Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On the campaign trail

As I get on a bus that's parked on the runway at Brisbane Airport, part-way through what will soon become a 77 hour week, I feel an overwhelming sense of joy sparked by what would be, in any other circumstance, an unremarkable sight.

The bus has a toilet.

Not only does the bus have a toilet, but I have a spare two minutes to take a leak.

You wouldn't expect this to be a moment to mark in your personal history books, but this is one of the times that has begun to stand out, when I think to myself ... this is what it feels like to be a journalist.

Not having time to relieve yourself, or eat, or drink, or change clothes, or close your eyes for more than thirty seconds, until you're absolutely sure that you have extensively covered the issues of the day. That's when you know.

Three regional tours with major parties have led up to those final few days, and it's left me in a coffee-fuelled political bubble, with a significantly depleted sense of my whereabouts, that's bred both a vapid nonchalance for the lack of control over my life and zombie-like modus operandi to write story after story, regardless of what hour of the day it is.

Election day is fast approaching and the job is not over, despite my tolerance running at a now dangerously low level. But it wasn't always like this.

I'm told I'll be sent on the state election campaign through an emphatic email from my boss, which explains where I'll need to be and when, through the following:

Location: unknown
Destination: unknown
Duration: unknown

What my boss has just done, albeit in a rather melodramatic, CIA-esque way, is summed up the forward planning information I'll be given not just for that day, but for the entire campaign.

Likewise, the information dished out by campaign organisers isn't much help either, often the text messages consist purely of "Pack for 3 nights. Bring wet weather gear"

That lack of information makes packing a bit of a challenge.

Turns out, I wasn't far off the mark

The itineraries of political parties are a closely guarded secret. This obviously helps minimise protests and unfavourable interference, but from the point of view of the journalists, it creates an annoying and inconvenient question mark to work around. Not unlike a Russian roulette contiki tour. It's particularly annoying for radio journos, who are generally expected to contribute a story for every hour.

As a relatively green journo, the thought of being sent away outside the state's south east for the first time is something that provokes anxiety for me. I have the overwhelming sense that my employer is actually investing money in a trip, and I have to do a good job to justify the expense. But while at times it's unsettling, it quickly becomes the steepest learning curve I've been on since I started working ten months ago.

The first trend I notice is the race amongst journalists to be the first to tweet. Tweet the location, tweet the policy, tweet what you eat, whatever. The party leader begins by holding a press conference about his economic strategy in a Brisbane high-rise, and before bags are even put down, people are racing to the window to snap a twitpic.

It's part of the reason why it's better to follow journalists on Twitter instead of news services. They're the ones being sent to the job, so if they're invested enough in social media, you'll get parts of the story from them before they even file information.

Once the 45 minute press conference is over, we're given a window of time to file stories before a flight, the destination of which is still undisclosed.

This is where the journalists tend to be broken up into their respective fields. The TV journos rush off to film their pieces-to-camera and edit vision, and the print journalists begin bashing away on their keyboards, while intermittently throwing back coffee like 18 year olds with mouthfuls of Bacardi Breezer at a One Direction concert.

If you're a radio journalist, depending on how close to the top of the hour it is ... you just shit yourself, and start cutting up audio grabs like Edward Scissorhands on crack.

You basically need to condense the work you'd normally complete across the entire afternoon, into a few hours. The story needs to evolve across the afternoon, and you need to think ahead and compensate for the three or more hours you'll be in the air.

At those early stages, it's a kind of two-speed work environment, of either working frantically to file as much as you can, or sitting around at airports, on the bus, or in hotels waiting for the next announcement.


We touch down in Cairns in the first leg of this unAmazing Race, are each given our room keys, and that's basically it for the day. The hotel is on the more expensive side ... but one feature in particular takes my eye from the moment I walk in the door.

I'm later advised work does not reimburse
us for alcohol, but it was worth it

At night, you're sent sly text messages that will generally look like this:

"Meet the bus outside the hotel at X-o'clock"

The mystery tour continues

The next morning, Cairns turns on a great display of split personalities in its weather.

From this:

To this:

Within the space of 15 minutes

Ironically enough, the day's announcement will be around tourism. It's at this point where I realise the shameless extent to which political parties will plan their announcements around the interests of TV crews and photographers.

The press conference takes place on the upper deck of a small boat, in front of a cruise ship. The vessel bobs up and down and journalists eventually find their feet as the wind blows in the rain from outside, and the mere sight of the cruise ship makes me yearn for a holiday.

The main thing is, there's a ship in the background.

It's this kind of photo-opp electioneering that attracts criticism of our leaders. They spend sometimes only a fleeting few hours in our regions, unveil a policy targeted at a local issue, and jet-set off to the next town to put on the next hat.

And the journalists have no choice but to follow them.

The rampant photo-opping is far from over.

In Mackay ... the mystery bus tour takes us out of town

 And off-road

We're in the middle of a cane farm, approaching midday in the sweltering sun, and it's all for this shot.

Versatility. That's what it's about. Whether it be farmer, fisher, businessman, scientist, boatie, tradie, teacher, parent, nanny, pizza chef, waiter, factory worker, baby-kisser, the leaders will wear any hat in their bid to snatch the votes of that particular demographic.

For 20 minutes, the journalists huddle round the leader with their microphones, while the heat claims at least one life. The media advisor's recorder goes into meltdown as the screen is baked.

On the TV that night, there is a tractor in the background. Mission accomplished.

Likewise, certain things are more likely to get on the news than others. Children, for example, are always a big winner.

I can hold more babies than you

I can teach more pupils than you

Who are your parents voting for?

As are fluffy animals.

Giant novelty items

Although unfortunately protesters are onto that one as well.

Uni students are not exempt

I was later told this microscope wasn't turned on

Every announcement is carefully planned with TV crews in mind.

Less so, radio journalists.

During the travel, I attended press conferences in some locations that made for stellar radio, including but not limited to:

- Industrial tin sheds in the rain

- Community halls with the ambience of 90-odd people gabbering in the background

- Less than 10 metres from the ocean on a stormy, windy day

- A small boat in torrential rain

- Main roads

- Rock concerts

(okay, that last one was a lie. But if it had pretty lighting effects and/or puppies, it really wouldn't surprise me.)


The Holy Grail

The mother of all opportunistic photo planning situations, the unicorn of the media advisor's world, the most sought after by far, is the natural disaster.

The final week of the campaign delivers a rather savage storm that rips through parts of Townsville, creating a photo-opp no electioneering political leader worth their salt could afford to ignore.

The stop over in Townsville was almost certainly a diversion from the planned itinerary, given its rushed nature. It was also deemed the low point of the campaign.

The visit formed the low point of the campaign for me, for somewhat selfish reasons. As the party leader hurriedly made his way through a swamped junior rugby club, a handful of overzealous, competitive journalists followed him with their microphones. I was stupid enough to trudge through ankle-deep water in a bid to make sure I didn't miss even the faintest murmer of "that's terrible."

At this stage, being in the final days of campaigning, the party was trying its absolute best to squish in as many events and appearances as it could, so providing journalists with actual allocated time to file stories, dropped to the bottom of the priorities list.

I sulked and trudged around in cold, wet shoes and socks in the rain and wind before writing stories for the rest of the day, and it was only until almost 8pm that night that I got a chance to dive into my suitcase and change them.

It sounds awful and I know it's selfish given what the residents of that suburb have to deal with. But my tolerance is wearing thin, and I begin to hate the campaign with every squelching step.


When the photo shoot backfires

There are times when the carefully constructed plans of a team of media advisors are sent flying out the window, and the more cynical reporters amongst the media scrum rub their hands with glee.

While it's arguably a little facetious to gain enjoyment from these electioneering misfires, it stems from the resent journalists feel from being dragged to carefully planned event after event, like some kind of colour-by-numbers journalism that will manufacture a feel good story.

With this in mind, it's understandable that watching a political leader awkwardly deal with a mishap to the cringes of media advisors arouses at least a slight smirk from the media scrum.

One such misfire occurred outside Rockhampton, during an announcement of new funding for volunteer emergency services.

Sorry, where are we?

The press conference takes place at a rural fire brigade, but it's quickly hijacked by a disgruntled volunteer who persues a line of questioning about bureaucratic deficiencies in the services. He is frustrated that the proposal will do little to fix the problems.

The moment the cameras turn their lenses away from the leader, there is panic amongst the party's organisers. The headline is no longer "Leader Pledges $X-million for Emergency Services" ... but "Leader Accosted by Disgruntled Firey."

Almost every day, the announcements are upstaged by not only a physical distraction, but events happening elsewhere in the state. Be it a candidate who's never stepped foot inside his electorate, a candidate who's posted racist Facebook status updates, a candidate who's been to a swingers party, or a candidate who ran a porn site, there is never a day when the leaders are questioned only on their policy announcement.

Similarly, the leaders sometimes have to grin and bear having cameras shoved in their faces at the most inopportune times. The price of relying so heavily on the media as a vehicle to portray their tightly controlled image, is seemingly having those same cameras follow you round when you'd prefer privacy.

It's not until voting day, when the race for the best picture has intensified, that this focus on the leader's every move delivers some palpable awkwardness.

Campbell Newman arrives with his wife to cast his vote, and the dozen or so journalists all merge into a 12-headed monster with camera lenses for eyes and microphones for arms. The couple is denied even one second of privacy during their entire visit which, thanks to a rather long queue for absentee votes, turns out to be longer than they had anticipated.

After the deed has been done, they sit down at a picnic table to enjoy the traditional election day sausage, as a wall of cameras flash in their eyes, and the tiny red lights of news cameras remind them every bite is likely to end up on the evening news.

It tastes like ... awkwardness


No time to file

It's in those final few days that things get hectic. There are rapid-fire appearances at functions, along with multiple announcements every day, with zero opportunity to file stories.

At this point in the campaign, I am becoming frustrated with the way the leaders are pandering to television journalists, creating time for them to file and dropping them off at appropriate locations, while the rest of the bus is left to their own devices.

I get used to filing stories in transit, on the bus, in a pub, or while walking from one place to the next. I begin to resent not being afforded time to do my job and file a story at the airport in Rockhampton as I'm being rushed onto a plane.

As the last of the media team board, I am on the phone to my studio yelling a report down the phone on the runway, knowing that I will likely be in the air for a good three hours.

The portable office becomes a familiar site


Photographers Vs journalists

Throughout university, I was warned of a competitiveness between journalists, and have since found this to be generally a complete crock. The campaign trail was the first time I've come across a kind of professional lack of courtesy, but it was only in the more high-stakes environment of the final few days.

Photographers don't take kindly to the sight of microphones in their shots. If you ask me, in such a public event as an election campaign, this attitude is bizarre and unjustified. It's not a portrait shoot with absolute control over the lighting and scenery. Likewise, I'm not enjoying the benefits of a soundproof booth with complete control over background noise.

So when you can flick your camera to silent and cease clicking through my audio, I'll happily remove my mic flag from your shot. Until then, just ... suck it.

While I do love a good bitch, truth be told it was really only one photographer that consistently got narky about the mic business. In those instances my Where's Wally-like game of spotting my mic flag on each station's evening news and in the subsequent paper coverage was stepped up a notch, and angry motioning for me to lower the equipment was met with a blank stare as I moved it slightly higher.


The two camps

There emerged a common theme of gossip amongst journalists about the difference between the way the two parties approached the campaign. It was impossible for me not to notice when I switched busses mid-way through. Anna Bligh's entourage conducted a generally well-oiled affair, with travel arrangements running according to plan and events that ran smoothly.

Likewise, the Premier seemed at ease on her bus, and seemed to be relishing the travel. This triggered criticism that she was indulging in a farewell tour, and there were times when I found myself expecting things to be more frantic, given what was at stake. But it wasn't just the way the campaign was conducted, but her rapport with the journalists. There seemed to be more opportunities to grab a one-on-one chat, as well as unplanned press conferences in response to breaking news. On the whole, Anna Bligh was consistently accessible. In fairness, this could easily be attributed to her status as a seasoned politician.

In contrast, the LNP ran what seemed to be a tighter ship. While Campbell Newman made the effort to chat to journalists on the private flights, he very rarely caught the bus, opting instead to be driven by car to each location. There was very minimal opportunity to request comment outside the 'official' press conferences ... and even they seemed to be limited. In the final days, to fifteen minutes or so.

Brisbane Times journo Bridie Jabour summed it up best when she said "There is one overarching thought that is constantly at the forefront of his and everyone in his team's mind: "Don't stuff it up." "

It's not until the final days of the campaign that Mr Newman seems to let go and show more of himself on the campaign trail. There was a particularly strange incident where he played Eminem's 'Lose Yourself' over the plane's PA system, which got me thinking maybe it's best if he didn't personalise the campaign.

In those final few days, I started having unusual thoughts. As a journo, we're constantly detaching ourselves from the situation and trying to remain impartial. This is particularly important with political reporting.

But in the closing days, as I watch Newman engage with members of the public at barbecues and morning teas, I don't see a political figure, but a charismatic person. I quickly slap myself out of that frame of mind and remember, that's his job.

I combat my mild Stockholm Syndrome with a drink as I trawl through public comments on internet articles that night, and remind myself of the vigorous debate from both sides that is being stirred up be his every move.


When is it over

Thanks to the way things work out in the final week, I am allocated to stalk Mr Newman on election day, along with election night at the party's function at the Hilton in Brisbane.

Despite my fears of a 24 hour shift, it's a relatively subdued day, with the afore-meantioned awkward sausage-eating and some general campaigning.

Surprisingly, the evening takes a similar turn, but it's an interesting environment to be embedded in.

Scores of LNP supporters gather around monitors at the Hilton, scoffing between swigs of champagne and patting each other on the back before the race has even been called.

There's not really a need to call it though, with polls pointing to a bloodbath that turns out to be worse than anyone thought.

What will soon become a victory stage is prepared in the ballroom as the crowd grows louder and more boisterous.

The Labor seats are dropping like flies, as they cheer and applaud.

The inevitable eventuates, and as Anna Bligh makes her concession speech, there is jeering and loud heckles.

"Oh piss off" yells one man.

She thanks her media advisors who have worked so hard.

"Yeah now they don't have a job" jibes another.

"You lied" snarls another.

Soon enough, the crowd seeps into the ballroom and I try to move to the front, knowing that I cannot record audio from the split.

After waiting a good ten minutes amid chanting and slow-clapping, I am elbowed and squashed by a crowd of about 600 Liberal National supporters, and realise it is not consistent with my definition of a good time.

But as I notch up my 76th hour of work for the week, I realise it's soon going to be over, and I am just hours away from shotting enough alcohol to erase at least some of the memories.


The collective sigh of relief

It sounds ungrateful, but I have to work quite hard to prevent the final few days from tarnishing the entire campaign.

I haven't had that feeling of being so hopelessly out of depth since my first month on the job saw me sent to cover the Floods Inquiry. There are constantly times when I feel out of depth, but not Mariana Trench out of depth. And I think that feeling is important. It reinforces that I am still learning.

I'm approaching the one year mark since I began full time work, and it's refreshing to know the long list of things that are new and scary has only grown marginally shorter.

There were times when I hated sleeping in another hotel bed and just wanted to be home, and the long hours fed my general cynicism for the world like petrol on a fire, but it's an amazing thing to be able to put on my resume. Not only that, but being able to travel to new parts of the state is something I've failed to do after being in Queensland for more than five years. It gave me a huge sense of satisfaction being able to do it on the job, and witness a significant event in Queensland's political history.

I just never want to hear the Can-do theme song on a fifteen minute loop again.