For many years, I worked as a public relations consultant after boozing past my use-by date in political jobs. My first move was into the Melbourne outpost of a large global communications agency named something a lot like “Wanker Shagwell”. Try as it might, the firm failed to gouge sufficient fees from unsuspecting clients, and the global honchos closed the Melbourne office nine months after my arrival. My so-called dash for cash suddenly didn’t look like such a great career move, especially after I blew the redundancy cheque by partying for a month above a karaoke bar in Bali.
I kept slogging away at PR for another seven years, and spent a good part of that time trying not to get roped into cold-calling journalists, by far the worst aspect of the job. The reason it’s such a terrible task is that journalists treat public relations professionals with the kind of grace and good humour typically directed at offshore call center workers by short-tempered racists.
When I was absolutely cornered and had no choice but to cold-call a reporter, the conversation normally went like this.
Hi. I am a sold-out piece of shit, pointlessly trying to sell you on a yarn that is not at all worthy of you.
Not in the least, you lowly turd.
I don’t blame you.
Good-bye, and promise never to call me again.
Or at least that’s my best recollection.
Among all journalists, those that work for Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, are the worst. With ABC reporters, it almost felt as if their Christmas bonus hinged on their willingness to humiliate me, and they all got paid.
Why the attitude? From the ABC’s lofty perch, public relations seems inherently corrupt because it involves applying the knowledge and skills of a journalist to the service of vile, capitalist clients, often against the “public interest”. This is, I will concede, at least partly a fair point. But ABC reporters also have a vastly inflated view of what PR professionals actually earn which leads to conflicted (and misplaced) feelings of envy, spite and disgust.
I am the first to admit that PR practices can be cynical, even unethical at times. But, by and large, a public relations consultant presents themselves honestly enough to the world, often with a kind of “it ain’t not pretty, but someone’s gotta do it” air of resignation.
Nothing I did or saw in eight years in PR equals in vulgar opportunism, or matches in shades or depths of ethical grey, the decision by Josephine Cafagna, host of ABC’s Stateline program, to become Ted Baillieu’s chief spin-doctor.
Not only has Cafagna been working the state politics rounds herself, but her husband is state politics reporter for the Age newspaper, Paul Austin. The same Paul Austin whose reporting has been wildly pro-Baillieu in the months leading up to the state election, much to the bemusement of many observers.
This appointment stinks.
How long have these discussions been going on?
What arrangements were made prior to the election?
What role, if any, did Austin play in the discussions that led to the appointment, or in the appointment itself?
Is this a two-for-one deal?
It may be unfashionable of me to entangle her husband in this way. I appreciate that this is 2010 and women are entitled to careers independent of their husbands. But isn’t that exactly the point?
Cafagna and Austin’s careers are entangled, and not by me. Apart from being married, their professional lives travel on parallel tracks. Their networks and CVs intertwine. They feed at the same trough.
The question is not what happens to Austin now — VexNews has got some good intelligence in that regard — it is what happened over the past 6-12 months, and how that may have shaped coverage of politics in Victoria.
It may be completely innocent. Cafagna’s suitability for the job may have occurred to Baillieu only after the election. Austin may never have taken part in any discussion with the Premier on the subject. The Age’s fawning and sympathetic coverage of Baillieu, spearheaded by Austin himself, may be entirely unrelated.
But as long as this series of innocent coincidences seems less likely than the alternative explanation, this appointment will fail to pass even a perfunctory smell test.