‘You can’t lead effectively if no-one gives you the kind of advice you don’t want to hear’ — Laurie Oakes on all the PMs

During a recent interview with CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley for INTHEBLACK and the new television program, The Conversation with Alex Malley, on Nine Network Australia, veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes — a Walkley Foundation Trustee — rated all the prime ministers he’s reported on over the years, from John Gorton to Malcolm Turnbull.

Today’s politicians lack elementary political skills, Oakes told Malley, while conceding their jobs have been made comparatively harder by the relentless demands of the 24-hour “news cyclone”.

The press gallery doyen also discussed the crucial impact that the right teacher can have on an individual’s life, and he expressed his strong views on racism – something he simply can’t tolerate or understand.

See the full article for Oakes’ PM report card (Billy McMahon: -100 out of 10) and more. An astonishing read: intheblack.com.

Alex Malley: When you were about six, your dad transferred to Cockatoo Island off Western Australia. I understand they were formative years, because you made great friends with the local Aboriginal kids.

If I’ve got strong beliefs about anything, it’s about racism. I loathe racism; I don’t understand it. It does go back to my childhood on Cockatoo Island … I got to know the Aboriginal people, not just the kids. There was a boat – the island launch, quite a big boat – and there was a white captain. But the bloke who actually ran it was an Aboriginal guy called Alf Brown.

He would never be captain because he was Aboriginal. But when we arrived on the island [Oakes’s father had travelled there earlier], I’m only five or six and my little sister is five months old, I remember my father saying to my mother, “When you hand the baby down to the wharf, you’ll see two brown hands; they’re the ones to trust” – and that was Alf Brown.

Ron Oliver was a name that appeared in the history of Cockatoo Island at the school and he saw something in you very early.

Cockatoo Island was a one-teacher school; there were only 20 or 30 kids, because there were only a few hundred people on the island. You wouldn’t think you’d get much of an education at a one-teacher school, but I got a great education there. Ron Oliver was a really gifted teacher, and he’d decided I was someone who could write.

He said to me that I could be a journalist. Now I didn’t know what a journalist was – there were no newspapers on Cockatoo Island; we used to get our news through Radio Australia. But that was the first mention that this might be my fate.

Public servants are now afraid, quite legitimately, to talk to the press, and I think that’s a bad thing.

The impartial journalist

You’ve said you’ve voted for both sides of politics at different times. Is it important that a journalist is willing to vote either way?

I’m not sure you’ve got to be willing to vote either way, but you do have to be willing to stand back and not let your own political views influence your reporting. You can have opinions and you can express opinions, but you’ve still got to be able to report reasonably impartially on what politicians are doing.

The importance of what I do is enabling democracy … so people know what politicians are doing, so they know what they are voting for, why they are voting … and also to reflect the views of the voters back to the politicians.

At 21, you were made political roundsman and I recall a comment you made about [former Sydney Daily Mirror editor] Zell Rabin, who showed you an article and said, “What do you think of this?”

I was a very new state roundsman. I had only been covering state politics for a few weeks and this editorial that he showed me was about education policy of the new government. Zell Rabin was a very young editor, a very good editor, [and] I thought he had written it. I threw it back and said, “I think it’s crap, Zell”. He said “Yeah, so do I. Rupert wrote it”.

Rupert Murdoch had written it, so that was a lesson to me: I decided not to be a “yes man” to him. But he wasn’t a “yes man” to Rupert Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch gets bad press, quite often for very good reasons, but … I think he wants you to stand up to him if you work for him.

Effective leadership

It’s interesting, because in leadership if you are running something and everyone says effectively “I think you’re clever” every time you ask them a question, you are isolated, aren’t you?

You see it all the time in politics. We’ve seen it with what happened to the Abbott Government – no-one would take him on because of the command and control system he had round his office. The same happened with [former prime minister] Kevin Rudd; he was guarded too closely and people were frightened to tell him he was being stupid. You can’t lead effectively if no-one gives you the kind of advice you don’t want to hear.

Do you think there’s enough observation in public reporting today?

There can never be enough, really. It’s one of the reasons I love television, because the viewers also share in the observation process and make up their mind. They develop suspicions or admiration or whatever. It is important the way people respond, the way people act, the eyes, voice is important. There isn’t as much [observation] as there used to be, partly because journalists are too busy.

The 24-hour news cycle – they are all tweeting and Facebooking and making live crosses into the television news every five minutes. They don’t get the time I used to have. There’s been a loss of personal contact and that has led to less opportunities for that kind of observation.

To the issue of leadership and what’s happened in politics: How do you see leadership has changed in the past 50 years you’ve been reporting on it?

Leading has got harder, and it’s partly because of the changes in the media – what’s now known as the “news cyclone”, where instead of one deadline a day there are dozens. Politicians feel they have to keep producing stories throughout the day. Leaders don’t get as much time to think, to prepare, to plan.

[Former prime minister Robert] Menzies could take a six-week boat trip to England to go to the cricket. No leader can do that now.

Is it harder to get information out of the politicians today?

Politicians spend years working out how to be subtle and avoid and con the press. They get better and better at it. To be fair, I think journalists have probably become more demanding as well, so part of the public relations set-ups and the spin is in response to increasing – and some unreasonable – demands from the media. The combined result is that you have this massive machinery to protect government from media investigation of inconvenient questions.

And it’s not just politicians; the public service, too. A few years ago it was just accepted that if I wanted background on how something works, I could ring the relevant bureaucrat. Not any more. That bureaucrat knows that he or she has to refer me to the minister’s office, so I end up with a spin merchant who doesn’t know anything about it anyway. It’s not a particularly satisfying system.

Public servants are now afraid, quite legitimately, to talk to the press, and I think that’s a bad thing. The Crimes Act basically makes it a crime to tell a journalist anything. It’s one of the ways governments these days prevent leaks.

I don’t think it’s healthy if big companies can buy a political result. But … money talks in politics.”

Challenges for today’s media

From what I can gather, there’s a lot less journalists doing a lot more work.

The encouraging thing is that reporters will always report. But it is getting harder for them. Media organisations don’t have the resources they used to, to help their journalists or even protect journalists. It’s very hard now to spend weeks on an investigation because media organisations are short of cash; the digital revolution [has] undermined the business model of most media organisations.

And because they don’t have much money, they are willing to accept stuff that politicians give them. A few years ago, you wouldn’t have accepted a video from a politician; it would have been regarded as propaganda. Now it happens all the time.

You can see the future if you look at the Obama White House: they’ve set up this big digital media organisation – it’s a newsroom and they produce a weekly news bulletin and live streaming. Their photographers cover events in the White House that the White House press corps is just not invited to.

I know the White House press corps resents and worries about it, with some reason, and that is slowly happening here.

Read the full article on INTHEBLACK magazine: Laurie Oakes reflects on 50 years of journalism.