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The Foreign Minister as media buffet

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COMMENTS

4 March 2011 11:00

As revolution sweeps the Middle East, Australia's Foreign Minister has performed sterling work in one of the key non-declared duties of his post — Commentator-in-Chief. Kevin Rudd has been more than media tart. He has been media buffet. 

This is not a criticism of the Foreign Minister. For a journalist to attack a politician for talking to journalists is the height of hack hypocrisy. 

At one level, the Rudd media frenzy is merely a reflection of the personality and intense working habits of The Kevin. Gaze in wonder at the cornucopia of media interviews recorded here

Looking beyond The Kevin's performance (and granted, that can be difficult) his media mania is a response to a significant evolution in the way Australia's foreign minister is now required to operate. This is the role of Commentator-in-Chief. 

The duty statement for the Commentator-in-Chief has grown over the past two decades to the point where it has acquired some structural or institutional status. The foreign minister fronts the microphones continually to announce, comment and predict. The media management habits of politicians demand this performance on domestic issues; international affairs get the same treatment.
 
The modern mantra is 'feed the media beast or it will feed on you'. As Tony Abbott recently found, standing silently in front of the camera can provoke the hacks. 

The Australian media have become used to the idea that whenever a big international yarn is running, they will be fed large amounts of information and comment — perhaps even insight — by the foreign minister.

Calling the job Commentator-in-Chief cuts across one of the little non-truths often used in Canberra. The claim that the minister or leader is 'not going to operate as a commentator' sits beside other such gems as 'I don't follow the opinion polls', 'I don't answer hypothetical questions' and the claim that both sides of politics are ever in search of a bipartisan foreign policy.
 
The foreign-minister-as-commentator is a well established role because of the media standards set by two of Australia's longest serving foreign ministers, Gareth Evans and Alexander Downer. Both spent a lot of time working the media. And both demanded that DFAT produce information and analysis with a speed that was media friendly.
 
The Interpreter has tracked the tardiness of DFAT in taking up the weapons of new media (also see Fergus Hanson's Lowy Institute paper, A digital DFAT: Joining the 21st Century). But no one has to instruct Foreign Affairs about speed and accuracy in briefing the Minister so he can feed the hacks.

That is why DFAT has never developed a State Department-style spokesperson to regularly take the podium and pontificate on the problems of the day. There is no mileage for DFAT in getting between the media and the minister. This habit of mind explains much of DFAT's timidity about actually projecting its views via any voice but that of the minister.
 
Rudd's availability to the media gives him constant exposure and a regular stage. Being so willing means the Foreign Minister can spread around the media favours. Lots of hacks can be rewarded.

One of my favourite writers on the mysteries of hackdom, Jack Shafer, explains the relationship in this piece on back-scratching in Washington:

Sources and reporters play the same sort of mind games with one another that employees do with their bosses, teachers do with their students, and plumbers do with the downtrodden whose toilets leak. I'm certain that nuns run similar cons on the mother superior at convents.

Rudd's willingness to talk and talk and talk does not necessarily simplify his relationship with the media; much less does it mean the Foreign Minister is always the one in control of the ride. And while Rudd's relationship with the hacks may seem a little strange or intense, it is nowhere near as strange and strained as the Foreign Minister's dealings with his own government and caucus. 

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