Francis Keany was born in Canberra the year Bob Hawke became prime minister. As a child, Francis wanted to be a chef or town planner, but he grew up and came to his senses, realising journalism would be much more exciting. Known as Frank in the halls on “the hill”, the thirtysomething broadcaster spent the […]
Follow the leaders
With a foreword by The Age national affairs editor Tony Wright
For most Australians, Federal election campaigns are 33 days of TV ads, the occasional radio or TV news story, or wondering why a friend has posted a newspaper story on Facebook, all leading up to the cake stall on election day.
For the journalists, photographers and camera crew who make up the travelling media packs following both leaders, the campaign is not so much a festival of democracy as a test of endurance.
From wading through salmon guts in Tasmania to the never-ending search for mobile phone coverage, in Follow the leaders: How to survive a modern-day election campaign, radio reporter Francis Keany documents first-hand what it’s like to follow the political leaders of Australia for five weeks straight on the straitened budgets facing 21st century media outlets.
He outlines the fatigue and stress leading up to election day in 2013, following both Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd on their high-vis tour of the nation. It is also an insight into the pressures of modern-day journalism as the media environment goes through extensive change.
Follow the leaders is more than reportage. It is a love story – of Francis and his beloved Tess and of the other journalistic couples separated and reunited throughout the campaign, but most of all, of journalists and their desire to seek the truth, even when a sausage sizzle beckons.
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It may not be the Zoo Plane described by the author of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, but when a cameraman inside an aircraft toilet is gyrating his hairy belly to the tune of a Swedish pop music single, you wonder what elections turn people into.
The shaky mobile phone video shows the cameraman in full flight as an entire planeload of journalists, photographers and TV crews let down their hair. Other people join in the shenanigans, wheeling about the cabin, with someone being piggybacked in the narrow aisle of the chartered jet. Another person rubs their nipples with a radio microphone.
The media bus had earlier stopped off at a bottle shop on its way to Adelaide Airport, ahead of a long flight to Brisbane. Heavy booze was smuggled on board, in defiance of a request from cabin crew that alcohol was to be kept to a minimum.
I’m sitting in an identical aircraft, on the other side of the country, where it’s 11pm and my sinuses are about to burst. I can hear the loud music in the background of the video, shown to me by a cameraman, who is delirious with laughter, or perhaps fatigue.
“The pricks are having a lot of fun on the Abbott plane, aren’t they?” I say.
“Winners are grinners,” he replies.
I’d later find out the crew on board the Zoo Plane would make a complaint to Abbott’s office. No one was officially counselled, but the party was over. No more smuggling of strong liquor onto to the planes. This was serious business.
This is an attempt to tell the inside story of what it was like covering my first election campaign. Surviving the entire trip is a feat of endurance. Mental and physical stamina is needed to prevent scurvy and a post-election crash triggered by the excesses of the campaign. One survives on cold and flu tablets, muesli bars and a portable mobile phone charger.
The game seems to have changed since 1972. Back then, the senior correspondents would travel with the party leaders, filing back to their respective outlets, trapped inside the bubble of the campaign. Perhaps there may have been the same amount of boozing, but there certainly weren’t smartphones to record the experience.
Now, most of the heavy hitters don’t really need to be “on the bus”, as the campaign is called in the press gallery. They’re able to monitor press conferences from the convenience of their desks in Canberra, receiving drops from party headquarters about future policy announcements. They’re able to pull rank, leaving the physical demands of spending up to 18 hours a day working on the road – for five weeks straight – to the more junior reporters. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a degree of resentment about that.
The campaign coverage is predominantly about picture opportunities, with priority given to the TV stations and their video cameras to help shape the images of the leaders. Debate about actual policy ideas is usually kept to the periphery. It’s a point that author Greg Jericho expressed frustration with in 2010 when, at a policy launch on disability services, all the journalists’ questions were about some stupid town hall meeting between the leaders.
Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money? Well then bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of worth except having a round-the-country Twitter and booze tour.
So, why do media organisations persist? Isn’t this all pointless? Why the hell would you spend upwards of $50,000 per person for the whole five weeks – not including overtime – if the politicians don’t talk about the issues that actually matter to people?
Because campaigns have never been just about policy. They are about public relations – and the colour of a campaign can be just as important to the outcome of an election as the promises coming out of the mouths of our leaders.
Like it or not, those images of Tony Abbott jumping through tyres at an army training camp, or of Kevin Rudd taking selfies at a school, can be key motivations behind people’s voting intentions. Policy wonks have a right to despair, but elections are not just about them – elections are about attracting the attention of as many people as possible in Australia. It’s not easy either, given the growing level of apathy about the democratic process. A commonly held belief within marketing and political circles is that a slogan generally needs to be repeated 50 times before it begins to stick in the heads of the average voter. It will drive journalists and commentators spare, having to hear the same shit over and over again, but it will only barely register in the general public’s mind.
And that’s what we have to endure. We strap ourselves in for a journey where our bowel movements will be dictated by the political leaders we’re following. It can be like a North Korean touring circus: completely isolated from the outside world, kept in captivity and fed propaganda, while surrounded by manic fans praising Dear Leader.
Thankfully, there is still a degree of uncertainty in election campaigns. Despite the best efforts of media minders, these leaders still screw up, and journalists will be there to capture it. If these mistakes snowball, it can change the entire dynamic of the campaign. It’s also incredibly difficult to report on these mishaps from a desk in the press gallery without having eyes and ears on the ground.
There’s plenty of commentary suggesting that the so-called 24-hour media cycle has added to the pace and tone of modern election campaigns. The mistakes that are made are amplified and exaggerated in a bid to meet the appetites of media consumers, and that can be incredibly challenging for the media-managing machines of political parties. While journalists rightly complain about the hours they spend working during the campaign, political advisers are usually able to trump that. They have to be constantly on guard and on message – their future employment depends on it.
For journalists, the challenge is to keep up with the pace created by the media. Thanks to technological advances and the increasing rationalisation of the industry, journalists in all media have to file more often. TV reporters conduct multiple live crosses a day on the road, while newspaper reporters are filing online stories as soon as press releases are thrust into their hands. Those working in radio simply file on the hour, every hour, until they fall asleep. For bloggers, it’s every five minutes.
It can be an incredibly rewarding challenge. It’s an experience that imprints itself in the minds of everyone participating.
But first, you have to make it across the finish line in one piece, and that is a difficult task.