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Notes on how to dodge a scandal.

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Tuesday 11 April 2006

Martin Callinan, adviser to Kelvin Thomson, Shadow Minister for Public Accountability


Notes on How to Dodge a Scandal  


There are two ways Government's can avoid scandal. The first is to govern in a moral and responsible way. The second is to govern as you please and to deftly manage any scandalous consequences. 


The 'handle the scandal' option has become increasingly viable as Government's gain greater control of information and become better handlers of public perception. The key to managing a scandal is to understand the importance of 'relevance'. 


For a political scandal, it's the 'relevance' of a scandalous act to swing voters, in marginal seats, which matters most. And thus every effort to dodge a scandal is orientated around this idea, and is directed toward this audience. Though swing and non swing voters alike instinctively suppose that a crime is a crime; that negligence is negligence; and that, therefore, relevance must surely depend upon the truth. 


This is the ideal case in a court of law but the impact of a scandal depends strictly on the perception of the court of public opinion. This 'perceived' relevance is a 'grey' area in which Governments now employ unprecedented 'public relations' powers to wash their hands. 


So what exactly is the grey area and how do Government's make scandal soap? 


Let's take the example of a puppy sitting next to a pile of poo. He's guilty. But he's also a puppy, so we won't hold it against him. But, if you happened to step in that poo, then, that the puppy has a serious case to answer. Conversely, what if that puppy let you know he wanted to go outside? Well, we'd then be 'understanding' of his circumstances. Now, what if that puppy let you know that he wanted to go outside 'after' he pooed but 'before' your bare foot discovered that poo? 


Herein lays the possibility of washing your hands of your responsibilities. 


Scandal soap is a dishonesty-based product, but if there's no hard evidence about when that puppy pooed or when he wanted to go outside, the cunning puppy gets the benefit of your doubt; that he created; and so he gets away with it. The point being that what matters most is the 'understanding' of the 'relevance' of the facts, not the facts themselves. 


At the first whiff of an impending scandal, Governments act to insulate themselves from the issue and, if the issue can't be 'made to go away', they then buy as much time as is needed to develop or 'soap' public perceptions in their favour. 


Governments can insulate themselves by, severing evidentiary links with the scandalous act, by tidying up paper trails and by avoiding any further contact with certain people or certain issues. Though, by turning their back on a nascent scandal, Government's do run the risk that the problem, unsupervised, will worsen. 


Governments seek to control an unfolding saga as much as possible in order to inoculate swing voters against adverse political interpretations of the available facts. 


Control is usually secured by directing public focus toward a third party, such as an enemy, a scape goat, a patsy, an ongoing police investigation or, a politically benign public inquiry. 


The subliminal and elementary intent of all comments and actions is to reduce the relevance of the scandal. 


Of fundamental importance is the need to keep each day's 'news' 'anywhere' below the radar of swing voters. 


Oddly, this is more important than the need have a consistent story; as long as contradicting yourself or being proved wrong on technical issues, also occurs below the radar of swing voters. 


Stretching the issue out over time dilutes the message, so that the people that matter aren't troubled by it. The scandal can thus trot along harmlessly until boredom begins to work in the scandalous Government's favour. Notions of sympathy and empathy are crucial. So, from the outset, 'innocent puppy' impersonations are a must. 


Further options include painting yourself as the victim, demonising your accusers, chaining yourself to your subordinates to obligate their ongoing support and arguing that the scandalous act "doesn't make any sense" which, on one hand is true and, on the other, is exactly why it is a scandal. 


By dissembling, deferring, arguing sub point by sub point, creating wiggle room and employing linguistic subtleties, Governments effectively undermine 'relevance' by confusing, dulling and obfuscating the issue.  


And should truly threatening facts emerge, then explicit down-playing their relevance is the final option. By popularising the idea that 'no one cares', that the public is 'not interested', Governments openly push the most basic idea that will keep them in power. 


Whether you've had sexual relations with someone you shouldn't have, or you've been reckless as to whether 290 million Australian dollars was provided to a regime known to support terrorism and in doing so violated your own Criminal Code, undermined the work of your own Navy, and the honest work of your Allies, scandal soap works; and it works by dissolving relevance.  


Guests on this program:

Martin Callinan  



Adviser to Kelvin Thomson, the Federal Shadow Minister for Public Accountability.