‘They know where the quality resides in this country,’ explained a joint email from a bevy of Fairfax Media editors, by way of explaining to their increasingly nervous staff why two of the Sydney Morning Herald’s best-known names, Lenore Taylor and Katherine Murphy, had decided to jump ship and join Australia’s newest political organ, the Guardian’s online Australian edition.

Leaving aside the observation that if it takes four senior editors to write one such email, it is no surprise the SMH is struggling to make ends meet, we might like to point out an alternative reason for the hiring. Could it be that, along with the recruiting of Paul Chadwick, outgoing director of editorial policies at the ABC, the Aussie Guardian is simply looking to employ journalists it believes, rightly or wrongly, to be of a mindset that will colour their musings with an appropriate green tinge to appeal to the leftist fantasies and prejudices of their hoped-for inner-city readers?

In doing so, eco-squillionaire Graeme Wood’s latest investment risks catching the same disease that has blighted both the ABC and the Sydney Morning Herald of late; namely, a notable decline in ratings and/or readership. Indeed, this week the ABC ’fessed up that many of its ‘balanced’ political offerings have recently suffered from decreasing audiences; a massive 14 per cent downturn in the case of Barrie Cassidy’s Insiders on Sunday mornings.

As the shenanigans of Julia Gillard’s Labor government become more evident by the day, those traditional unwavering apologists for metropolitan sophisticates are forced to either defend the indefensible (and in the process risk tarnishing their own reputations) or break ranks. This dilemma will only intensify over the next few months, as it is clear that, despite the Prime Minister’s assertion to the contrary, our government is in full-blown electioneering mode.

Added to which — in the case of the ABC — serious competition is now being served up by Sky News. With shows like Mr Cassidy’s and Tony Jones’ Q&A competing for eyeballs with any number of similar formats on Sky, viewers now have the choice of which ‘expert opinions’ they prefer to listen to. Only the other night, viewers who assume Peter van Onselen to be soft on Labor will have been startled by his passionate call for Wayne Swan to resign.

Meanwhile, over at Q&A, among the usual line-up of stand-up comedians, rap artists and pop musicians who struggle to articulate anything other than platitudes and feel-good slogans, viewers are accustomed to informed comments such as: ‘So personally, it may be naive, I’d take all the money from the mining tax and throw it into renewables’ receiving sustained applause. Indeed, when the Institute of Public Affairs’ impressive James Paterson (see Diary, page v) dared to suggest that one shouldn’t necessarily ‘take applause on Q&A as a representative sample of the Australian population’, the frostiness that came out of the TV set was enough to chill any number of bottles of chardonnay.

Plaques and pencil cases

Both sides of politics have for many years treated ‘government information’ campaigns as a neat way of getting glossy, professional advertising out to the public without having to pay for it. In order to justify the ad spend, governments must demonstrate that the advertising is not political, but rather informational. Fridge magnets, anyone?

Hence we had the recent $20 million NBN ad campaign, with its ‘informational’ green squiggle. We had $70 million tax dollars spent on spruiking the carbon tax, and we have the current ludicrous example of the $5.5 million dollar Schoolkids bonus ad campaign; necessary to ‘inform’ parents that a substantial chunk of money (up to $820) is automatically being deposited into their accounts. You beauty! Research, however, demonstrated a ‘very low level of awareness’ of this middle-class welfare scheme. It is easy to imagine an irate John McTernan tearing his hair out, swearing loudly at his advertising underlings that ‘we’re paying all these effin’ bribes and nobody effin’ knows it’s us!’

According to Families Minister Jenny Macklin, however, the latest research shows that rather than being unaware, ‘many parents are confused about all of the support which may be available to them’. Oh dear. Ms Macklin’s nifty solution? To take the campaign directly into the schoolyard itself with free pencil cases, rulers, sharpeners and so on all displaying an overtly political message, courtesy of the taxpayer. And if schoolkids still haven’t got the message, there’ll soon be plaques praising the Gillard government adorning each freshly-built BER school hall. What next? David Gonski lunch boxes?