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From Talk-Back to Facebook Live: Politicians' Strategies for Bypassing Journalistic Scrutiny

The final paper in this ANZCA 2017 session is presented by Caroline Fisher, whose focus is on Australian politicians' approaches to bypassing the scrutiny of the parliamentary press gallery. This is based on a set of 87 interviews with key media actors from the Howard era, including the former Prime Minister himself, as well as on an analysis of the social media activities of five Australian political leaders and interviews with their press secretaries.

Politicians have always sought to control the information flows that cover their activities; through social media they have become more easily able to bypass conventional journalistic coverage and broadcast directly to their followers, but previous media channels such as talk-back radio have also aided in this. Current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is on record as saying that for him, Facebook Live is the new talk-back radio, in fact. This is a form of self-representation that seeks to bring back a one-step flow from politicians to the audience, and digital communication technologies present opportunity structures for this.

John Howard made very effective use of talk-back radio, and has stated his love for the medium openly. He perceived the media as hostile and did not like to be interviewed, and so opted for live rather than pre-recorded interviews in order to avoid subsequent journalistic story shaping as much as possible. In turn, journalists became reliant on transcripts and camera pool vision of such interviews. Eventually, during the 2007 campaign he also experimented with pre-recorded YouTube videos, but failed to make an effective transition to that medium and produced some widely ridiculed efforts.

Other politicians have taken to YouTube and social media platforms much more effectively; Pauline Hanson has been engaging in a great deal of livestreaming as part of her recent political comeback, for instance. Malcolm Turnbull has also experimented with making policy announcements directly via Facebook videos; his staff are on record as hoping to make Facebook Live his version of talk-back radio, which has generated considerable, entirely predictable backlash from talk-back radio hosts. This is also connected to the return of Tom Tudehope to Turnbull's Office as a media advisor.

Indeed, for minor parties such approaches are now a key way to get their message out; their policies are poorly covered by the mainstream media as it is, and some of their key audiences may be particularly affine to social media. For more major parties social media simply become another tool in their media arsenal, and the balance between the different tools may gradually be shifting in favour of social media. Such direct communication has its place, but is also problematic if it means a decline in the media scrutiny of democratic governments.