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The rise of the spin doctor: from personal briefings to news management.

It is hard to imagine from today's perspective that political leaders, governments and parties in Australia once operated without a retinue of professional media advisers designed to manage the news on a day to day (or hour to hour) basis. Yet, until the 1970s, relations between the federal government and the news media (essentially the Canberra Press Gallery) were characterised by a system in which a deferential Press Gallery reported politics based on direct and personal access to ministers, including the prime minister, with little or no active mediation by third parties. In this article, I examine how this changed through the rise of political media advisers ('spin doctors') and what this might mean. I argue that the crucial moment in the foundation of modern political news management occurred during the terms of the governments of Malcolm Fraser (1975-83) and Bob Hawke (1983-91). The later governments of John Howard and Kevin Rudd, although more widely stigmatised for their use of 'spin', largely built on these changes, which involved centralised control of media advice in the Prime Minister's Office; the creation of a media monitoring function often directed at the opposition; and the adoption of techniques, including the 'doorstop', that allowed the government a greater degree of control over the way its message was conveyed to the public. The term 'spin' itself is a contested one in politics, with definitions ranging from the hostile use of the term to mean propaganda and the promotion of falsehoods to a more neutral term denoting the practice of promoting self-interested and selective interpretations of facts and events. In exploring these issues, the author's method has been to examine the historical record and public documents while framing them within the relevant scholarly literature and drawing on a reflective critical analysis.

The early press officers

Until well into the Menzies period (1949-66), press secretaries were the privilege of the prime minister alone. The position of press secretary, as Walter points out, began unashamedly as a de facto political adviser as distinct from the public servants who also advised prime ministers (1986: 41). For example, Australia's first press secretary, the former journalist Lloyd Dumas, was appointed by Prime Minister 'Billy' Hughes in 1916 to help argue the controversial cause of military conscription. From then on, all Australian prime ministers (though not ministers) had press secretaries (or press officers, as they were also known) who were also de facto political advisers. Until well into the 1950s, journalistic access to ministers and even prime ministers was personal, direct and largely unmediated by such advisers.

In his Parliament and the Press (1988), Lloyd gives numerous examples of this kind of access by journalists to political leaders. Labor Prime Minister James Scullin (1929-32) arranged his daily schedule to see journalists at midday. 'He chatted to off-duty journalists around Parliament House and attended Gallery social functions' (1988: 89). Scullin's conservative successor, Joseph Lyons, gave two press conferences a day, with the latter often concluding with a drink at the prime minister's suggestion (1988: 107, 111). In his first term as prime minister (1939-41), Robert Menzies reluctantly continued the practice of daily press conferences but in 1941 reduced them to one a day with the proviso that written questions from the press could be lodged with his 'publicity officer' (1988: 125-6).

Relations between the government and the press significantly changed in two ways under the wartime Labor government of John Curtin, who developed a practice of very frank 'confidential, twice daily news briefings' to senior journalists who knew more about the actual progress of the war than many MPs (Coatney, 2013). In part, the briefings depended on the acceptance of government censorship by the journalists. Curtin also appointed a man who was the first recognisably modern press secretary, Don Rodgers, who was judged by journalists to be 'zealous, sometimes even unscrupulous, in protecting his boss's interests' (Lloyd, 1988: 153).

A significant wartime change was what Lloyd (1988: 153) describes as the 'insidious encroachment' of 'handouts' or official statements. Until the war, the handout was subsidiary to the interview as a source of news. Journalists accepted the increased use of handouts as a wartime measure necessitated by over-worked ministers, but the system grew through the formalisation of gallery mailboxes. Handouts were seen as a poor substitute for direct access to sources, and moreover were later promoted by a new phenomenon: the more interventionist press secretary.

The intimate, unmediated contact between government and the press lessened during the peacetime prime ministership of Ben Chifley, but the personal element continued. According to his biographer, 'Chifley was frequently to be found cheerfully and informally "yarning" with pressmen around the precincts of the House. A seriously asked question would almost invariably elicit not only a serious but an informative answer' (Crisp, 1961: 264).

Menzies to Whitlam

The characterisation of this period as one in which media relations depended on personal rapport with the prime minister was underlined by the second and long prime ministership of Menzies (1949-66). He began his term in office by not appointing a press secretary for the first eighteen months. According to his first press secretary, Stewart Cockburn (1995: 32), Menzies 'was able to do this because of the almost primitive simplicity of communications in those days and because he was always his own best exponent of policy and of the merits of his government'. Cockburn argued that Menzies used his wit, formidable intelligence and considerable debating ability to avoid answering press questions that either caught him off guard or that he did not wish to answer. Press conferences became a 'spasmodic affair' (Rodgers, 1971) and 'the handout, previously a supplement to rounds reporting, evolved as a major news system during the Menzies years' (Lloyd, 1988: 176). By the mid-1960s, one observer noted the gradual rise of press secretaries, some of whom had become powerful figures in the party of their minister. Not all ministers had press secretaries and a minister's desire to appoint a press secretary was viewed with suspicion by other Cabinet members, who believed 'that the purpose of such an appointment is to get across the minister's person rather than government policy' ('Ghosts in the House', 1964: 15). In this period, the deferential nature of the press was underlined by a set of formal rules that were developed by Menzies' successor, Harold Holt, and accepted by the Gallery. These allowed Holt to give a briefing to journalists and then prescribe which statements were for attribution, which were for publication without attribution and which were 'off the record' (Lloyd, 1988: 245). Reflecting on this period, Chalmers said that press secretaries were responsible for 'housekeeping questions' and 'stayed away from attempting to sell policy' (2011: 121).

While personal idiosyncrasies of prime ministers determined much of the nature of media relations in this period, another structural determinant was in play. Today, competitive pressure between journalists is one of the key mechanisms that allows media advisers to offer 'exclusives' and gain advantage. But in the Menzies era, competition between journalists was relatively weak. A series of arrangements known as the Club saw journalists from different newspaper groups exchange carbon copies of their stories to ensure none was scooped (Lloyd, 1988: 190-1). The Club eventually withered away by the end of the 1960s. The entry of new players into the Gallery, including the Australian Financial Review and The Australian, brought with it a 'new breed of competitive journalists ... contemptuous of the Club's restrictive practices' and determined to have greater independence (1988: 192). Such competition strengthened the independence of individual journalists and the diversity of news, but it also strengthened the ability of the emerging press secretaries to play favourites among journalists, which increased their own power.

The tumultuous period of the Whitlam Labor government (1972-75) marked the end of the first stage of government media relations and the beginning of a new stage. This was symbolised by the allocation of a press secretary to each minister and the championing of 'open government'. Perhaps because of this, Whitlam's relations with journalists were initially good, and a weekly prime ministerial press conference was reinstated until the government's final year, when it was cracking under intense pressure.

But this experiment soon ran onto the rocks. Many of the press secretaries saw themselves as advocates for their ministers rather than the government. This contributed to their major failing, which was poor news management. According to Rosenbloom (1978: 61), they 'did not manage the news well enough to protect their government' partly because they created a 'media logjam' with the simultaneous announcements by ministers competing with each other for limited media coverage. A similar logjam occurred after Cabinet meetings, when Whitlam would 'announce perhaps six Cabinet decisions at once' with journalists scrambling for detail (Ramsay, 1984). Those observing this self-created logjam soon realised that this chaotic process must be managed better by future governments to ensure maximum political benefit. It was a fundamental lesson learnt by all succeeding media advisers, regardless of party.

A related factor shaping the emergence of professionalised media relations was less obvious but no less potent. This was the rise of a newly aggressive style of journalism linked to the new competitiveness and the passing of 'the Club' mentioned earlier. This emphasised its adversarial relationship with government and championed the right of journalists to report news independently of any relationship that governments had with media owners. In this period, the gallery was 'freed from the inertia and inhibitions of Menzies' long rule [and] was increasingly tough in dealing with his successors' (Lloyd, 1988: 248). Parker (1991: 35) describes these new journalists as being formed by 'the anti-Establishment late 1960s. They generally saw their older colleagues as staid, stodgy, removed from a rapidly changing Australia.' This more adversarial approach by journalists elicited increasingly sophisticated attempts to manage the news, an important point often lost in criticism of 'spin'.

News management and Malcolm Fraser

The governments of Malcolm Fraser (1975-83) pioneered a new kind of media relations characterised by more active and aggressive attempts to manage the news. On a personal level, Fraser had already discovered the benefits of professional public relations several years before he became prime minister. In 1973, harbouring political ambitions and realising he had an 'image problem' as a hardline conservative, Fraser had contracted a small public relations firm, Royce PR, to advise him. Royce described its brief as 'liberalising your public image in order that you may be better positioned for possible future party moves'--that is, becoming leader of the Liberal Party (Ayres, 1989: 208-9). Royce's adviser, Alister Drysdale, arranged a posed photo of Fraser with attractive fashion models, which was published on The Age's front page. Another tactic to humanise Fraser's image involved him visiting a waterfront pub and talking to its blue-collar patrons. Later, a journalist was invited to spend a weekend at Fraser's farm, and a resulting feature article showed him positively as a 'family man, wine connoisseur and dirt bike enthusiast' (1989: 239-40).

On becoming prime minister after the divisive 1975 election, Fraser radically transformed the kind of relations that the Whitlam government had with the press. At the time, Fraser's new structures and practices seemed solely motivated by his belief that much of the Press Gallery was deeply hostile to his government for political reasons (a view that may well have contained some truth), but the new structures and practices were continued and deepened by the succeeding Labor government of Bob Hawke.

A key appointment was Fraser's press secretary, David Barnett, an aggressive and innovative operator who refashioned prime ministerial relations with the news media. A former journalist, Barnett was 'not a popular man with the Canberra press gallery ... He has his favourites and makes no secret of the fact, and those who are not in the inner circle are often deprived of basic information' (Summers, 1980). Among other things, only a select list of journalists were given a detailed campaign itinerary for the 1980 election, according to Summers. Today, campaign itineraries are one of the most closely guarded secrets of a campaign.

Fraser's government initially abandoned the system of press secretaries for all ministers introduced by Whitlam. Under Fraser, only a handful of senior ministers had press secretaries and a pool of press secretaries worked for individual ministers on assignment. The effect of this was to centralise media advice in the Prime Minister's Office. A further innovation was the creation of the Government Information Unit (GIU), which monitored media coverage. In 1980, Summers noted that David Barnett 'has recently acquired a tape-copying machine and, as an additional service to the gallery, will allow journalist to acquire for nothing, so long as they provide their own cassettes, copies of any radio program his staff has taped'. Significantly, she added that this service 'has occasionally been used to distribute tapes of gaffes committed by Opposition spokesmen' (1980). During the 1980 election, a Labor spokesman, Peter Walsh, conceded during an obscure radio interview that the ALP might introduce a capital gains tax. This was picked up by the GIU and seized on by the government, doing significant damage to Labor's campaign. The GIU also analysed the opinions of Press Gallery commentators and provided summaries for the prime minister (Parker, 1991: 39, 40). Initially denounced by Labor this monitoring service was greatly expanded under the Hawke government.

Barnett's new media strategy involved a number of other elements. First, open press conferences became rare. Instead, Fraser conducted interviews 'with selected media personalities' (Edwards, 1981: 232). The open press conferences 'would usually only be held if there was a crisis which the Prime Minister wanted to discuss, and in such cases no other issues could be raised' (Parker, 1991: 37). A second element was the differential treatment of print and television journalists. During the 1975 campaign, Fraser's team staged a series of carefully prepared events exclusively for television:
   This idea, borrowed in part from Presidential campaigns in the
   United States, was based on the belief that television, with its
   endless appetite for pictures and its relative lack of concern for
   substance and detail, was more amenable to manipulation and control
   than the print media. (1991: 36)

When in government, Fraser often used the device of 'T-facs' ('television facility'), which involved an exclusive TV interview on a subject nominated by Fraser with no other questions allowed. A transcript was then distributed to the press gallery. This became a routine practice of all succeeding governments.

A third new element was the introduction of the 'door stop', initially referred to disparagingly by the gallery as 'kerb-side' or 'gutter' interviews. Television journalist Ken Begg noted that these interviews 'are conducted in such a way that it's very difficult to ask further questions or to seek elucidation because the Prime Minister is usually moving or surrounded by PR men. He says something and that's it. Like it or lump it' (Tiffen, 1989: 90). This, of course, was exactly the point. Chalmers (2011: 198) notes that the 'door stop', which was well known overseas, was the creation of David Barnett, who also 'began the now standard practice of providing a transcript of the doorstops to the gallery'. The doorstop--now simply known as 'the doors'--also became an institutionalised practice.

A contemporary observer of such changes was Edgar, who conveyed (1979: 175) the hostility of the Press Gallery, the members of which felt they were 'being manipulated' by such tactics. Edgar (1979: 182) notes 'new trends' in political campaigning, including 'the increased use of media professionals ... and the promotion of an image rather than issues'. She also notes (1979: 187-8) 'a new campaign tactic [which] is to occupy as much air time as possible on talk back radio', and quotes journalists complaining about 'the frequent reluctance of [Fraser's] office to give even the minimum information about events' and attempts 'to manipulate the media' and to 'sell' their election message 'as the most attractive brand of soap'. While similar characterisations have become routine and hackneyed today, such protests were fresh at the time.

The most significant study of the degree to which media relations were transformed under Fraser is Tiffen's (1989) News and Power, based on extensive interviews with journalists in 1981-83. Tiffen devotes one third of this classic study of news to what he describes as 'overt' and 'covert' attempts to influence the content of news, mainly by media advisers. He emphasises how the output of news is structured by a series of routines and values such as deadlines, the need for fresh supply, the competition from other stories on that day, the high value placed on 'hard news' and the attractions of colour and drama (1989: 76-81). Familiarity with these routines saw media advisers develop a series of standard techniques, all of which are followed today.

News management under Hawke

If Malcolm Fraser's government pioneered modern 'spin' in Australia, it was the Hawke government that built on this foundation, and brought professionalised media advice to its current central position in the operations of government and to the 'permanent campaign' of parties in government. During the 1983 campaign, journalists noted the new campaign techniques and one journalist observed that 'the Hawke camp were playing by the professional code in the matters of news management' (Haupt, 1983). Haupt presciently notes that the 'imbalance' between a government's supply of information and a 'journalist's thirst for it' would be a 'temptation' for Hawke. A few weeks after the 1983 election, Haupt contrasted the new 'subtle and elusive style of communication' in the Hawke government with the 'clumsy' way Fraser used selective television and door-stop interviews. Haupt's view was not widely accepted at first. After the first year of the government, Lipski (1983: 30) suggested that Hawke's press relations were 'more relaxed and correspondents regard his briefings as less manipulative'. Relations with the news media were a central concern of the Hawke government, which (like Fraser) initially tried to limit the number of press secretaries to a small group of senior ministers, with other ministers relying on a pooled arrangement called the Ministerial Media Group. This soon broke down, according to Walter (1986: 94), and disappeared in the government's second term, which began in 1984.

Nevertheless, some journalists began to note that they were being subjected to a sophisticated form of news management. One year into the new government, Michelle Grattan (who became a regular commentator on the rise of news management) noted that, 'Hawke has transformed the relationship between Prime Minister and the journalists' (Grattan, 1984: 55). Hawke had offered an arrangement with the Press Gallery that he would get rid of 'gutter interviews' and commit to regular press conferences. The Gallery welcomed this but the price paid by members, according to Grattan, was that the media 'voluntarily relinquished the right it insisted on with Mr Fraser: to question him anywhere, about anything ... If reporters try to "doorstop" Mr Hawke he simply says "you know the rules"' (1984: 55). A few months later, Alan Ramsey (1984: 4-5) also remarked on the new 'rules', which meant that press conferences were held at times and on topics chosen by the prime minister. He concluded that, 'Hawke and his staff have developed a formidable expertise in news management. In the process they have intimidated the Canberra Press Gallery of some 110 journalists into accepting what they get without protest.' While the gallery received more information than it did under Fraser, Ramsay said, the Hawke government channelled information 'in such a way to maximise the story reaching the public the way the government wants it to be told'.

A rare full-length study of media relations in an Australian government in this period was conducted by Parker (1990), who argues that the Hawke government was 'easily the most communication conscious government in Australian history' (1990: 2). It understood that 'the news-making process was the essential element in creating public perceptions. For this reason, virtually everything undertaken by the Hawke Government was structured with the media in mind' (1990: 47). This included expanding the aggressive monitoring of the opposition by the National Media Liaison Service and introducing 'the drip' to feed journalists deemed to be trustworthy while denying access to other journalists (1990: 55).

However, Parker's main thrust was against what he described as the pro-Labor political bias of the Press Gallery. This made the gallery prone to accept the Hawke government's claims and handouts. As he said, 'the real issue was that there was no resistance to [the government's] strategies' (1990: 61). Responding to Parker, the communications scholar Ian Ward pointed out that Parker may have reversed the sequence of causation. The perceived pro-Labor bias of the gallery was more likely the result of a growing dominance of government news management, rather than being the immediate cause of soft coverage. Parker, he said, was 'blind to the fact that governments of all political shades and in parliamentary systems everywhere have developed sophisticated strategies for coordinating and controlling their news coverage'. Ward (1992: 179) predicted that future conservative governments would 'be equally able to influence and exploit the Press Gallery to advantage'.

Was Howard worse?

While this study argues that the Fraser and Hawke governments were the first modern governments to extensively integrate news-management techniques into governing, this is not the view of all scholars. Some suggest that the decisive shift occurred during the Howard government. But this may simply be because the extent and detail of its techniques were uniquely revealed in a Senate inquiry that probed the government's actions on the eve of the 2001 election, when it sought to gain political advantage by falsely claiming refugees threw their children from boats (Weller, 2002). For example, Ester (2007) argues that the Howard government showed less openness to media scrutiny than the Hawke and Keating governments, and displayed an 'increased focus on strategies to block and control access to information' (2007: 123). Grattan (2003) suggests that the Howard government exerted 'progressively tighter and tougher' controls over its communication. Young (2007: 245) notes that John Howard often relied on interviews with talkback radio hosts to avoid the scrutiny of the Press Gallery. Yet this also occurred under Fraser, as Edgar (1979) notes, and under Hawke, who 'increasingly deserted the gallery, saving his announcements and explanations for John Laws or the Melbourne radio programs' (Buckley, 2003: 37-8). While Howard used sophisticated forms of news management, they involved nothing new, and much of his success relied on his highly developed political skills.

Conclusion: Interpreting the rise of spin

What are we to make of the rise of the political spin doctor? The spin doctor has been the subject of satirical TV shows (such as The Hollow Men, 2008), and discussion of spin is part of normal public debate. In Australia and elsewhere, the increased use of spin has sparked an extensive literature in political communications which aims to interpret its meaning. Ward (2007: 7-8) suggests that the Australian government is developing towards a 'PR state' in which ministerial media advisers play a key role. By contrast, Stockwell (2007: 138) suggests that spin doctors are an inevitable part of modern societies and 'are a consequence of the ubiquity of the mass media, not a significant cause'. In a similar vein, Macnamara (2012: 44) calls for the close relationship between public relations and journalism to be brought into the open, free of myths and stereotypes. In the United Kingdom, the Blair government's media relations gave a particular impetus to the literature, which has typically been divided between those who view the rise of spin as largely detrimental and those who disagree for a variety of reasons. Barnett and Gaber (2001) argue that highly professionalised media management by governments is undermining independent and critical journalism to benefit those in power, and that consequently there is a 'crisis in political journalism'. Franklin (2003) argues that because journalists' role is to inform readers, news management is a device to avoid legitimate scrutiny on behalf of citizens. He illustrates this with the widely discussed email containing advice from a Blair government media adviser on September 11, 2001 that it was 'a very good day to get out anything we want to bury' (2003: 45).

This approach is challenged by Lloyd (2004) and scholars such as McNair (2000). Lloyd argues that the news media have gone far beyond the watchdog role and become a powerful, privileged and cynical political institution on which parties are dependent. McNair (2000) argues that 'spin' is simply a modern development of age-old political persuasion. Journalists and some academics demonise spin, he argues, because the rise of political news management threatens to dislodge the dominant position of journalists as a 'fourth estate' by limiting their independence. Scholars 'need to be cautious in endorsing the journalists' terms and referential frames' (2000: 137). In a later work, McNair (2007) l argues that hyper-adversarial journalism justifies an 'assertive, even aggressive' style of response.

Both sides of this debate have tended to view it through a journalist-centric or media-centric lens. This has been inadequate partly because the rise of professionalised political spin has been part of broader social and cultural changes. A number of scholars have identified a long-term process of 'mediatisation' in which politics adapts to the needs of the mass media (Kepplinger, 2002: 973). Others have positioned the rise of spin doctors as part of the growth of a broader 'promotional culture' in which the commercial techniques of advertising, marketing and promotion now dominate not just political communication, but other fields such as universities and higher education (Wernick, 1991; Aronczyk and Powers, 2010).

If spin is here to stay, it poses a question for the advocates of the liberal theory that the news media act as a watchdog scrutinising government action. To the extent that this is accurate, it suggests that the rise of spin has significant negative implications for democratic functioning and for the independence of political journalism. Yet little attention has been paid to how such a dilemma might be resolved. Most supporters of the watchdog theory tend to follow a strategy of de-legitimisation of spin, in spite of well-established practices of journalistic cooperation with 'spin doctors'. In his classic study of political journalism, Tiffen (1989: 94) notes this and argues that 'deceptive practices are only effective so long as they go unchallenged by political opponents or the media'. Perhaps the problem, he suggests, 'is not PR activity so much as news media passivity' (1989: 94), suggesting that in a spin-saturated world, journalists need to change their routines and their traditional dependence on news sources.

Two examples of attempts to change this traditional dependence and go beyond 'news media passivity' have emerged in recent times. In the 2012 Queensland state election, the Courier-Mail decided not to join the traditional campaign bus that followed political leaders from daily event to daily event. Previous participation in the campaign bus showed journalists were vulnerable to spin and 'are held captive for weeks are not told where they are going [and] are not allowed time on the ground to talk to people,' said the newspaper's editor. Rather, they would 'dig for their own stories' (Elks and Walker: 2012). The decision was commended by ABC election analyst Antony Green, who said that the 'media circus' surrounding leaders was largely designed for television and that more thoughtful journalists wrote better coverage from Canberra or the state capitals (Green, 2012).

The second example is the rise of a new kind of quasi-journalism. During the 2013 federal election, several media organisations sponsored or reported the comments of 'fact-checking' agencies. Fairfax entered a formal business arrangement with PolitiFact Australia, the academic opinion site The Conversation set up Election FactCheck and the ABC set up ABC FactCheck. The comments of these agencies allowed journalists to report the accuracy or otherwise of political claims, as well as their traditional role of passively reporting all claims, true or false. Commenting on both these initiatives, Knott (2012) argues that public relations professionals 'are not the enemy', and that declining to participate in the stage-managed campaign buses and setting up fact-checking agencies are creative responses to the challenge of the rise of political public relations. His conclusion is worth bearing in mind. To cope with spin, he suggests, journalists may have to vary traditional modes of passive, objective reporting in the 'he said, she said' style, and develop a more directly interpretive style of political journalism.


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David McKnight is an Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. His research on media advisers is supported by an ARC Discovery Grant (DP 120100629).
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Date:Nov 1, 2015
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