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Panpa Bulletin : Oct-Nov-December 2007
28 PANPA Bulletin October-November-December 2007 media matters I'm reviewing two books this month that might well make your Christmas read- ing list if you care about the impact of spin upon our democratic values and upon the very journalism we carry in our news products. Both are to do with managing mes- sages. The first --- Bob Burton's Inside Spin --- does not examine the legacy of Shane Warne but instead takes on the so-called "dark underbelly of the PR industry". Burton's exposé of both the corporate and government PR sectors tells a sorry tale of the manipulation of public opinion for strategic purposes which in previous generations was called 'propaganda' but is now more politely labelled 'spin'. Burton traces the escapades of the cor- porate sector, particularly the drug manu- facturing and fast food industries, as they deploy a range of tools to 'manage' public perceptions of their images and products, sometimes leaving any semblance of that old-fashioned notion of 'truth' completely coincidental. Two chapters are of special concern to any self-respecting journalist who still believes newspapers should be in the truth- telling business. They are the chapters titled 'Governing with Spin', detailing the multi- million dollar enterprise of government media relations, and 'It Takes Two to Tango', exposing the all too cozy relationship be- tween PR operatives and journalists. Burton's critique of government media relations is all the more disturbing because he demonstrates the spin assault is not isolated to a particular political party or level of government. Burton explains the high dependence of journalists on press releases, video news re- leases and staged media events, and shows how they swallow the line of covert media campaigns through insufficient inquiry. Burton insists that it really does matter if journalism and PR are so closely intertwined, because "the core issue is whether journal- ists and media companies can assert their independence from a growing PR industry that seeks to tame independent voices in a debate." Hamilton and Maddison's Silencing Dissent is much more political in its ambit and tone. It is a collection of chapters by different authors on various strategies by the Howard Government to deflect criti- cism of its policies. The chapter on dealing with the media is written by Queensland academic and journalist Helen Ester. She uses the exam- ple of Federal Police raids on the National Indigenous Times newspaper in 2004 as an entry point into an argument that the Australian government has worked actively to restrict information to the media. She revealed that in 2005 the govern- ment had spent more than $200,000 chas- ing leaks within the federal public service. Her final observation is about the ascendancy of talkback radio as an alter- native to broader press conferences as a mechanism for senior ministers to make important announcements, minimising criticism and difficult questioning. The last decade has seen an increased focus on strategies to block and control ac- cess to information flows from the gaze and analysis of the critical expertise of journalists in the parliamentary round," she concludes. The chapter has high merit as a case study of how one government has implemented a successful media management strategy to the ultimate detriment of core democratic values. Its shortcoming is in paying insuf- ficient recognition to the fact that in the modern era governments of all political persuasions (the Blair Labour Government, for example) engage in such techniques. Spin is not so easily dismissed as the evil potion of a particular party. It is something journalists and editors need to address on all fronts. CONNECT Mark Pearson is professor of journalism and director of the Centre for New Media Research and Education at Bond University in Queensland, Australia. mpearson@sta .bond.edu.au Don't let spinners be winners Mark Pearson reviews two books on government and corporate PR that make essential reading this post-election summer Burton, Bob. (2007). Inside Spin. The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry. Allen & Unwin, Sydney. ISBN 978-1-74175-217-5. RRP $24.95 Hamilton, Clive and Sarah Maddison. (2007). Silencing Dissent. How the Australian Government is Controlling Public Opinion and Stifling Debate. Allen & Unwin, Sydney. ISBN 978-1-74175-101-7. RRP $24.95
August September 2007