The many saints of News Corp; Nick Garrett's return; and Berejiklian's presser retreat

The week in review. Also, Guy Sebastian's fence sitting on vaccination and 9/11, two decades on

Welcome to Unmade, mostly written on a breezy Friday afternoon at Sisters Beach, Tasmania. The tide was so high I was up in the dunes during my walk on the beach.

Happy Make Your Bed Day. Today’s writing soundtrack: London Calling, from The Clash. The best album of the 80s? Maybe.

There are now 1,066 of us on the Unmade journey. As usual - thank you, and please tell a friend.

News Corp’s climate conversion

On of the most talked about (as usual) media companies of the week was News Corp.

On Monday, Nine’s the Sydney Morning Herald reported that News Corp plans to run “a company-wide campaign in Australia promoting the benefits of a carbon-neutral economy, marking a major shift in the organisation’s view on the subject.”

Given the sceptical views of many News Corp columnists, it seemed like quite a radical departure. And although the organisation has indeed given platforms to many who have chosen not to believe the settled science, it’s worth remembering that back in 2007, in the days when James Murdoch was still in the fold, the company launched its own “1 Degree” program to reduce its own emissions.

By 2011, News Ltd, as it was then, announced it had gone carbon neutral by cutting its emissions and buying renewable energy certificates issued against wind farms in Turkey. And in 2017, the company revived the 1 Degree campaign, encouraging staff to take a role.

So although many were surprised, the SMH story was not revealing as radical a departure as it may have seemed.

News Corp has as many personalities as there are saints in Newark. The raw meat eating climate sceptics to be found in The Australian and many of the company’s tabloid papers are one personality. But the more reasonable, advertiser-facing persona of the corporate business is another - if not full vegan, then at the very least, sensible consumers of grilled chicken.

Internally and externally, it’s a balancing act for News Corp. Columnists like Andrew Bolt attract subscribers, and expect to be supported. Yet the advertisers are still an important constituency too.

A staff email from executive chairman Michael Miller yesterday spoke to the knife edge. “Our plans are not in response to any advertiser questions or concerns. However, since the coverage this week, it has been great to be contacted by our clients and major Australian companies who are interested in how they can be involved.”

“All our commentators and columnists will be encouraged to participate, and their views will not be ’muzzled’.”

The move also speaks to another personality within News Corp - that of its ad-supported website news.com.au. Reportedly the editorial campaign on climate is being led by Joe Hildebrand, whose opinions are more centrist than many of his print stablemates. Hildebrand writes for news.com.au.

On Thursday, Mumbrella’s Publish Awards recognised the work of Samantha Maiden, political editor for news.com.au. She was named journalist of the year, and her scoop on the allegations by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins was named article of the year.

Since that reporting, Maiden has broken a string of stories exposing the misogynistic environment within Parliament and the Liberal party ranks.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that news.com.au is the company masthead which least dogmatically follows a pro-Coalition agenda. The Australian and the tabloids serve a paying subscription audience which leans to the right. But news.com.au relies on the advertisers and seeks to occupy the middle ground.

It speaks to News Corp exisiting in a more complicated world than many recognise.


Splinters for Guy

Speaking of the middle ground, musician Guy Sebastian this week found himself, to use the memorable phrase of 2GB’s Ray Hadley, with splinters in his arse.

The problem with being an inoffensive, middle of the road pop singer is that commercial success comes by offending as few people as possible. And that means sitting on the fence.

But Sebastian found himself with a communications disaster as he tried to appear pro-science yet not alienate the anti-vaxxers. Surprisingly, it’s the second time in a few weeks that Sebastian has found himself apologising for his Covid politics while trying to avoid getting involved in any Covid politics.

Sebastian’s disaster came after his Instagram account was used to post a message supporting the music industry’s “Vax the nation” campaign. The aim of the campaign is to persuade music fans that the fastest route back to live music is increased vaccination levels.

But hours later, Sebastian deleted the post and instead replaced it with a bizarre apology video in which he diid not quite say what he was apologising for.

It was a word salad shared on The Music Network: “I would never, ever tell people what to do when it comes to their personal health choices. I’m very sensitive of it not only on a public level, but even in my personal life, with people who have circumstances that they have to consider when making these choices.

“So I just want to say I’m really sorry. It was not a post that communicated with love or compassion, which I feel is what’s needed when it comes to addressing things like vaccinations. And so I just wanted to clarify so that I could speak my truth and people knew how I actually feel.”

Was it a dog whistle to anti-vaxxers, or just an apology for failing to be empathetic to those unable to get themselves vaccinated for health reasons? One rather suspects the former, but given the vagueness of the apology it could almost have been the latter.

And soon, Sebastian was changing position again, telling Hadley on 2GB that actually he was personally pro-vaccine and had indeed been vaccinated. “I’m against things that are ill-informed,” he told Hadley, confusingly.

From a brand perspective, it was a disaster. In trying to alienate nobody, Sebastian alienated everybody.

It was much the same as last year’s ill-judged decision by Sebastian to pose for a photograph with Prime Minister Scott Morrison when the government was claiming to be rolling out a major arts rescue package.

For most unemployed musicians the money never came. In August, Sebastian conceded to the Herald Sun that he had allowed himself to be used as a prop.

For one of the country’s best known musicians and media personalities, Sebastian sure could do with better public relations advice.


Til-they-drop

While we’re on the topic of PR, yesterday saw NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian announce she is ending her practice of holding a daily 11am press conference to discuss her government’s handling of the state’s Covid outbreak.

With hospitals under growing pressure, even as the vaccine rollout finally gets on track in the state, it was met with outrage from journalists and tweeters, and particularly from tweeting journalists.

One of the issues is that the practice of holding press conferences really only makes sense in a world where both sides come at it in good faith. In politics that rarely occurs.

In the world of TV dramas like The West Wing, the politicians and the staffers hold an idealised commitment to democracy. They see it as their job to answer hard questions from the press, because the journalists are there as representatives of the voters.

Similarly, there’s an understanding that in this ideal world, press offices exist to answer reasonable questions to help journalists get to the truth.

The other side of the civic deal is that the journalists do their best to tell their audiences their stories in as fair and accurate way as possible.

Even with good intentions, it’s an imperfect process. At a busy press conference, journalists will be lucky to get in more than one question. That makes pursuing a complex line of questioning, in the way one would in an interview, impossible. Each journalist has their own angle in mind so will rarely follow up on a previous question left unanswered when they get a turn.

When the event is time limited, the journalists’ behaviour becomes more unruly, if they know that waiting will not be rewarded.

Imagine knowing your boss back in the newsroom is watching the press conference on TV and you’re failing to be sufficiently forceful to get your question in. They shout over each other. It’s no place for introverts, or the courteous, come to that. Of course there’s shouting.

I suspect that’s the reason Labor premier Dan Andrews’ press conferences in Victoria have been more under control than the time limited, wild rides of Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk or NSW’s Berejiklian. Andrews famously takes every question until the pack has nothing left.

Again, it’s straight from The West Wing. Alan Alda’s character Senator Arnold Vinick holds a marathon press conference to justify his support of a nuclear reactor plant after a safety scare. He calls it a “til-they-drop” press conference. It’s a way of signalling there’s nothing to hide.

Andrews did the “til-they-drop” thing on a daily basis for months. I can’t think of another example like it from around the world.

But in the real world, Berejikilian and her media advisers are not playing by the West Wing rules. Why would they? Why be bound by unspoken democratic conventions if it’s not going to help your standing with voters.

There have been enough public complaints from journalists from various outlets that transparency is a low priority within the NSW communications team to believe that to be true. Prosaic things like sharing data in formats that are difficult to process, through to multiple complaints that the media team just does not reply to questions. Either the communications team is overwhelmed, or more likely is playing favourites. Unless you’re onside, you won’t get any help.

News Corp made the same complaints about the Dan Andrews team during the first big lockdown when Covid escaped hotel quarantine.

When journalists complain about Berejikilian or Palaszczuk not playing the game, they are missing the point. The politicians are choosing not to.

It’s understandable, but depressing for democracy. Partisan, aggressive questioning has turned some of the press conferences into stressful environments.

Sometimes the pressers show up the inadequacies of the politicians. The Saturdays that health minister Brad Hazzard took the helm of the NSW press conference were masterclasses in how not to communicate. He came across as testy and unempathetic.

But for serious journalists who can’t get regular access any other way, the press conference at least provided a forum to put a difficult question. I wonder whether the final straw for Berejikilian’s advisers actually came four days ago. The ABC’s investigative report Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop forced an answer out of Berejiklian about whether she had become a target of the Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation into her former partner Daryl Maguire

Yesterday’s outrage misses the main point though. To complain about politicians dodging scrutiny suggests that they care about that. This isn’t The West Wing. They don’t.


The biggest news day

Everyone has a 9/11 memory. This evening will mark the 20th anniversary of the Twin Towers attack.

Many in Australia were in bed when it happened. For me, I was working in the 17th floor newsroom of Hospital Doctor magazine in the London suburbs, just after lunch.

I’d got back from the gym, and sat back at my desk. It was before the days when email news alerts were a thing. Imagine that…

Instead, a friend at the BBC emailed: “Plane has hit World Trade Centre in New York”.

Down at the other end of our newsroom, we had an ancient portable television, perched on top of a filing cabinet. When I looked up, a group of people were beginning to gather around it.

I joined them, and watched as the second plane hit. I completely misunderstood what I was seeing. Thrown by the scale, I remember telling somebody that it was a replay, and that you could tell it was a light aircraft.

That Tuesday was our weekly press day. There’s never been one where I’ve been less present. I was editor at the time, but I don’t think I contributed anything that afternoon. The minutiae of doctors’ pay negotiations felt irrelevant.

When I wasn’t standing at the filing cabinet looking at the TV I was back at my desk, glued to the CNN website. It kept failing to load. For much of the day, it was text only, as the CNN servers struggled to keep the site up, as everybody in the world went online at once.

There will never be another news day like it.


Garrett’s return

Nick Garrett, one of the most talented agency executives I’ve come across in Australia, returned to the industry this week.

He has become a partner in Deloitte Creative.

I must admit, my first reaction at the news was one of slight disappointment. I’m sure it’s a big, well remunerated job, but it just doesn’t seem quite interesting enough for him.

Garrett’s talent as an executive is to run businesses that got the very best out of the creative team.

Alongside creative Nick Worthington at Colenso BBDO Auckland, Garrett helped create arguably the world’s best creative agency. Then he helped modernise Clemenger BBDO Melbourne which until then had been cruising on the quality of its work.

And for a while, Garrett and the equally talented Chris Howatson looked like they were the people to deliver a bright future for the Clemenger Group under executive chairman Robert Morgan. The challenge for Morgan appeared to be how to keep them both, and then the group instead lost them both.

So after a couple of years out, I’d hoped Garrett would return to do something amazing, probably his own thing. Instead, he’s working for the man.

He will be working alongside the former McCann executives Adrian Mills and Matt Lawson. Deloitte hired both of them at once in 2017 to launch its creative and media offering, out of Deloitte Digital.

It certainly increases Deloitte’s marketing strategy firepower in what has become a competitive advisory space. KMPG’s Customer, Brand & Marketing Advisory is led by the experienced Sudeep Gohill. Accenture Interactive owns The Monkeys and is led by the agency’s cofounder Mark Green. And Sayers Group has broken cover with former PWC partners Russel Howcroft and Justin Papps among those involved in Sayers Brand Momentum.

From top dog in the marketing advisory space, PWC is now the one that seems to lack momentum.

So it’s a competitive space. The question is, can Garrett make it interesting enough to justify his presence there? I suspect I’ll be returning to this topic.

More reading:

From now on I’ll also be regularly curating interesting media and marketing reads from around the traps

A good place to begin is my fellow Substacker Ben Shepherd’s newsletter The Commercial Experience. I’ve been following his writing for the best part of 15 years. His Talking Digital blog, written with Liam Walsh, was a must-read back in the day.

I’m picking up a growing sense in the industry that after a few years of inertia, Foxtel is beginning to dig its way out of its strategic hole. Ben (another PWC refugee as it happens) focuses on the momentum that Foxtel’s streaming service Binge is beginning to find.

This week I also enjoyed reading New York Times media columnist Ben Smith’s interview with the editor of the newly revived Gawker, Leah Finnegan. Gawker was the scandalous, bite-the-hand that feeds watchdog that terrorised the US mediarati from 2003 to 2016. On its best days it punched up at the pretentious and privileged. On its bad it. On its worse, it bullied and invaded privacy.

It was finally closed down after Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel secretly bankrolled a law suit by Hulk Hogan. The new editor of Gawker seems almost as complicated as its founder Nick Denton.


Time for me to let you get on with your weekend.

Keep an eye out for another email from me tomorrow. I plan on taking a look at the TV ratings week just gone.

And please do let me know what you think. You can email me at letters@unmade.media, or press the button below…

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Have a great weekend.

Toodlepip…

Tim Burrowes

Proprietor