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Spin and the art of democracy

  • 15 March 2010
Recent revelations that the Victorian Minister for Planning's media advisor, Peta Duke, set out to make a sham consultation process in order to block proposed development of the Heritage-listed Windsor Hotel in Melbourne has produced strong reaction about the nature of modern democracy.

Duke's email was miss-directed — if it had gone to its intended recipient within the government rather than the ABC it would never have come to public attention, and would have been just another missive in the daily functioning of government. As it was, the email, titled 'Minister for Planning Justin Madden's Media Plan', was inadvertently sent to the least desired recipient — the media — and a field day was had by all. Premier Brumby was forced to denounce it, and Madden had to perform the modern day politico's ordeal of brazening things out to righteously angry talkback radio hosts.

Connoisseurs of public deception will remember the notorious Blair spin doctor who, on the day of the 9/11 attacks in the US, sent out a group email to various departments in Blair's Labor government advising that if ever there was a good moment to get rid of bad news without people noticing, now was the time.

As with Duke, it was a smart tactic, which if it had remained confidential would doubtless have earned kudos. But alas the thing leaked. Whereupon the music stopped, and the poor spin doctor found herself without a chair to sit on. Simply for being caught out doing the job that she'd been hired to do: manipulate public perception.

These are democracy's naked lunch moments — those situations when, generally through sheer inadvertence, everyone, both inside and outside the power game, can see exactly how things work, and precisely what it is that lies at the end of our forks.

Our reaction to these sorts of things tends, quite naturally, to be outrage, to greater or lesser degrees. We feel the democratic process is made out to be, if not a complete mockery, at the very least a plaything.

There is an assumption that this is a particularly modern disease. In Melbourne's local tabloid Andrew Bolt complains that the Peta Duke debacle is typical of the modern world — 'stacking committees ... fudging surveys ... and launching sham inquiries' — and that our modern age, defined by the glut of informational noise, makes those who can control and shape its flow ever more important. This