to downsize his house going to The Lodge, an entrepreneur, a self-made man: there’s a lot to like about him, if he doesn’t get all those advisers telling him who he should be.”

Press conference over doorstop commentary

For now, the prime minister’s advisers seem to be counselling not just a change in tone, but also in how Turnbull is communicating with the public. It is not via drops to The Daily Telegraph, which was Abbott’s favoured newspaper.

When Turnbull has something to say, journalists are told he will call a press conference for all to hear. He pitched himself, after all, as the great explainer and has never been known to be short on words.

He gave a brief statement the day after a 15-year-old shot dead a police employee in Parramatta on October 2, but took no questions. In the following week he avoided inflaming the situation, copping some criticism for going missing in action.  

It was not until a week later that he held a press conference, announcing a meeting of state and federal officials to discuss security challenges and emphasising the importance of unity, harmony and mutual respect.

Turnbull also refrained from giving a press conference after meeting with leaders of trade unions, businesses and community groups a fortnight ago to discuss economic reforms. Had he done so, he would inevitably have said something that would have committed him in some way to the ideas that were discussed. By staying silent, he bought the government time to consider them.

“What is apparent is that the news cycle has slowed appreciably,” says Seven News political editor Mark Riley, who has covered federal politics from the press gallery for print and broadcast outlets for 22 years. “We are now dealing with a conversation about politics rather than slogans versus zingers.”

The change in pace has been a culture shock for some press gallery journalists, who are used to the relentless adrenalin of rolling leadership dramas. The dominant story that had for months infected all others – about the sustainability of Abbott’s leadership – has disappeared and an eerie calm has descended.

In Turnbull’s public appearances this week, there was more kumbaya than conflict. The contest continued in parliament, but without the aggression. And significant policy developments were under way, with talks between the government and Labor on the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement and a broadening of the debate about tax reform.

Riley is not complaining about the slower pace. He senses the possibility for more nuanced and substantial debate.

“There’s an embedded misapprehension that television news services demand that politicians have to speak like budgerigars and repeat things incessantly otherwise the audience gets their hackles up,” says Riley.

“If they want to strike up a sensible conversation about politics, then we will help them by reporting that. If they want to parrot slogans like budgies, then we’ll report that and the audience can see that for what it is.”

Can media cycle be lastingly slowed?

But opinions are divided as to whether it’s even possible to slow down the frenetic cycle of politics in the media. Mike Baird in New South Wales seems to be having a go at it, with some success.

Labor frontbencher Tony Burke says the challenge presented by the pace of the current media cycle is not so much the constant demand for opinion but rather that it can be difficult to keep a conversation going on a topic. This makes it hard, he says, to explain the reasons for a policy decision before the caravan moves on.

To overcome this, he thinks politicians need to be prepared to allow the public more insight into how they come to a decision. He cites the fevered debate at public meetings about the formation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan when he was water minister in 2010 as an example of a good policy outcome from tough public debate.

“With the 24-hour media cycle, you need more frank conversation with the public while you work something through,” says Burke. “That carries a problem that you sometimes will define a problem before you arrive at a solution. You need to be prepared to work through the principles behind a policy before you get to your final design. The downside is always you’ll be having a discussion about some options that you’re not using. But the alternative is no one will ever know you did a thing.”

Turnbull is not the first prime minister to try to slow the media cycle that has sped up with the rise of social media, constant online updates of stories and the broadcasting of two dedicated 24-hour news channels.

It’s a dynamic that favours an opposition trying to get its message out but can narrow a government’s agenda, or derail it with a heightened risk of policy on the run.

Old press gallery hands posit that the frenetic pace really took off under Rudd and his Kevin07 campaign, and has not eased since. Having cut his teeth on Sunrise, Rudd seemed beholden to high-paced celebrity politics and addicted to controlling what his ministers said.

Labor frontbenchers from that era still shudder when they recall the morning messages they would receive from Rudd’s office dictating their talking points: not just the topic and substance, but also the exact words they must use.

Indeed, one of Rudd’s old ministers observes in a new memoir that his addiction to the 24-hour media cycle contributed to his downfall.

“The business of government quickly became paralysed as he tried to micromanage national affairs and an ambitious reform agenda around the 24-hour news cycle,” writes former Labor environment minister Peter Garrett in Big Blue Sky: A Memoir.

That sentence summarises everything Turnbull is determined to avoid. Ministers who were on a tight leash under Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, are being told they have more leeway to run their portfolios. Their media appearances will be co-ordinated, to ensure they’re not all on their feet at the same time, but not dictated. At least, that’s the intent at this stage under a media team that’s headed by David Bold, who worked for Turnbull in his role as communications minister.

As former Howard government minister Amanda Vanstone noted in her Fairfax column this week, the media strategy is no longer geared to just winning the news each day, no matter what.

“There’s a different pace to the new federal government. It is marching to a different drum,” she wrote. “It seems to not be wedded to the ‘one story a day, dominate the media’ theory.”

Abbott and Credlin

As opposition leader, Abbott had profited from the relentless media cycle, using it every day to get his combative sound bite up. When he became prime minister in 2013, he proclaimed an ambition to slow things down and get sport, instead of politics, back on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

In his first few months in office, it even seemed he might achieve his aim, as he took a breather from the daily media combat. But the hiatus did not last long.

There are different theories as to why his media strategy came unstuck. One that is prevalent in the press gallery is that Abbott’s favouring of The Daily Telegraph sabotaged his relationship with other media outlets.

At one background briefing for media last year, senior security officials from the Australian Federal Police and ASIO were instructing journalists on security risks. The Saturday Paper was not invited but has heard the story from several sources.

After a while, Credlin took over the briefing. She started using language that was similar to an extraordinary report that had appeared in The Daily Telegraph the day before, which had identified the most vulnerable entry point into parliament and how terrorists could “take out” two parliamentary security officers to get a direct line of sight into the Prime Minister’s Office.

A very senior press gallery figure pointedly suggested that perhaps it would be better if The Daily Tele had not been briefed on such sensitive material. At the meeting, Credlin denied the PMO had leaked to the newspaper, saying it was not in the government’s interests. Regardless of the source of the story, the incident was one example of Abbott’s perceived favouritism for the newspaper and of the ire this provoked in other media outlets.

Another theory as to why Abbott failed to slow down the frantic cycle is that he was more comfortable in campaign mode and never really broke out of its event-a-day rhythm. Also, withdrawing from the voracious news cycle is only sustainable while things are going well, so when the polls stayed low and the 2014 budget tanked, Abbott and his ministers were under pressure to get out there and try to turn things around.

Tensions in his office led on occasions to mixed messages, most notably over the GP co-payment late last year.

By the time he was ousted, Abbott’s office was resorting to some of the crudest media strategies to try to stay in power.

The Australian Financial Review’s Laura Tingle reported in August that the national security committee of cabinet had requested a list of national-security-related things that could be announced weekly until the election.

One wonders what has happened to those “announceables” and whether the fact they may never see the light of day makes us more or less secure.

Instead, Turnbull was this week launching the National Day of Unity, along with Labor leader Bill Shorten and Greens leader Richard Di Natale. A couple of journalists tried for questions. The PM gave anodyne responses. Having lent the event his gravitas, he then left.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "Inside Turnbull’s media strategy". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.