The kerfuffle began with the leaking to the Canberra Times of a recording of remarks made by Mr Barr to communication companies attending a "meet the buyer" event held at the ACT parliament. This led to a story from the Canberra Times' Kirsten Lawson 'I hate journalists and I'm over the mainstream media': ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr
Mr Barr's reported opening remarks set the tone:
Mr Barr began .... with some "frank statements that may or not shock some people in the room". "I hate journalists. I'm over dealing with the mainstream media as a form of communication with the people of Canberra. What passes for a daily newspaper in this city is a joke and it will be only a matter of years before it closes down," he said.He then went on to outline his objective:.
The government wanted to hear directly from Canberrans and communicate directly back to them, "not through the filter of journalists, and particularly through the filter of print journalists, which is a dying industry",Noting that the circulation of the print edition of the Canberra Times had dropped below 15,000, Mr Barr suggested that most Canberrans did not consume traditional media, in part because half of Canberra's population was under 34.
"We need to completely overhaul the way we communicate as a government and that's exactly what we're doing," he told the communications specialists. "My challenge to everyone in this room is to be at the cutting edge of communication, to put up contentious, risky and interesting ideas about how we can communicate ...
Mr Barr told the group he had been "blunt and frank" in delivering the same message to "everyone within the communications area of government".The Canberra Times was not impressed, editorialising Barr's hatred of media is driving a dangerous message. This view was picked up by other papers. For his part, the Chief Minister subsequently issued a statement reiterating his views. As reported by the Guardian:
Barr later issued a statement, saying the traditional media no longer engages with the diverse community in Canberra, and that his government was exploring new ways to reach the public directly.
He said he cancelled his subscription to the Canberra Times because it was too conservative. Barr subscribes to two non-Canberran news sources, Crikey and the Saturday Paper.
“In relation to other print media available in Canberra, I find the Australian to be very right wing and favour the conservative side of politics,” Barr said. “The same can be said for commercial talk back radio. I would not be alone in reaching that conclusion.”I have not always been a fan of Canberra Times reporting cf Canberra Times sleazes over Armidale and APVMA. However, I think that the paper generally does a pretty fair job (the editorial linked above contains some examples), resulting in a sometimes tetchy relationship with the Chief Minister. However, the whole matter raises some broader issues worthy of comment.
It seems to me that Mr Barr is confused about the differences in role between Government communications and that of the media.
Government communications is concerned with gaining information from the public and with informing the public about policies and procedures. Traditionally, a distinction has been made between official and political communications, although I accept that this has become increasingly blurred.
The media's role is to investigate and report freely and fairly independent of Government. This role too has has become been blurred to some extent by the greater weight placed on opinion and commentary mixed together in the news columns, breaching the separation that previously existed between reporting and editorial,. but it remains important.Governments understandably find this sometimes uncomfortable. The rise of PR and the proliferation of Government communications people is an attempt to manage the reporting cycle and to find new ways of getting messages out, of influencing as compared to informing.
I don't have a problem with Governments seeking to find new ways to communicate, although I do not like the way that political communication has become so embedded in official communication. However, I do have a problem with the idea that the media should be effectively replaced, supplanted, by Government communications. That strikes me as profoundly undemocratic, a point picked up in reporting on Mr Barr's remarks.
The argument that a diminishing number of people are reached by the main stream media is an important one in considering official communications strategies, although I'm not convinced by the specific argument that younger people do not consume main stream media or, perhaps more precisely, that a diminishing proportion do. Yes, the media environment has become more complex in our internet social media focused world, but if you sit on a train and watch what people are scrolling through you will see younger people checking their news feeds. It's the form of consumption that has changed.
At a purely personal level, my daughters actually actually consume a greater variety of main stream media and in more countries than would have been the case in the past, but spend less time on single outlets than previously. Therein lies the rub for both news companies who want advertising and Governments.who wish to communicate. In all this, the mainstream media in its varying forms remains the best way of reaching a broader audience and will do so for the immediate future. In the longer term, none of us can know what the landscape will look like.
As a final comment, and as Mr Trump has found, attempts to by-pass the main stream media imposes its own costs in terms of greater scrutiny by the excluded outlets. That would certainly be the end result here if Mr Barr proceeded with his apparent desire to exclude the Canberra Times or other main stream media outlets. Love them or hate them, Mr Barr has to live with them.
Update 17 March 2018
In comments, we have been discussing what the readership figures actually mean. I wonder if there is an expert out there who can tell us.
Meanwhile, the Canberra Times Jack Waterford has responded to the whole kerfuffle (All media critical to effective government, whether Andrew Barr likes it or not) while the Chief Minister has sought to clarify his position ( 'Wasn't a nice thing to say': Andrew Barr apologises for saying he hates journalists).