Image for How David Bartlett’s spin-doctor engineered an election ‘debate’

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett’s Senior Political Adviser, Matt Rogers, succeeded in persuading Sky News that it host an election debate as a way of bypassing the insistence of the ABC in Tasmania that the leaders’ debate include the Greens, Nick McKim. The documents also reveal that Rogers supplied Sky News with the names of journalists who could comprise the panel of questioners and advised the network on venue options. For its part, David Speers, the political editor at Sky News Australia, sought Rogers’ opinion on whether he would be happy with a panel confined to only three journalists.

In a February 4 email following up on an earlier phone call with David Speers, the political editor at Sky News Australia Rogers wrote that the Labor government was “very keen” to have a televised debate but only between Bartlett and Hodgman. “We have reached a stalemate with the ABC, which insists on a three way debate including the Greens leader. This is not of interest to us - we believe it needs to be a debate between the two major party leaders, as I explained,” he wrote.

Rogers, who has previously been a reporter for the Mercury and then a media adviser for Paul Lennon, also wrote that it “was great” to hear that Sky News was interested in the possibility of hosting the debate. “We would be willing to work with you to develop a suitable format, etc, to ensure this happens.” While Rogers explained that Labor was “flexible in terms of the debate dates” their “preference would be for the final week of the campaign.” Two months earlier the ABC’s State Editor of News and Current Affairs, Andrew Fisher, had written to Bartlett proposing a debate be broadcast as a special edition of Stateline on a Friday night at 7.30pm.

Just over three hours after Rogers’ initial email, he had the answer he wanted to hear. Speers emailed Rogers stating that Sky News was happy to proceed and proposed a one-hour debate on March 14, just six days before the election. “Would you be comfortable with a panel of 3 local journalists (print, radio and tv) to ask questions as well?’, Speers inquired of Rogers. The Canberra-based Speers also sought Rogers’ advice on possible venues in Hobart. “Is there something like the Great Hall of Parliament or a similar venue that would be appropriate?,” he asked in a February 4 email.

In his initial response, Rogers wrote that “that is excellent news” before promising to respond in more detail later in the day. In his follow-up email Rogers graciously gave Sky credit for adopting his own suggestion. “We are very happy with what Sky is proposing,” he wrote.

He also offered to help with a “few logistical issues” such as the venue, “local journalists to participate on the panel”, “any rules around giving other networks and outlets access to debate footage” and “live audience”. Speers then informed Rogers that the Sky News CEO, Angelos Frangopoulos and Canberra Operations Manager, Geoff Crane, would be in Hobart in the next week or two to check out possible venues and work out logistics.

Ever helpful Rogers promised in a Sunday afternoon email on February 7 that he would forward some details of Parliament House officials who could assist with two possible venues and offered to assist if they wanted to investigate other external venues.

But where the debate was held was far less important than having key journalists participate on a panel. “As for local journalists to form part of a debate panel, we are understandably - I hope - reluctant to nominate preferred people. We are very happy for you to choose whomever you wish,” Rogers reassured Speers. That said, Rogers was still keen to proffer some names as “this may be a good starting point to contact you and assist you in making the decisions.”

Rogers list of possible contenders for the television slot comprised Emily Bryan from Southern Cross TV, Jane Miller from WIN News and Rowan Dix and Amanda Allie at the ABC. Possible contenders from newspapers included Matt Denholm from The Australian, Sue Neales from The Mercury, Alison Andrews from The Examiner and Chris Pippos from The Advocate. Rogers also noted that the newspaper editors are Garry Bailey at The Mercury, Fiona Reynolds at The Examiner and Jason Purdie at The Advocate.

Radio was more problematic, with Rogers lamenting that “political radio news is dominated in Tasmania by the ABC, with only a handful of mostly-office bound news people at the commercial stations. Key ABC radio people are Tim Cox and Simon Fraser”.

Rogers’ enthusiasm to have the details of the debate organised as quickly as possible was also explained. “We will also need to make a public statement to this effect as the Premier is being asked about whether there will be an election debate by local media and he does not wish to be in a position of being less than open and transparent.” One PR problem remained though, in how to explain that the ABC had been sidelined. In his email Rogers flagged that the Premier’s media release would “be saying that Sky’s coverage is a great coup for Tasmania as it is the first time a state election debate here has been broadcast live nationally.”

Frangopoulos was working on Sunday afternoon too, and shortly afterwards emailed Rogers to suggest some “key points” to include in the announcement. Having bowed to Rogers’ wish to marginalise the Greens, Frangopoulos felt that Sky could be magnanimous and offer to provide the event on a non-exclusive basis to other media outlets such as the ABC. He also advised that the journalists panel would be selected by Speers. Even more importantly though for Labor’s election campaign was that Frangopoulos volunteered a line that defended the exclusion of the Greens Nick McKim, “Sky News believes the debate is a forum for the Premier and the alternative Premier to put forward their case for governing the state”. It was a line that Bartlett’s office gladly used, with Frangopoulos’s permission, in the media release issued the following day.

Having enticed Sky News to host an event was one thing, but having it projected into the broader Tasmanian community ahead of election day is another. To do this, Bartlett’s re-election campaign needs leading Tasmanian reporters to participate in the panel and their news outlets to cover it. They also need one or more of the Tasmanian television networks to broadcast the debate. In an email to the author, Sky TV’s David Speers wrote that they would be making an announcement on which journalist will participate “soon”.

While Rogers had offered in his February 5 email to discuss the issue of “live audience”, there is no subsequent mention of it in the documents. (In an earlier debate before a live audience, The Mercury’s chief political reporter Sue Neales wrote that Bartlett was “grumpy and disinterested for much of the debate”). In an email to the author, Speers wrote that “we’ve reached an agreement with the Labor and Liberal leaders on the format and audience for the debate.” The details of the format and the role of the audience will also be announced soon.

Irrespective of how the Liberal or Labor leaders actually perform on the night, the debate will exemplify the ability of a government spin-doctor to enlist a co-complicit media outlet to stage manage a charade of a debate. Instead of the debate illustrating the strength of Tasmania’s democracy, it will represent the unhealthy power of the government’s spin machinery and the willingness of sections of the media to actively undermine the public’s right to be fully informed of the choices before them.

Mark’s view: HERE