In the olden days, ministerial statements were made to Parliament rather than at a primary school in Adelaide/ a building site in Mackay/ wherever. When a report came out, it was tabled in the respective House and then distributed to journalists who were there (and not distributed to those who weren't). Those were the days when being a Full-time Press Gallery Journalist was Important, An Important Check Upon Those In Power, Fourth Estate etc.
Policy comes from diffuse sources. The broadcast media's division between the coverage of those sources, and the coverage of Parliament where the decisions are supposedly made, obscures our understanding more than it helps. Editors think they're offering broad coverage of issues and debates, but they're wrong about that too. Let's indulge press gallery journalists in their fantasy that policy doesn't matter, and look at what they really love writing about: leadership skullduggery.
The downfall of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister and his replacement with Julia Gillard was complex and caused by a range of factors, but it can be boiled down to:
- Rudd ran a dysfunctional Prime Ministerial office, rushing some announcements and slowing down others; which led to
- A lot of MPs who once supported the leader turned against him; and largely coincidentally
- Union leaders around the country decided he had to go - no threats, no ultimatum, the warning shot was fired between his eyes; which led to
- The challenger confronting the incumbent and telling him that numbers were against him, to the point where if he even contested the ballot he'd be slaughtered.
People inside political parties (not just the pollies) generally like publicity, but only in short, sharp, warm bursts. They hate the drawn-out process where rumours of instability are picked up by the media, which worsens the instability, which leads to more slavering headlines, etc. They hate this as much as journalists love it. What has happened in recent years is that the parties have outflanked the press gallery when it comes to leadership challenges, and that the press gallery has been too vain and too dumb to notice.
People who have attained leadership usually have the nous to keep enough people onside to ward off the narks and backstabbers, and it is notable that Rudd lacked the perception and guile to do that. The key step here is step 3, where union leaders far from Canberra turned dissatisfaction into action, and made caucus do what they told it to do.
Kevin Rudd did not become ALP Leader in 2006 by gaining the trust and admiration of his parliamentary colleagues. He became leader by outflanking them, not only via the populist route of morning television but through lobbying Labor powerbrokers who weren't and aren't in Parliament. He eventually convinced them that he should be leader instead of Beazley, and they told MPs who depended on them to vote Rudd over Beazley, no matter what their misgivings, hence Rudd became leader. It was not a spontaneous uprising within the caucus but the press gallery could only report it as such.
When it came time to replace Rudd, he was outflanked in a similar way. Labor powerbrokers - who didn't have to work with him every day on actual government work - wanted him to stay and so he did. Step 3 above was the crucial step in the downfall of the Rudd government, and nobody in the press gallery knew until after it passed.
People who have to deal with journalists regularly tend to work with their schedule. When such people don't it means that they regard some people as more powerful than the press gallery.
If you're going to announce/do something that you want to go into evening news bulletins and the following day's papers, you should get it done by mid-afternoon. Video footage has to be edited and positioned within a bulletin, with the journalist providing a summary. Newspaper articles have to be written and formatted so that the presses can be cranked up and papers delivered for the following morning. For most journalists "the 24 hour news cycle" does not extend beyond mid-afternoon. Journos whinge hard and long when a press release is issued, say, at 5pm on a Friday. Only radio stations, and the ABC with its evening news programs, take it seriously.
On 23 June 2010 this comfortable little schedule blew up. The press gallery still hasn't recovered, nor have they gotten over themselves and adjusted to reality.
Greg Jericho's The Rise of the Fifth Estate describes the process in detail. Just before 7pm, the ABC's Chris Uhlmann tweeted that Gillard was confronting Rudd and calling for a spill. Gillard and others who moved against Rudd had deliberately waited until after the press gallery deadline before bringing the matter to a head. At the same time, Labor MPs were informed by union leaders and other ALP heavies that the spill was on and that they were to vote for Gillard. This wasn't a sudden, spontaneous development, and to describe it as a caucus phenomenon was poor reporting. The move against Rudd had been planned meticulously over quite some time. The public aspect was only the final step in the process.
Paul Howes, in his interview on Lateline that night, was the wrong person to deliver this news. He was keen to get his face on the media in a way that older hands like Bill Ludwig or Joe de Bruyn weren't. Nobody outside the AWU (i.e. most of us) voted for that guy, the Tom Waterhouse of politics. Howes tried to create a sense of calm and order around an event that was shocking and disruptive to everyone not in on the secret. Instead, just looked like a smug jerk - doing himself no favours, nor a number of since-defeated Labor MPs, nor anyone else but Abbott and Rudd.
Howes, Ludwig, de Bruyn and others weren't members of Federal Parliament and hold their power bases by means other than broadcast media interviews. If anything, they diminish their power by overexposure to media. No press gallery journalist thought to question them, nor had any guarantee their calls would be returned. As with sport, the players only make themselves available after the game is over.
There are journalists who deal with unions extensively. Industrial journalists cover workplace issues and disputes, and deal with union leaders but rarely cover general federal political issues that don't directly relate to union advocacy. There is no record of press gallery journalists asking their industrial colleagues in early-mid 2010 if something was afoot regarding the federal Labor leadership.
The reason why the Rudd's 2012 leadership challenge was dead in the water was because Labor powerbrokers hadn't changed their minds. Rudd knew this, which is why he was reluctant to have the vote at a time not of his choosing. The press gallery had no right to claim that the numbers were close, it was bullshit and they didn't know what they were talking about.
The same thing happened six weeks ago. MPs like Simon Crean, Joel Fitzgibbon, or Richard Marles might be reasonably prominent in caucus but they are not Labor powerbrokers in any wider sense. Crean wasn't even much of a powerbroker when he was his party's parliamentary leader: as ACTU President in the 1980s, working on the Accord, he was more powerful across the labour movement before he entered Parliament than he has ever been since. Again, the Labor powerbrokers hadn't changed their minds, so it didn't much matter what Crean or anyone else said: Gillard was staying, and that was that. Again, Rudd knew it, and didn't even bother with the farce that caucus decides anything.
Again, the press gallery carried on kidding themselves about who makes the decisions on political leadership in this country. Not only the fall of Kevin Rudd, but also his rise, should have shown the press gallery and its supporters that their game has changed.
This isn't just a Labor thing, which non-Labor people can be forgiven for not understanding. Malcolm Turnbull had irritated his colleagues in the Parliamentary Liberal Party when he was its leader, but only when Liberal powerbrokers like Nick Minchin, Bruce McIver, David Clarke and others moved against him was he threatened. The resignation of Turnbull's frontbench was reported as though it was a cause of his downfall, when it was a symptom of a wider illness.
Abbott does nothing to threaten the positions of Coalition powerbrokers. He has not remade the party in his image as Howard did. Whenever Abbott supports someone in an internal party ballot, and those guys want someone else, someone else wins: just ask Patrick Secker and Gary Humphries. Abbott will be removed when he poses any threat to Liberal powerbrokers maintaining their power.
Full-time press gallery journalists currently report the output of the Opposition as though it was decisive: "Tony Abbott has announced that ...", as though you could take it to the bank. As though the link between what Tony Abbott says and what actually happens has proven to be clear and strong. There hasn't been any debate about policy or values within the Liberal Party, just a bit of media strategising within the Leader's office; watch what happens when the lid blows off that simmering pot. The press gallery have accepted the opacity of that office and commended them for being clever for doing so. Fuck that, and fuck everyone in the press gallery who thinks that way, as almost all of them do.
Nick Minchin is a private citizen who is not obliged to return journalists' calls. He speaks to them rarely, and almost never to those not employed by News Ltd. When he does, there is a strong correlation between his rare statements (e.g. against gay marriage and a conscience vote, against NBN) and what the Liberals do; far stronger than in the voluminous statements of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. So much for media coverage as the key to understanding politics.
Today, press gallery journalists still think they are Where The Action Is, despite many years of evidence to the contrary. They are confirmed in that opinion by their dull-witted editors, and by the boards of the organisations which currently employ them. When broadcast media laid off hundreds of journalists last year, the fact that very few jobs went from the press gallery was a sign that they'd botched it.
Today, full-time press gallery journalists insist that they should get credit for successfully predicting one-and-a-half challenges to Gillard despite social media jeers. There have been thousands upon thousands of press gallery stories about Labor ructions since the 2010 election, almost all have been sourced from within Parliament rather than across the broader power structures of Labor. A busted clock is right twice a day: which press gallery journalist can match that? The fact that only one-and-a-half predictions have come off, and that the expected result (Rudd regaining leadership) hasn't, means that any journalist seeking vindication might as well jump in the Lake.
It's true that there has been a lot of wise-after-the-event reporting on the leadership spills, but it isn't the place of journalism in a free society to present voters with faits-accompli. That's what journalists in dictatorships do: "the government has decided that ...", and that's that, no debate is sought or welcomed. We are part of the debate and we must be informed what's going on while the decisions are being made. This means that there might be more to the government of this country than the hubbub outside your little office, and a self-respecting journalist would go seek it.
Almost none of the real-world situations described above have much to do with the internet and social media.
Australian politics still needs to be covered, analysed and debated, but the role of the full-time press gallery is smaller than it was and may well disappear, at little real cost to the nation or its democracy. Thanks for reading this far: now kick back and listen to a happy tune from the days when the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery really was where the action is.