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.”
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Citing “unpublished ATO [Australian Tax Office] data” and “unpublished Treasury analysis”, the drop was titled “Tax cuts and young Australian women driving the economic recovery” and it came with a publication embargo of 10:30pm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Not for the first time, the hook of “previously unpublished” government data and analysis was being used both as bait to sell a drop and to burnish the validity of the claims being made.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.
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.
This is effectively a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and journalists must agree not to seek comment from anyone else about the information provided prior to publication or broadcast.
The publication embargoes and the NDAs are also control mechanisms. They are intended to limit opportunities to introduce balance, perspective or alternative opinions into the story that would challenge or dilute the messaging contained in the drop.
It’s no secret inside the bubble; it’s been going on for years. Labor did the same thing when it was last in power.
“[The journalists] get the story in return for just presenting the point of view of the person providing the information, and nobody else,” Melbourne University’s Dr Muller said.
“And that’s clearly a betrayal of public trust, because it’s a failure of impartiality.”
Break the embargo, bury it, spin the story in a different direction or allow contrarian voices to dilute the original message and you risk being banished to press gallery purgatory in what could be a professional death wish.
In the vernacular of Parliament House, the tap will be turned off.
“And I speak with experience as someone who has been on the wrong end of being cut off from government drops, for giving … what they regard as hostile coverage. And it can be career-ending, it can be very damaging,” Professor Kenny said.
‘Amplifying the duplicity’
While most news outlets are offered drops, Dr Muller says it’s clear the government has its favourites.
“Governments of every persuasion have used the drop and have tended to give it to favoured outlets. But this present government has brought it to an art form,” he said.
“In fact, it’s got to the point where News Corp is basically a propaganda arm of the government.”
This drop, for instance, was published on The Australian’s front page on April 5.
It reported that the government would announce a plan later that day to spend $3.5 billion to fast-track the purchase of new missiles and strike a partnership with two weapon makers to develop local manufacturing capability.
This is an example of a type of drop where announcements or speech extracts are fed to selected news outlets a day in advance of their planned delivery.
This happens on an industrial scale in the lead-up to a budget. And in the day or days preceding the formal launch of a party’s election platform.
In this story, dropped just before the election was called, Defence Minister Peter Dutton is the only person quoted or cited. There’s also no opposition voice and no evidence of any input from experts.
And all the direct quotes in the story can be found in two press releases (here and here) published by Mr Dutton’s office after the article was published.
What has happened here is that The Australian was given an advance copy of Mr Dutton’s press releases with a midnight embargo. And that was then recombined into an “exclusive” page one splash.
This, says ANU’s Professor Kenny, is a canonical example of how a ministerial press release is laundered through the lens of a compliant newspaper to give it an “extra sheen of authority and objectivity”.
And there’s more.
The story about the drop will sometimes be recycled as a prop and used to reach out to an entirely different audience on social media.
Here’s what appeared on the Liberal Party’s Facebook page after The Australian’s “exclusive” report about the missiles.
The post has since garnered more than 900 likes, 200 comments and 50 shares.
That’s nothing out of the ordinary in terms of Facebook performance, but it shows that the story is reaching a broader audience beyond the newspaper’s narrow subscriber base.
“It’s a way of, in a sense, amplifying the duplicity that’s involved in all of this,” Dr Muller said.
And this is by no means a one-off. The Liberal Party’s Facebook has many more examples of drops that became stories before being recycled as Facebook posts.
Mr Dutton’s office and The Australian were offered the right of reply but did not respond.
The first voice becomes the loudest
Another advantage of the drop is its first-strike impact.
“That critical first [paragraph] and headline, the placement of that story, changes that story’s introduction into the public mind from then on,” Professor Kenny said.
On day one, the story makes big headlines and worms its way into the national conversation, even if the substance of the story is contested.
Here’s a recent example from the office of Energy and Emission Reduction Minister Angus Taylor. It was carried on the front pages of News Corp stablemates the Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph and Adelaide’s The Advertiser newspapers on April 19.
Citing “government modelling estimates”, the story said under Labor’s energy policy, household electricity users would be “worse off” by an average of $560 a year.
It included some strident debunking of the claims from Shadow Minister for Climate and Energy Chris Bowen, and there were quotes from two third-party experts.
The news report also cited “government modelling”, but that too was unseen by anyone else except the reporter and has not been made publicly available.
You can read the minister’s drop here.
The drop was later sent to other publications after the News Corp papers were published, but that too did not provide the modelling, nor was it even mentioned.
But by that time, the horse had bolted. And subsequent follow-ups by the ABC and the Guardian among others, which were less credulous of the claims, were not as prominently displayed or as widely discussed.
“And so, the first voice becomes by far the loudest voice, because follow-up stories never get the same degree of attention as the originating story,” Dr Muller said.
Mr Taylor’s office, the Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph were offered the right of reply but did not respond. The modelling used to corroborate the drop is still not publicly available.
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you
The example of the drops from the offices of Josh Frydenberg and Peter Dutton are but two of many drops that we have observed and logged in a spreadsheet we have been collating going back to September 2021.
While it is difficult to prove conclusively that all those logged stories originated as drops, some are more clear-cut than others.
(“Dirt-file” drops are notoriously difficult to trace because the giver of the information doesn’t want their fingerprints on the evidence in case it exposes the veneer of objectivity.)
Challenges in monitoring radio and TV means that only drops to newspapers and news websites have been collected. And while newspapers are the primary beneficiaries of this arrangement, drops are also given to broadcast journalists, including the ABC.
An ABC spokesperson acknowledged that ABC journalists also received “tip-offs, information and announcements” not just from the government, but “from all sides of politics”.
“But it is incumbent on ABC journalists to maintain the independence and integrity of the ABC, which means exercising editorial control over stories and ensuring decisions are not improperly influenced by political, sectional, commercial or personal interests,” he said.
“In other words, any information an ABC journalist receives must be duly evaluated and fact-checked before it becomes part of a report.”
As ANU’s Mark Kenny points out, the competition for scoops makes it almost impossible to bite the hand that is feeding you.
“But what I would say … about elections, on top of my point about them being choreographed and everything else, is that skulduggery is everywhere,” he said.
“And the journalists’ job is not to be influenced by it and to remember the readers, remember the viewers, your audience. Do the job. Stick to the facts. That’s what I’d say.”
Additional research by Michael Workman
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