Wednesday 8 April 2009

Go away, you're not legit !

This week, I was deliberately excluded from at least two media events at Cairns Regional Council. Before you say 'Boo Hoo', let me tell you my tale.

Although, like many others, I receive Council's media releases, I have been barred from attending or being invited to media conferences.

Anyone in the game knows that media releases are pure spin. They're a concoction of words and selected sound bites. The work of one single side of a story. Some 'journos' love them (I'll tell you a funny story about this over the weekend!), as it means they don't have to leave their office, and can write the entire story in under three minutes. Magic.

Around midday Monday, I was tipped off about a special Council meeting in progress that was to approve $1 million guarantee for the Tiapans. (I'll tell you another not so funny story about this media circus tomorrow).

Here's the email that Kerie sent out at the crack of dawn on Monday, which I was excluded from:

Then again on Wednesday, another press conference was called at 9am. Again I was not invited.

Now, if you rely on only the official media release that an organisation pumps out, you're not getting the real story. You'll only get what they want you to hear. That's why the art of interviewing and cross-questioning, is so important to arriving at an educated opinion.

So, I attempted to discuss this obvious omission with Council's chief spin doctor, Kerie Hull, manager of Corporate Communication. I heard nothing back after three telephone messages. Now Kerie is a very highly-paid public servant, but she has far from served me this week, only the interests of her masters, it seems. I know she very busy, however my question wasn't onerous.

I've engaged with her on a number of occasions, and found her to be both pleasant and efficient. In fact in an earlier meeting some months ago, Kerie met with me and a Councillor. We had a healthy discussion about how to be involved in the business of reporting Council's affairs. So this was all at odds with that discussion.

"Why am I not being invited to media events at Council?" I asked Kerie on the telephone message. I think it's is a perfectly legitimate question to ask. After all, my $2,400 rate bill helps keep many a Council employee in Lattes for the year.

"There's at least two occasions this week that I was excluded from media events."

Finally, at just before 10am yesterday Kerie emailed me back.
  • "Michael, you are on our media release distribution list. There has been no change to this list," she hastily wrote, without addressing my actual questions.

    "I am happy to discuss this further when I am out of council meetings. I apologise for the delay in getting back to you."
Emails went back and forth, and my simple question of not getting invites to media events at Council were simply getting ignored.
  • "Clearly I'm not getting media invites Kerie. As I've explained, I have not received any media alerts," I wrote. "I sent you a copy of the media alert you sent out on Monday morning advising about the Tiapans that Amanda from 7 News showed me. Again yesterday morning at 9 am there was another media invite that I was excluded from. What is going on?" I asked.
    "I think I have my next story of openness at Council for
Then Kerie abruptly responded:

  • "Are you threatening me?"
I attempted to call, as all this email thing was doing my head in. It was also far from professional. Again I got Kerie's answerphone. So I responded to her terse email:

  • "No of course I'm not threatening you!
    However, it is a story when a senior public servant will not answer nor provide me that information nor invite me to official Council media events. This is not a threat at all. Your resistance to answer and simply provide access to Council information is of grave concern."

    How clearer do I have to be with my question? It appears that there isn't an answer at all because clearly I was excluded from these invitations.

    Why on earth has a simple question turned into a circus like this?

    Since you appear not willing to answer what are simple requests, I will take my concern elsewhere via a formal complaint."
And that was that. Well, at least for a 3o minutes.

  • "We have a Media Release distribution list that you asked to be on last year- you continue to be on this list I assume," Kerie wrote late last evening.

Then came the clanger.

  • "Press conference alerts are issued to accredited news agencies and their representatives.

    Please refer any further correspondence on this matter to the CEO."

So that was the answer all along that she was resisting to tell me.

Well, for a start, there is hardly such a thing as an 'accredited news agency'. It's an modern invention, up there with crop circles.

These days, news and media embraces many different organisations and individuals. Bloggers are now part of the political landscape, as we all seek out our news and views in way our parents never dreamt. Bloggers like Andrew Bolt (bless him), and Crikey appear on ABC TV. Even ousted Edge Hill Liberal, Lance Royce (bless him too), provides commentary on regional radio. Many independents write for periodicals and newspapers. Our media is very different than it was just five years ago. It's not black and white and read all over, anymore.

To say that all news organisations belong to some elite club with the some 'accreditation', is an odd claim. Or does this Council want to control who reports it's affairs? Surely Kevin Byrne isn't back in the house and I'm not Tony Hillier editing Barfly in some twilight zone?

I've been writing publicly in many different forums, for community newspapers in Cairns, and State magazines for tourism and politics in both New Zealand and Australia for around 20 years.

Many different colours make up a community. Over the last two years, CairnsBlog has gathered a regular core following of around 3,500 locals logging in on a regular basis. Whilst I don't hold any single mantle of opinion, I do like to contribute to the local debate and allow my readers to engage and share their comments, whatever that is. This is a forum which does not censor and encourages a spirited discussion. It certainly doesn't play favorite to Council, however Val Schier will attest that robust and critical engagement is something she championed in her bid for election.

Not that I'm responsible, but since CairnsBlog set sail, at least six other Blogs are now active around the region, with different opinions and commentary. It's an emerging and healthy online democracy in action. Anyone who's been around during the Internet revolution, and you really can't have missed it, has understood that media as we once knew it, has been deconstructed. The Fourth Estate is not what it used to be.

Last evening I raised my obstruction about access to media events with the Mayor, and true to form, the Councillor of Communication responded:

"I can understand your frustration," Val Schier said. "I have made it clear all along that I think that CairnsBlog is legitimate media and should receive all media releases and be invited to any media conferences," Val said.

So there you go. Our all-embracing mayor was firmly opening the doors, like the she said she'd do in her maiden speech. Quite frankly, access to our local elected democracy should be open to all who seek. If we all relied one one media source, we'd have a pretty skewed view.

For the chief media manager to suggest that I'm not a legitimate news body, makes me laugh when you see a full page bikini photo in the Cairns Post, purporting to be a real news story. Such exclusion is pedantic and discriminatory, in such a small community like Cairns. Do they not want to get their story out to as many as possible?

Finally, you have to ask... who is this Council and it's public 'servants' - an honourable profession - there to serve? Those who they determine, or the community who elected the representatives?

The silly this about all this saga is that this story need not have been written. There should have been no email war. It should have been a simple answer of, 'Opps, we got something wrong, sorry - I'll put you on the list'.

The Mayor assured me she'll communicate her views with the CEO Noel Briggs, and Kerie Hull, Manager of Corporate Communications today.

Should I hold my breath, for a breath of fresh air?


Paul said...

Good on ya Mike - stay the course and all that. I might just pop along with you one of these days...

Cameron Laird - Photographer said...

Hi Mike,

I'm with you and I work for a major metro newspaper. My opinion is that anyone who wants to report what is said should be invited to all events where possible, especially those events that occur on public property.

I know Kerie quite well and I'm pretty sure she is being straight with you - but as with anything that involves media and p.r you have to keep watch... carefully.

With that said, most reporters are occasionally thwarted by a media or pr spin officer, especially if what they write is generally negative about the company or organisation the spin officer works for. Best thing is to make sure you get your releases auto-forwarded from someone else if you are worried you are missing out. (I have a few releases arrive in my inbox that way!)

Keep it up.

MrsDesperate said...

This experience just goes to show why society needs independent bloggers to tell it how it is. When will 'traditional' organisations come to grips with Social Media? It seems everyone else in the world has ... get with it people!

Arthur Festerbestertester said...

blogs not legitimate media? rubbish. in some cases cairnsblog has done a better job than the cairns post. as an example i cite the reporting of your occasional correspondents kitchenslut and syd walker on the cec and hedley groups and Mareeba Council. in any case media conferences and other council functions are public affairs discussing matters of public interest and any member of the public can attend. you really need to ask what ceo noel briggs has got to hide?

Fiona Tulip said...

I am with Arthur and others on this one.

The Compost rarely critizes big developers for their destruction of our natural enviroment. The exception to this has been False Cape. However, other developers such as Thackral's Argentea, Ken Frost at Kewarra, Hedley at Paradise Palms, Glencorp at Clifton Beach, Phi Hartwig have all interferred with riparian corridors, cleared signifant amounts of native vegetation and interferred with natural creek systems on the northern beaches. On the few occassions where they have done a story, its always been a soft, light and fluffy story with little grunt. They are not going to bite the hand that feeds them millions and millions of dollars every year in advertising revenue, are they??

In most of these cases Cairns Post has been practically silent, especially Argentea and Paradise Palms.

If it was not for the Cairnsblog, these issues would not have received any public exposure, and those of us on the northern beaches concerned about what is being allowed to go here by both Council and governement departments, are very grateful to this site for support.

For the Council to discriminate in this way, only goes to prove, that they will go to any lengths maintain damage control over controversial issues and this is one way of doing it.

Unknown said...

Ordinary Cairns citizens are very badly done by. This is a highly conservative, development-at-all-costs council where a responsible minority - Schier, Lesina, Pyne and Leu - get rolled time after time after time by the Cochrane-Blake Big End of Town. In effect, nothing has changed. Those on the Northern Beaches who want to look after their way of life cannot look to their elected councillor or the ComPost to represent their legitimate views.