The news cycle has been replaced by the opinion cycle, with Andrew Bolt now the most significant media voice, Kevin Rudd’s former press secretary Lachlan Harris has argued.
Delivering the keynote address at the Public Relations Institute of Australia’s annual conference, Harris warned that the cycle was now in a “brutal and divisive place” with media a “rougher, tougher game”. Harris said:
“One of the most significant structural changes in the media landscape in the last five eyars has been the rise of the opinion cycle. The most underestimated change in the last five years is that the opinion cycle is now more important than the news cycle. In Australia in the last five years, news has been eclipsed by opinion.
“In the Australian media market the apprentice has become the master. Opinion new reigns supreme. Noone knows just how to deal with this. None of us have really caught up with the new fundamentals that govern the opinion cycle.
“The reality is that the opinion cycle is slowly smothering the news cycle like ivy smothers a fully grown tree.
“The tweets, comments blogs, emails and talkback calls that a news story generates are now so are so pervasive they become more important and more influential than the actual story as first written.”
Harris argued that whereas PRs could at least “nudge” the 24 hour news cycle, it was far harder to influence the opinion cycle.
“Now so much of the information we are exposed to has absolutely nothing to do with facts and nothing to do with news. In the opinion cycle, facts don’t matter. Arguments do.”
Harris argued that rather than Kerry O’Brien in his days at the helm of The 7.30 Report on the ABC, media is now dominated by those who can start an argument.
“The talent in the opinion cycle are not the journalists. They are the people who start the debates, find the fault lines, stir up community antagonism. In the opinion cycle it’s commentators who matter, not journalists.
“Five years ago Kerry O’Brien was one of the most influential media personalities in Australia. Some people would bitterly disagree with me, but I would argue that Andrew Bolt is now sitting in a similar position of influence that Kerry O’Brien was sitting in just a few years ago.”
“Andrew’s influence comes from his almost genius talent in provoking and prolonging arguments. When a news journalist sees a meaningless squabble, Bolt sees an opportunity to stir up community debate. That talent makes him one of the most bankable assets in the Australian media today.”
Harris went on: ‘Every year the number of journalists goes down and the number of commentators goes up.”
Harris, whose media work now includes a column for the Sunday Telegraph, and punditing on Sky News, said: “When you are a guest on one of these shows you are not there as a journalist, you are there to get into an argument and take a side.”
“Opinion is cheaper than fact. A columnist can fill a whole page of a newspaper on a single salary, no expenses, no travel.
“The majority of people appearing on political shows do it for free.
“Opinion is cheap and facts are expensive.”
He argued that the rise of self published content, particularly on social media was also driving the opinion cycle. He said: “When was the last time you saw a tweet saying ‘I’ve just spoken to a source in Treasury and they told me X’?”
“Forget about citizen journalists. I’ve never met a citizen journalist. Almost all of them are citizen opinionists.”
He said that social media behaviour was also harder to predict. He said: “It’s harder to judge how a million tweets will respond to an event, than 100 journalist who you know personally.”
He said that criticisms of negative behaviour by politicians was not at the heart of cynicism about politicians. He said: “The vast majority of this hyper negative, super critical content is coming directly from the community. Tweets, blogs, talkback calls.”
“Over the last 12 months, I’ve sat in countless boardrooms and spoken to business leaders who are literally petrified of being torn to shreds by the opinion cycle. I’m not talking about controversial CEOs who love stirring up community debate. These are ordinary, straight down the line Australian companies who spend every day hiding in the cupboard almost so worried about getitng smashed in the twitterverse, hammered in a blog or torn apart by talkback calls. The all-pervading sense of fear is new.”
Harris read examples of abusive comments written online about himself in the last few days that led his mother to call him and ask if he was okay. He said: “On a daily basis when I was working for Kevin Rudd it was my job to console a minister, a backbencher, a staffer, a partner of a politician beause of the way they had been brutalised by the opinion cycle. I didn’t have to make too many of those calls in 2004. By 2008-2009 it was almost a full time job.”
“The reality is that there’s an absolute ocean of bile flowing around the internet.”
Offering advice to the PRs in the audience on how to deal with the opinion cycle, Harris said: “Adjust your radar. Newness is no longer the thing to look for. Faultlines are the new king.
He warned that PRs also need to ready clients for what is ahead if they find themselves in the spotlight. He said: “They have to be prepared for some pretty nasty criticism.”
“We have to be honest with each other that media is now a rougher, tougher game.”
He also warned: “The days of building a media profile for the hell of it are gone. You should only do that if you are willing to divide. The soft news opportunities are coming fewer and further between.”
Harris said that one bright spot is that because there is so much more negative coverage, those that do cop it are no longer as exposed. He said: “Bad publicity is just the new black for business.”