SA Premier Don Dunstan’s relationship with the media could be volatile, but he also helped to shape its critical role in modern politics, according to Flinders academic Dr Ruth Starke (pictured).
With $5000 funding from an Australian Book Review Patrons’ Fellowship, Dr Starke’s project Media Don will track and analyse Dunstan’s involvement with the media.
Her research will draw on the extensive resources of the Dunstan Collection held in the Special Collections of the Flinders University Library, which include numerous scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and DVDs of Dunstan’s television appearances, as well as his personal correspondence and private library.
ABR Patrons’ Fellowships – Dr Starke’s is the fifth to be awarded – aim to reward outstanding Australian writers, to enhance ABR through the publication of major works of literary journalism, and to advance the magazine’s commitment to critical debate.
A charismatic politician with a strong social reform agenda, Dunstan was among the first Australian political figures to recognise fully the media’s role in informing and influencing public opinion, Dr Starke said.
His “firsts” included the appointment of press secretaries and media advisers, the creation of a media centre to monitor broadcasting and the use of government television advertising.
While some, particularly the parliamentary Opposition, saw the practices as politically motivated or sinister – Orwell’s Big Brother was invoked – they are now universal.
Dunstan used monitoring and polling to keep himself informed of the electorate’s knowledge of key issues, Dr Starke said, and also liked to know what the media was saying. He was not afraid to question perceived bias or inaccuracy; in press conferences, Dunstan would frequently challenge journalists on the quality and veracity of their sources.
“The thing that irritated him most was ill-informed criticism,” Dr Starke said.
The media, for its part, played a central role in the creation of the Dunstan persona – the bespectacled and conservatively dressed former QC who entered State politics went on to become a flamboyant and influential figure on the national stage.
While hostile press hastened his departure from office, Dr Starke said it did not mark the end of Dunstan’s media infatuation – in retirement he made a 10-part series for ABC-TV, The Dunstan Documentaries, as well as a TV cooking series, Fun in the Kitchen.
Dr Starke’s article will be published in the ABR early in 2013.