Doors duty and other daily duplicities

I was unaware of “doors duty” as recently outlined by Annabel Crabb, but, I can’t say I’m surprised. Anyway here’s her explanation of what it is.

I remember having a conversation last year with a Labor backbencher who had been on “doors duty” during a sitting week.

You know the footage you see on the evening news where politicians are arriving at Parliament and are stopped by reporters as they walk in the building?

Lending the impression that they have been caught unexpectedly?

Yeah, well, the Rudd government actually had a roster for which backbenchers would “accidentally” wander past the cameras each morning.

(Anyone seriously wishing to avoid the cameras would simply enter through the carpark, and usually do).

The backbencher told me that his “doors duty” involved turning up for a pre-dawn coaching session with Rudd’s media adviser, after which he left Parliament House only to nonchalantly “arrive” at the Reps door, to offer a few chance remarks.

After this bizarre morning’s work, the backbencher rang Rudd’s office for a performance appraisal.

“I think I went okay, but none of the news services seem to have picked up anything I said,” a somewhat crestfallen backbencher reported.

“Don’t worry – that’s perfect,” he was told.

Surely there is something wrong with a world in which so much training and preparation can be put into not getting on TV.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with black and white moral distinctions in assessing the media. Even when the cash for comment scandal got going, and as disgusting as the story was, for me it wasn’t much more than a logical extension of commercial media. After all, speaking economically and commercially, the ‘content’ we’re supposed to be interested, the content that gives the particular medium whether it’s a newspaper or a TV or radio program its identity is there as a honeypot to get eyeballs looking at ads. And the media is duplicitous. Putting on a show is duplicitous.  You have the set, which is all pretend, and the 7.30 report goes to air at, yes, 7.30 each night, just like a West End play, which looks kind of real to the audience, but is all put on if you see it back-stage.

The 7.30 report is performed. It’s performed by everyone, Kerry, the guests, everyone. When the 7.30 Report set is ‘live’ (before and after it is a desk and some props in a dark dusty room) no-one speaks in the same kind of voice they’d use when they weren’t ‘live’. Like a filming an episode of Neighbours, it’s all for the cameras.  The whole thing is, everywhere and always, a delicate balancing act, a dance between what’s ‘on the record’ and what’s off the record. And when they film a ‘packet’ of you either in the studio or at your home or office, the crew will get you to do your own ‘doors duty’, which is to say they’ll direct you just as the actors on Neighbours are directed to open the door and come into the room while they film you, to flip through some silly report and pretend you are reading it, maybe make some notes on the report. And if you don’t do it the way they want, they ask you to do it again. I guess some people refuse to do their ‘noddies’ as this kind of thing is called, but there can’t be many. It seems churlish to refuse. What does it matter that the audience is being invited to believe that you’re reading the report, when the crew have just handed it to you, and you’ve never seen it before and wouldn’t want to read it.

But it all underlines the fact that one can’t really appeal to naive distinctions between truth and pretence or lie in thinking about the media. And it’s a small part of the story as to how practices like doors duty at Parliament House can grow up with nary a whisper of dissent or disruption from anyone. The whole show is pretend, in a sense the ultimate reality TV, the ‘set’ is the backdrop of Parliament House, but the whole thing is not what it seems. The person is not actually turning up for work, as he seems to be. Just as the only reason you’re walking through the door in your ‘noddies’ is because the cameraman told you to after he shot your interview. I guess Bismark’s comment about laws and sausages comes to mind. And when the Sunday crew turned up to film me as a Productivity Commissioner talking about waste and how a lot of the curbside recycling agenda was more wasteful than the waste it diverted from landfill, I told them that I wasn’t strong on some matter, so if they wanted to ask me about it, there wasn’t much I could say.  They responded with words to the effect of “Oh don’t worry, we won’t be trying to embarrass you. You’re going to be the ‘good guy’ in our story so if there are any bits where you seem ignorant, we’ll edit them out”. And the show went on. But the guy who said that to me didn’t seem to realise that the duplicity, or in this case stage management, had gone too far.

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Mobius Ecko
Mobius Ecko
13 years ago

Something that has been practiced and not publicly raised for many years is now suddenly bought to light, and no surprise another ABC attack against Rudd when in all likelihood it was also practiced and condoned by the Liberal government.

This continues yet another rise in attacks against Rudd/Gillard by the ABC as can be seen by a number of Drum articles recently.

Instead of attempting to yet again slur Rudd, Annabel Crabb should be highlighting the media’s role in this and her own failure to not raise this when it was occurring, not in hindsight and not in singling out one particular PM.

Absolute Crabb
13 years ago

Is the 7.30 Report really such a major offender in producing this kind of incidental artifice? A couple of years ago the Chaser lampooned such footage with their “expert dog” sketch directed against ACA/TT. These tabloids often have numerous shots of a chosen “expert” in order to impress on the viewer the person’s authority for the purposes of the story; the “expert dog” made a good satirical point. I don’t think ABC current affairs programs are guilty of this – they are mainly a talking head with some extra footage to fill the gaps.
Also, I’m not as disturbed as Dr Gruen is by Kerry not speaking in “the same kind of voice” live and not live. The 7.30 Report’s formal and direct tone is simply appropriate for the format; it’s only “all for the cameras” in the sense that this is probably the best way to present a series of stories and interviews for TV. No-one thinks Kerry talks like that all day, or that the set is anything but a dark room at other times.
The media has competing interests, certainly, but it is not in all cases duplicitous. So long as journalists are acting in good faith pursuing stories, as I would argue is the case with the 7.30 Report, they are acting in the public interest. Journalists (or “commentators”) who are compromised and creating material to serve another agenda (E.g. advertising revenue or “beat-up” ratings) are the ones to be censured for duplicity.
Using a guest as “the good guy” does seem to go against unprejudiced investigation into a matter, however.
Btw, it’s good to see the #mediacarcase hashtag is back.

Don Arthur
13 years ago

Nice post.

I’d love to see a documentary on the art of the political interview.

Sometimes when I’m watching Kerry O’Brien I’m convinced he’s not performing for me but for other journalists who he hopes will turn his interview into a story in the next news cycle. For example, asking the same question three times sets up a story about how a minister refused to rule out or deny x.

I was fascinated by Andrew Denton’s style on Enough Rope. The long interview format was often a challenge to interviewees used to reciting talking points. Sometimes it was like watching lion wear down a gazelle. Eventually the prey would run out of pre-prepared talking points and would be forced to turn and face their interviewer. I thought Denton’s John Hewson interview was painful but revealing.

Rafe Champion
13 years ago

We have to accept that all kinds of games are being played all the time and we are players as well, but the thing that i really want to see is more journalists who make an effort (within the limits of human frailty) to apply to same rules to all the players. And to themselves as well!

G. H. Schorel-Hlavka
G. H. Schorel-Hlavka
13 years ago

As a CONSTITUTIONALIST I found the media not really interested in real issues I canvas even so it would have been many of the biggest stories available. Hence I publish it on my blog and just carry on.
Anyone going to my blog will find numerous stories very important and yet the media doesn’t report. That is why journalistic abilities have gone down! This whole drama about who shall form government was wrongly dealt with. The ATO abusing and misusing the courts to obtain by deception court orders surely is another worthwhile story. And numerous issues like it. Journalist these days lack the ability on real reporting and so to say eat out of the hands of politicians to pretend they are newsworthy reports that are fed by the media.

Dallas Beufort
Dallas Beufort
13 years ago

Otherwise known as the head shot(which means, nothing).

Luke Elford
Luke Elford
13 years ago

Having it pointed out, it’s obvious that the whole politician-confronted-at-the-door-of-Parliament-House thing must be carefully staged, that they must be able to get inside without facing the cameras; after all, you hardly ever see really senior figures subjected to the supposed impromptu grilling. I might have caught on earlier, if it weren’t for the fact that you see so many embarrassingly inept performances which add an air of realism to the spectacleit seems hard to believe, for example, that the Coalition would purposefully have Wilson Tuckey walk in front of the cameras. All in all, it’s less a testament to the skill of the political puppet-masters as it is to the unthinking way in which weor at least Iallow political discourse to roll across the screen in front of us.

I agree with Absolute Crabb that the expert-flipping-through-a-report shot, while terribly naff, is not duplicitous in the same way as “doors duty”. I think most people are aware that these shots are there solely to fill the screen while the voice-over drones on, and it’s obvious from how stilted the performances are that the subjects are being directed by the reporters and crew. But nobody’s pretending that these interviews are anything but what they are; nobody’s pretending that the interviewee has been ambushed at the door as they arrive at work and relentlessly grilled, when in fact the interview has been prearranged and the reporter has been invited in.

As for Kerry O’Brien, part of his appeal is that he is first and foremost a journalist rather than a presenter: he is not there for his looks or his voice, but for his journalistic nous. He doesn’t seem to add a lot of airs and graces just because he’s on the telly. Presumably he behaves in a somewhat different manner in a formal situation than he does in an informal oneand for that matter, presumably he doesn’t wear a suit and tie when he has a quiet chat with friends eitherbut that doesn’t make his performance as a presenter fake. And it’s nothing like “doors duty”: conforming to social norms by behaving differently in different social contexts isn’t misleading anyone.

I disagree with Nicholas Gruen about supposedly “naive distinctions between truth and pretence or lie in thinking about the media”. I think you can and should make a clear distinction between those aspects of contrivance which are transparent to everyone, and part of social norms about how news is presented, and those like “doors duty” which are used by politicians and the media to dupe viewers into thinking that they are seeing something that they are not. That doesn’t mean you can’t question the desirability of those widely-understood norms, but I don’t think you should underplay the egregiousness of the latter offences by viewing them as more of the same.


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