How politicians use ‘drops’ to manage the media and massage the message

In the trade, they’re known as “drops”.

These are strategically timed releases of information given to selected journalists by politicians or their proxies from all jurisdictions, which are designed to generate advantageous coverage.

Unlike leaks and acts of whistleblowing, which are often motivated by a loftier moral purpose, drops are mainly about political point-scoring.

Inside the Canberra bubble, it’s a well-known media management tactic used by parties — more so by the government of the day and especially in the run-up to an election.

Among members of the political media corps, this practice is mostly tolerated and, in some cases, even embraced. And that’s despite coming with conditions attached and hidden agendas.

All this makes for a secretive and highly transactional relationship, one that Denis Muller from the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne describes as an exercise in “mutual back-scratching”.

“The public is being duped by this stuff,” Dr Muller said.

“It’s basically journalism turned into propaganda.”

And former Sydney Morning Herald chief political correspondent and press gallery stalwart Mark Kenny concurred.

His characterisation, however, is even more acerbic: a “symbiotic relationship … between host and parasite”.

“Governments use information, and I say this for both sides, in a way that I think is corrupt,” said Professor Kenny, now at the Australian National University’s Australian Studies Institute.

“The public has a right to know and yet the right to know has been corrupted by the way they’ve managed to spin [the information] out into the public realm.”

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How politicians use ‘drops’ to manage the media and massage the message

Behind the scenes at Parliament House, political “drops” are being used on an industrial scale to manipulate the media. (ABC News)

Anatomy of a drop

Sunday is usually a slow news day.

It’s a challenge for news gatherers to find newsworthy material to fill Monday morning’s content black hole. So it’s a perfect time for politicians to pitch stories and organise appearances for the start of the working week.

On the afternoon of Sunday, February 13 this year, an email was sent from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s office to several media outlets.

“Note, this has gone far and wide,” the email advised, meaning the drop being pitched was not exclusive.

Citing “unpublished ATO [Australian Tax Office] data” and “unpublished Treasury analysis”, the drop was titled “Tax cuts and young Australian women driving the economic recovery” and it came with a publication embargo of 10:30pm that night.

You can read the Treasurer’s drop here.

Not for the first time, the hook of “previously unpublished” government data and analysis was being used both as bait to sell a drop and to burnish the validity of the claims being made.

This drop, by the way, is nowhere to be found in the official media release archive of the Treasurer’s ministerial website. Nor is there any public record of the previously unpublished data or analysis cited by Mr Frydenberg’s office.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR), The Australian and the Canberra Times were among several news outlets to pick this up. And the story was also syndicated to mastheads in the Australian Community Newspaper network and by News Corp’s in-house news wire.

Although all qualified their headlines, like the AFR’s story below, the reporting remained largely in lock-step with the messaging contained in the drop: that, thanks to the Coalition, younger women were better off.

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The Australian Financial Review was one of several publications to carry the drop.(Supplied: AFR)

Better off than whom? Well presumably not men, because almost all the summarised data and analysis presented to make the point compared younger women against “every other cohort”, meaning women in other age groups.

The stories did not include comments from the opposition and no opinion was cited from a subject matter expert, like an independent economist. The statistical evidence – the ATO data and Treasury analysis – was not able to be independently sense-checked or critiqued.

Had anyone picked up the phone and called someone like Matt Grudnoff, a senior economist at the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank, they might have come away with a different take.

“They were better off than if they hadn’t had the tax cut, but younger women wouldn’t have been a stand-out beneficiary,” Mr Grudnoff told the ABC.

“There would have been other groups that benefited more, including men.”

And the drop travelled well beyond print. The Treasurer was also able to slip his talking points, uncontested, into eight TV and radio interviews on the Monday, including two ABC programs.

At least some of the reporters who picked up the story alluded to the timing of the drop, but no-one treated it for what it really was: an attempt to change the narrative around perceptions about the Coalition a week after Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins were in the headlines.

“It is very difficult, if we’re honest, to write completely objectively and to be critical of information that has been given to you,” Professor Kenny said.

“And there’s an unspoken agreement, that you will give prominent and favourable coverage to the depiction of that story.”

Mr Frydenberg’s office, the Australian Financial Review and The Australian were offered the right of reply but did not respond. The data and analysis used to corroborate the drop is still not publicly available.

‘Betrayal of public trust and failure of impartiality’

Despite the waning presence of the print medium over the past few decades, many politicians still hanker to see their drops splashed over the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. The cachet of print remains a drawcard.

“They get the biggest bang for their buck by having it in print,” Dr Muller said.

“There is more, shall we say, aesthetic authority in something printed. But the other thing is, it’s not ephemeral in the way that the broadcast news is.”

That’s why drops often come with embargoes for 10pm, 10:30pm and sometimes even midnight or 5am. This is mainly designed to keep the story “fresh” for morning newspapers.

This also acts to restrain a reporter’s ability to talk too widely to other parties about the story before the publication embargo.

And sometimes, just to ensure there’s no chance of an opponent or critic hijacking the narrative before publication, some drops also come with a “no third-party contact” clause.

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