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24 September, 2003  
Roadmap to better intercourse

What fresh hell is this? An all dancing, all singing judiciary, media savvy and bristling to be interviewed. Hair-curling plans afoot….

Poor old Gleeson CJ must be exhausted confecting all those pale and wan smiles for the photographers. He has been hurling himself into a marathon string of newspaper interviews as part of his determination that the centenary of the High Court be thoroughly celebrated.

The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review have all been granted audiences, where Smiler has dilated upon topics covering the evils of self-represented litigants, beastly attacks on the judges, the need for crche facilities at the bars and the general splendour of the High Court itself.

It is one thing for the Chief Justice to throw himself into this riveting round of Qs & As with the media, but what about judicial figures lower down the food chain?

Fortunately they have now been supplied with a handy booklet prepared by an outfit called, rather bluntly, Strategic, which is retained by the Judicial Conference of Australia.

The booklet, Working with the Media; A Guide for Australian Judges and Magistrates, surfaced at the JCA’s recent colloquium in Darwin.

It provides a set of principles by which judicial types can “engage” with the media. According to a speech given to the assemblage of stunned judges and magistrates at the JCA corroboree by Tracey Cain, one of the leading lights behind Strategic, the media guide is to be followed up by a three pronged “communications campaign”:

“Environmental research – assessing the levels of knowledge and understanding and what messages are resonating. “Education – media training for judges, briefings for the media, packages for schools, general community materials. “Information – media correction and issues management, web based information and position sheets.”

Justice Sheller, the chairman of the JCA, met with Attorney General “Rowdy” Williams to try and extract some Commonwealth money for what could turn out to be an expensive exercise.

Rowdy turned him down, no doubt conscious of the cost of “media training” all those judges with many needing multiple sessions to perfect their on-camera personas.

Still, the JCA and Strategic are not easily dissuaded. As Tracey put it:

“We are now looking at options for the future such as State based funding, or how the campaign can be broken down into affordable yet effective stages.”

Working with the Media is chock full of delicious tips, not to mention rousing sentiments. Its aim is:

“To provide a broad framework for more positive and efficient intercourse between the Australian judiciary as an institution, and the news media.”

There are quite a number of torturous issues to negotiate, not least of which is how should a judge identify a journalist?

Answer: ” you will usually find that journalists travel in groups you will recognise them because they always sit at the back of the room, often arrive late and leave early, carry a small spiral notebook, and are constantly looking for someone to give them some background.”

How should a judge decide whether to “engage” with a journalist?

The answer is a series of further questions that sensible judges would pose to themselves:

” What can I achieve through engagement? Will my involvement introduce balance and accuracy? Do I have enough expertise to engage in this situation? What can go wrong if I do not engage or if I do engage? ”

And if the decision is made to “engage” then there must be further wresting with other burning issues, such as:

“Key message development Keep the messages in front of you at all times.” “Research Ask yourself repeatedly why you are involved in this story and what you want to achieve through that involvement.” “Translating a legal message into ‘media speak’ The media grab needs to be short, sharp and simple. Remember, the average age of the target audience of most metropolitan newspapers is between 8 and 15”

It gets better. There is advice for handling some of the trickiest assignments in life.

How to approach a journalist:

“Do not approach a journalist unless you have a credible story. Make sure you know what you want to say”

How to write a media release:

“Do not provide too much information”

Standard interview techniques:

“Make sure you are prepared, calm and without distraction. Be positive, upbeat and convincing you must win credibility and respect.”

For radio interviews:

“Speak slowly and clearly Remember to breathe – stand up so that the air flows more freely”

For television interviews:

“Wear plain clothes of solid colours avoid stripes or bright patterns Do not wear a hat or sunglasses unless relevant to the story”

But back to Tracey Cain’s speech to the throng of judges in Darwin.

After mentioning a mysterious something called, ” the ‘story clock’ formula to new areas of journalism”, the alarmed judges were warned:

“Stand by for a more personal approach to judicial officers and to stories about the workload and efficiency of the court system.”

She talked of the “murky waters of Australian journalism” and how the media guide provides a “fairly detailed roadmap”.

Maybe judges should be aware of the even murkier waters of PR and “issues management”.

If they get into the clutches of a communications consultancy there is a risk that the pressure will be on to get everyone down to the file clerks in the court registries “media trained”. There’ll be focus groups till the cows come home. There’ll be “strategies” and “roadmaps” galore. And the cost, in all likelihood, will be diabolical.

Forget the rules of engagement. Bring back the Kilmuir Rules.