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Harry Potter and the embattled leaders: a question of trust

July 24, 2011

James Murdoch and Julia Gillard have the same problem. Nobody really trusts them.

Even his (former) good mate, British PM David Cameron, is now saying that Murdoch ‘clearly’ has some more questions to answer. They just aren’t convinced he is telling the truth.

At the same time, Prime Minister Gillard’s support among voters is in free-fall.

The situations are different, but the underlying issue is the same – we don’t really believe what they say. And is it any wonder?

Gillard’s trouble started when she wrested power from Kevin Rudd. The process by which it happened was a bit too ‘Lady Macbeth’. (‘Out, spot, out!’ she cries, but the bloodstains have never really left.)

So, the PM had a trust problem from Day 1. It would seem prudent then, to avoid making promises you may not be able to keep. Say, for instance, ‘There will be no carbon tax’.

“…except for this new tax, which is on carbon, and looks like a carbon tax, but is not really, and it’s different to that other carbon tax… and well, anyway, here it is.’

An ABC interviewer asked her this week: “Why is your plan is being effectively pilloried, while [Abbott’s] plan doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere near as much questioning?”

Gillard blamed the Opposition’s fear-mongering tactics. I say it’s a lot simpler. The public has an automatic response by now: we don’t trust you, or your tax.

It reminds me of Harry Potter and the Elder Wand. Voldemort couldn’t really make it work because he acquired it the wrong way. I wonder if the PM’s role is Julia Gillard’s Elder Wand.

Murdoch’s problem is more subtle, but comes down to two things: his ‘media training’ and his language.

When the News of the World scandal broke a few weeks ago, I listened to his press conference. Three times they asked if Rebekah Brooks knew about the hacking. He evaded the question twice, with vague statements about standards and ethics. Only when pushed a third time did he claim that she didn’t know anything. But if he was telling the truth, why didn’t he just say it the first time?

His language since then has been evasive, sometimes jumbled, and relies a lot on the passive voice to reinforce his distance from it.

This is from the Parliamentary hearing:

“Under the circumstances, with respect to the bad things that certain of the things that happened News of the World some years ago did, it was really the right choice for the paper to cease publication”. Dude that doesn’t even make sense! And ‘bad things’ – is this storytime, or a public hearing?

If you read both James and Rupert Murdoch’s transcripts, their language is generally passive – for example, ‘legal fees were paid’ – i.e by others, not me! This constant buck-passing simply isn’t convincing.

Interestingly, the first statement News Corp released to defend Murdoch’s version of events said,  “James Murdoch stands by his testimony to the select committee”. It was subsequently changed to the first-person: “I stand by my testimony to the select committee”. Way to go, media advisers! Smooth!

So, this is pretty long way to make my point, which is this: the best media training and the fanciest linguistic footwork are useless, if you haven’t built trust.

And how do you do that? By being clear, honest and transparent. By addressing any negative angles at the outset. By answering tricky questions first time around.

And if you have a client or a boss who doesn’t want to play that way, then you need to be clear with them about how things may turn out.

And if they still don’t agree, I’d recommend whacking them with your Elder Wand.

By the way, if you think I’m entertaining and insightful (as if you don’t!) you can follow me on Twitter – see that icon at the top on the right?


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  1. I’ve done “media training” 3 or 4 times, and none of it is about answering the question, or being transparent. It’s about “getting your message across”. Maybe the trainers could learn something out of this as well. And the journalists could stop asking inane questions? Well, probably not.

  2. It’s interesting, isn’t it? I can’t remember a time when Australia has actually been better governed. The economy is great (apart from the retail sector, which seems to be about a combination of lack of confidence and failure of Australian retailers to get on line). Policies are being debated and worked through in great detail rather than being rushed through (thanks to the make up of parliament). The carbon tax gets the approval of virtually all serious economists, and helps Australia to take the moral high ground internationally on this issue. Even the much-criticised Malaysian refugee “solution” means that we are taking more refugees, while discouraging them from coming in leaky boats.
    And Julia Gillard is holding the group that’s making it all work together, in a way that not many people (and certainly not Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott) could.
    On the other hand, Tony Abbott openly says he is not very interested in policy, or in getting to the right answer; he is interested in politics and winning.
    But at least he’s honest about it!
    So, to back up what you are saying, the sad moral seems to be that you can get away with being outrageously cynical and self-interested in public life, if only you are willing to be clear, honest and transparent about it.

    • Wow, it’s unusal to hear anyone say anything positive about this Government! But you make a good point, Tony Abbott doesn’t ever pretend that he’s not a complete tool.

  3. I am a huge Julia Gillard supporter. I trust in the actions of the people who know her – her Cabinet. They chose to endorse her as PM.

    The opinion of the media is what should be called into questioned, especially when a significant portion of it is owned by dodgy bastards like Rupert Murdoch (you can’t tell me he doesn’t look a little bit like Voldemort!).

    Always follow the money if you want to know the truth.

    • I used to be head of the Julia Gillard cheer squad, but now I don’t know… I can’t decide if she is so brilliant that we just can’t see it yet, or she has totally lost her shit.

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