Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Canberra Times, ACT Chief Minister Barr and freedom of the press

Real flutter in the Canberra dovecotes this week as the ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr and the Canberra Times exchanged blows.

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).  


2 tanners said...

In my view, the Canberra Times, with which I do not always agree, couldn't have received a better plaudit that a Chief Minister actually announcing that he would no longer communicate through them. His point about declining circulation was somewhat undermined by this champion of "new media" ignoring the online version. I don't read the paper version often, but as a quid pro quo I don't run an ad blocker either. And if he expects that the newspaper and its online version will shut down shortly I suspect he is (a) in for a rude shock (b) going to wonder why no-one is printing or reading his self-congratulatory press releases and (c) be able to walk down the main street of Canberra entirely unrecognised.

The CT masthead motto is "Independent. Always." In the past I have snickered at times, and been aghast at the low quality at others, but if he wants to force them into more investigative journalism, I'm sure Jack Waterford and others are even now coaching junior journos on the joys of FOI and how to get a bagful of exclusives on government delays and "hiding information" even before they receive the first page of reluctantly released, heavily redacted information.

Also, interesting admission that he does not consider 'communications specialists' who report on new to be journalists, whom he "hates" and vice-versa.

Jim Belshaw said...

Afternoon, 2t. You will have gathered that I don't always agree with the CT either and especially on APVMA! But there we might part company!

I think that Mr Barr who was not expecting to be reported and was trying to challenge his audience. he could have done just that without revealing his underlying biases so clearly. It was that I objected too as well as the exclusionist stuff. Laughed at your comment con communications specialists, but they are hired guns.

One of the ironies I think in all this is that anybody who uses the new media in the way he wants will immediately or later be on the public record. That's what it's all about in a way unless you can exert control of a type we might find in China. So the CT with journos trained by Jack, I liked your description there, will just pick of material as required.

Anonymous said...

So, now we have the CT "Independent. Always" (where have I seen that before?) held up as some sort of paragon of virtue? SMH plus local gutters, potholes, and traffic light delays AFAICS. And Saturday Real Estate and car ads. And eateries.

Seems that's all they do these days: drive around looking at over-priced properties, and car lots, then go "somewhere interesting" for brunch or lunch.

Dunno the population of Canberra these days, but 15K "readership" is pretty p*ss poor - never mind "online". (which is free, so why's that such a plus?)

But you get what you pay for and, like most, the CT provides full value.

However I do agree with tanners' note that any mention is a good mention - if that's what he was saying. Circulation 15,023 tomorrow.


2 tanners said...

By the way, Jim, I was more correct than I knew. I read the comments column and someone referred to him as "Chris Barr" not Andrew Barr. He really is fast becoming a non-entity.

To think that Barr thought he could say something like that to a room full of communications specialists, many of whom are not-yet-hired-guns, and somehow not consider that one of them could see a quick buck coming their way.

Anonymous said...

Or to put it another way tanners: you think the man is so foolish as to not expect that the message he wished to deliver would be broadcast? That's not even 3-dim chess.


2 tanners said...


Not defending CT, just amused at Barr. Sounds to me like he's been sitting in his ALP echo chamber with focus groups selected from the faithful for just a little too long.

Jim Belshaw said...

You may be right, kvd, that he actually did not care if his remarks were leaked. After all, I think that they were probably well known. 2t, he does seem to be locked into a particular ideological bubble.

Anonymous said...

Have a feeling that this article (comments not allowed) is a direct result of the ACT Chief Minister's comments:


- Canberra Times all-platform readership for January 2018 noted as 670,000, compares to rough current population of 450K. (And yes, I know you are a reader, Jim :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Morning. kvd. It may just be a coincidence. The piece looks to have been inspired by the latest cross platform reader figure, although the theme is common across media in the competition for advertising dollars.

I am cautious about these statistics (as are you!)You will find the EMMA data here. https://emma.com.au/emma-audience-reports-december-2017/. With the on-line stuff, you have the number of people who subscribe to the e-edition and then people who just access the website. The notes say number of people visiting aged 14+ but do not say how this is calculated. I'm assuming they net out your Russian bots, for example. It also doesn't tell us about the nature of the visits. Is it just the front page?

I wasn't surprised by the CT number because a lot of people like me to do access the web site, partly because of interests in Canberra and national politics, in part because the CT gives you access to material from the other Fairfax papers without running up against the limits on page visits on the SMH or Age.

2 tanners said...

I read the CT circulation figures as 674,000 per month, not per day. If it has 15,000 per day on the print version that means (to my surprise) that the print is more popular than the e-version. I know there is more in the print version, but I'm still surprised.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a good point, 2t. The numbers are difficult to interpret. The emma report (https://2pnva540y35g3ltsj611u7wm-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/emma-Total-Audience-Report_Newspapers_Dec17.pdf)gives 184,000 for the print edition, 613,000 digital, total monthly 710,000. The notes read.

Print audience in this report is shown as a total over a period of 4 weeks for consistency with Nielsen DRM figures.
These print figures are therefore larger than those shown in the separate Print Audience report, which are for a single issue.
Print - emma™; Number of people reading a print version in last 4 weeks
Digital - Nielsen DRM; Number of people accessing web site across all devices in last calendar month
**(These figures may vary slightly from official DRM figures due to differences in universe. Please refer to DRM for official rankings)
Total - emma™ / Nielsen DRM; Total number of people accesing brand via any platform in the last 4 weeks (Digital - last calendar month)
emmaTM conducted by Ipsos MediaCT, People 14+ for the 12 months ending Dec 2017, Nielsen DRM Dec 2017, People 14+ only.

The CT is published six times a week including the Saturday edition. So 24 over 28 days. This gives a daily average of 7,666! By contrast, the emma print report (https://2pnva540y35g3ltsj611u7wm-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/emma-Print-Audience-Report_Newspapers_Dec17.pdf) gives an average issue readership of 81,000 M-F, 73,000 Saturday.

Blowed if I know how to reconcile all this. I think that we need a commenter who actually understands the way the statistics are calculated.