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Observations, Opinion, Politics

Words matter – but don’t shoot the press officer

The path from shrinking newsrooms to the bulging corridors of corporate communications and government media units is a well-trodden one. Many journalists, your own Girl Reporter included, have sought a crust by writing press releases. Some of them may even have been poorly worded.

The process of preparing a press release is time-consuming and thankless but it is never careless. Long before it sees the light of day a press release is pored over by increasingly senior levels of management. Their concern is understandable – a poorly worded press release can commit a government to policy outcomes far beyond what was ever intended.

This week in Australia we saw that a poorly worded press release can put protesters on the streets of Melbourne within an hour and disrupt an operational matter which would have put jackboots on the ground with the intention of “speaking with any individual we cross paths with.”

marching-infantry-wearing-bootsVictoria Police was forced to cancel its planned Operation Fortitude thanks to those poorly chosen words in a press release from its partner in crime fighting, the Australian Border Force.

ABF Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg denied there had been any intention to stop people on the street and check that their papers were in order. He did concede that the unfortunate press release sounded ‘menacing’ but that too was unintentional, he said.

It’s ironic that the approvals process should be so slipshod within the government department which, more than any other in the Abbott Government, has sought to control public discourse through language.

For example, it was only a month after the nation bestowed its electoral blessing upon Tony Abbott that his immigration minister Scott Morrison decreed people seeking refuge in Australia should henceforth be referred to as ‘illegal’.

There’s a man who understands the importance of words. Under his leadership the department of passport checkers and contraband fruit seizers became best known for the ones it would not utter – anything, basically, which came under the heading of ‘operational matters.’

That approach was underlined again at the launch of the paramilitary Australian Border Force, complete with shiny buttons and badges unbecoming for a civilian agency. Our prime minister Tony Abbott called upon God to bless their work while a bemedalled Quaedvlieg affirmed that the secrecy around ‘operational matters’ would continue.

It wasn’t true, of course. The prime minister and his immigration bovver boys, first Morrison and now Peter Dutton, have regularly commented on ‘operational matters’ when they’ve perceived a political advantage to be grasped. And more often than not they’ve been standing next to a dashing military man or two while they’ve done it.

This is a government that, like your Girl Reporter, appreciates a well cut jacket with a froth of gilt on the collar and cuffs.

It also understands, again like your Girl Reporter, that words matter, both spoken and unspoken. Any journalist worth their salt reads official statements for what is missing as much as for what is there.

And any politician, most particularly those under the tutelage of Tony Abbott, knows that the right words, repeated often enough, hold enormous power. They can even come within a whisker of bringing down a government.

As anyone familiar with the tortuous approvals process of the government press release will tell you, the road does indeed end in the office of the Minister which, for obvious reasons, has the final, hopefully carefully chosen, word on the public statements of the department.

To say, as Peter Dutton has said, that it arrived in his office but no-one read it does not successfully lay the blame with the humble press officer, nor with the hapless regional commander for Not Checking Papers on the Streets, nor even with Commissioner Quaedvlieg.

This was an operational matter. Are we seriously to believe that an agency, famous for not commenting on those things, puts out a low level press release without getting the explicit okay of the man in charge of the government policy of not commenting on operational matters?

And this one was distinguished from all previous operational matters by its visibility, thanks to those nice new $6 million uniforms and the very public location of that hastily abandoned press conference.

The chiefs of the paramilitary wing of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and their political masters have a case to answer but it isn’t over the unfortunate wording of a press release.

It’s about the use of a paramilitary force to achieve a political objective in a civil democracy. Don’t blame the propaganda wing for getting the tone right for once.

© Sally Baxter 2015

This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network 

Want more Baxter? Filing from the frontline of the new model journalism here 

About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter, blogging as Sally Baxter. Now I'm writing under my name at www.mariaspackman.com covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.


2 thoughts on “Words matter – but don’t shoot the press officer

  1. Reblogged this on My Daily Read.


    Posted by just_plain_lulu | August 31, 2015, 2:31 am


  1. Pingback: Sorting through the wreckage – a year in review | Sally Baxter - December 20, 2015

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Your Girl Reporter is now filing as Maria Spackman at www.mariaspackman.com Same great content, whole new website. I’m leaving Sally Baxter up, as I can’t quite bring myself to let her go completely, but it’s time to honour my family name – and use it. Hope you’ll join me for the Further Adventures of a Girl Reporter. It’ll be fun.

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