02 May 2013

Shadows on the press gallery wall

This started as a response to this piece by Margo Kingston and that piece by "James Evans", but it has grown to the point where I will have to host it here.

For those of you who suffer nosebleeds from long blogposts: what follows is about 1300 words, including a quote.

Part of the change that has taken place in journalism over recent years involves niche specialisation. Take, for example, someone who works in public health, and who does a bit of journalism in that area as a sideline. Let's imagine that person has to come to Canberra, or one of the state/territory parliaments once or twice a year to cover particularly big debates/legislation/committee hearings/other parliamentary business relevant to their area. Under current Press Gallery Committee (PGC) rules practice that person has Buckley's of attaining the privileges of the Press Gallery.

Take another perspective: you're press secretary to the Health Minister, and you want to invite the person described above to a particular announcement/ presser. You should be able to issue that person the sort of pass that is issued to anyone who visits a Minister, but you can't - if the PCG President finds out someone's practising Random Acts of Journalism on 'their turf' without permission, there'll be hell to pay.

With all due respect to the institution and tradition of the Press Gallery, fuck that.

With the shift from FOI ("why do you need this information?") to Open Government ("why shouldn't I have that information?"), I think the best solution is to remove the standing order that prohibits note-taking in the public galleries. Anyone who isn't out to do harm should be able to rock up to their Parliament and record what's going on. This applies to Craig Reucassel's points about satire, too.

I'm not and have never been a journalist, but I have visited Parliament a few times. The first time was when my Year 10 class visited what was then Parliament House (now the Museum of Australian Democracy). We were warned sternly that we must not take notes in the public gallery. Our teachers had set us assessment tasks that required recording observations. Some kids simply disobeyed the instruction, which set Parliamentary attendants into conniptions. Others sat for a while, got an answer to a question, then left the public gallery to make notes in the hall outside, and then returned to the debate to make other observations, going in and out like fiddlers' elbows. This too upset the attendants, even though the damage to Australian democracy from that visit can barely be detected. Across the chamber, press gallery journos passed notes to one another and giggled.

I'm not just focused on this because I'm a Sydneysider - but real estate, or the lack of it, is an issue for the press gallery. The PGC Committee has expressed concern about that to the Parliament and it is a factor in their decision-making. When Michelle Grattan left Fairfax she had to reapply for a press gallery pass, and while her years of service counted in her favour the PGC were seriously concerned that there was no office space for The Conversation.

There is no reason why real estate should be a factor limiting the number of people who report on Parliament. The Australian Football League has four times more journalists accredited to it than in the Federal press gallery. It imposes no requirement for AFL journos to have their offices in any one fixed location, nor even for journalism to be a reporter's full time job. Parliament conducts much of its business in Parliament House Canberra, but not all of it; just as all AFL is not played at the MCG, those who cover federal politics should be more decentralised than they are.

Let's not pretend practical considerations are the sole factor in decision-making. When Stephen Mayne ran Crikey he applied for admission to the budget lockup. The Treasurer has absolute discretion to approve/reject access to the lockup, and Costello rejected Mayne. It's telling that no press gallery journos stood up for Mayne. Mayne was unsuccessful in joining the press gallery, but after he sold Crikey to former SMH editor Eric Beecher, doors opened to the publication.

The decision by current PGC President David Speers against Callum Davidson shows that snobbery has not dissipated. Independent Australia isn't a news outlet because real news outlets have journalists in the press gallery, and because it doesn't have any journalists in the press gallery it can't have press gallery accreditation.

The decisions to admit The Conversation (Grattan), The Guardian (Lenore Taylor, Katharine Murphy) and The Global Mail (Mike Seccombe, Michael Bowers) to the press gallery, as well as Karen Middleton's to Margo Kingston, were based on who those outlets employed. There was no serious assessment of news-versus-commentary, it was sentimentality and The Old Mates Act. This is decision-making on a journo's personal brand; not on some arse-covering, half-baked assessment about the nature of the employer. Speers' response is in breach of the various non-binding journo codes for one simple reason: it is dishonest, and slides around the truth. The decision to reject Davidson and Independent Australia was based on snobbery and fear - fear not of any deterioration in standards, but of being shown up by a blow-in. This situation cannot last. Good and sensible people should do nothing to prop it up.

The idea that a formally constituted and arraigned press gallery acts as some sort of quality control measure over journalists and journalism is such utter bullshit that no good thing can be built upon it. The herd mentality in the press gallery means that they mostly write pretty much the same story, so anyone complaining about copyright breach would be a bit like calling the fire brigade to an arsonists' club. If the Press Council and ACMA are 'toothless tigers', and yet any action beyond those powers is 'Stalinist', then what can anyone expect from Speersy and his jolly crew?

Surely any serious breach of whatever Journalists' Code - written or unwritten - would result in reprisals that were subtle yet devastating, Pinteresque.

The PGC's major task is to organise a booze-up when Canberra is at its coldest. Apart from that it has no power to improve parliamentary journalism, nor any substantial ability to correct breaches of, um, anything really. Like any institution that is both officious and largely powerless, the appropriate response is to jeer at it until it inevitably keels over.

It was a real shame that Margo Kingston wrote:
I am also not adverse to a requirement that the applicant has previously worked as a journalist because, among other things, ethical questions are acute in reporting politics.
Andrew Bolt would be eligible and I wouldn't. Christopher Skase worked as a journalist and his handling of ethical questions is a matter of record.

The Press Gallery is a restriction on trade for a profession that desperately needs to be able to trade without a license from old-school employers. It artificially inflates the value of those employers and is a demonstrable and significant barrier to new entrants. It should be possible to bust that cartel without making political journalism worse than it is. In fact, I'd suggest the only way to improve the standard of Australian political journalism, the only way to give it a future, is to take it from the feebly grasping hands of the Press Gallery Committee.

I could have sent the above to Speers, if his proposals to Call For Submissions into the future of the press gallery could have been taken seriously - instead, here it is on the blogoweb where he'll never find it.


  1. So I guess a free lance journalist has no hope of gaining admittance.

    If Gillard wins the next election then perhaps this is one area she should give some attention. It's not like she has many friends there.

  2. Snobbery+inferiority complex+mortgages+private school fees=exclusivity

    Also justifies the wanker Australian hack who said to me,im on t.v and youre not!

    Good golly Miss Molly....who raised you?

    Great to see the classy Speers and team panel ,in a gentle and fatherly way ,expose that I.p.a hack in how much of a charlatan he really is....

    Softly and sweetly!

    Thats .what you do with the narcissistic,crazy,political son eh...?

    If guys like that are part of the club,its dubious to say the least.

  3. Spot on Mr Elder. Again.

  4. So on one hand we have an american citizen determining who will be our next government through his ownership of most of our media in this country and on the other hand we have the journalistic "profession" stopping anyone who doesn't fit the mold from gaining access to our own parliament. What kind of a democracy have we allowed to develop in this country. Free speech is exactly that free to have an opinion. The Labor party complains about not being fairly represented in the media.. its bloody obvious to anyone with some semblance of an education that the media has decided that Tony Abbott will be our next PM. It is what is NOT reported that is the sad fact. Independent Australia is one of the very few media (yes media) outlets that reports what News Limited will not allow to be reported and follows through with the rest of the story. Your article says that if someone was to meet with a press secretary posing as a "citizen" there would be hell to pay? What kind of hell and how could stopping any australian from reporting on any conversation with an elected official be justified in our democracy..?

  5. Groucho Marx had the right attitude to clubs like the Press Gallery.

    The fact that you aren't a journalist is to you and your reader's benefit. You've no need to join that club either.

    Jacqueline Maley is a member of that club and look what benefit accrues. Can't read more than but a few monosyllabic lines without her mind wandering. You're cutting reposte to her moronic tweet applies to virtually the entire body of her work and that of most of her peers. Speers et al are all cut from the same dumb it down and play up the conflict cloth. Light entertainment perhpas on a good day, but no help in enlightenment.

    The debate as you've highlighted is not about expansion of membership of a moribund club, but how best to circumvent it altogether so that those passionate about telling the real stories no matter what club they may belong or not belong to can achieve the access required to do that important service for our democracy.

    That is a bit more complex question though. Freedom to take notes in the chambers would be a negligible benefit as anyone can watch it and record it in real time over the net. It is the access to the private areas of Parliament House that is the only real bauble the PG can offer it's members (apart from the piss-ups, never forget the piss-ups).

    It's true that much of import to Federal Politics happens outside of the big house, but the goings on in Canberra are vitally important too. Far too important to be left to the group-thinkers of the gallery. Finding a way to bypass the gallery to achieve that access is going to require a political solution. The Fifth Estate will need to lobby the politicians directly and almost certainly in direct competition to counter-lobbying from the club trying to maintain its exclusivity. They'll win eventually, but the timeframe is uncertain.

    1. Let's hope the PM doesn't give any long or complicated answers to wee Jacqueline on Sunday.

      Probably best for Gillard to just answer 'dunno' to everything. Maley can then shrug it off with another 'big deal' article explaining why it doesn't matter that our leaders have hollow blocks atop their shoulders.

    2. Ratsack says "anyone can watch it and record it in real time over the net". The televising of Parliament is in the hands of the two channels (Sky News and C-Span) which last time I looked were basically under the umbrella of the Murdoch Corporation. The juxtaposition of broadcasts between the two is often to the detriment of viewers. Yes, the ABC does broadcast proceedings but has a strict cut off time of 3.00 p.m. often when Question Time is involved in some heavy discussion (or another dreary and abusive monologue in a sham No Confidence motion), very frequently showing the more boring QT in the Senate instead of the House.
      I see no reason why taxpayers' money should go any way at all into subsidising the press gallery (SMALL CAPITALS for small-mindedness). The rent they pay is laughable, the privileges they receive are many.
      Why should anonymous membership of a body which receives any taxpayer benefit be allowed?
      Why isn't the open reporting of the happenings in a Parliament in a "democracy" an allowable occupation for any member of the public?
      To end on a snide note, there is also the question of the contribution and motivation of other benefactors to the press gallery, particularly in relation to the press club events where food and top quality wines flow fairly freely and it is questionable whether members' contribution would go any way to meet costs if properly costed.

    3. Antidote,

      Broadcasting of Parliament is done by the Department of Parliamentary Services. Sky, C-Span and ABC just carry various parts of the the DPS feed. You can watch live the Reps, Senate, Federation Chamber and I think some committees all over the web, as well as request copies of recorded sessions from the Parliament House website http://www.aph.gov.au/News_and_Events/Watch_Parliament . So citizen journalists anywhere in the country have access to the formal proceedings almost as easily as the Gallery. It's the access to the 'corridors of power' that the Gallery use and abuse that gives them their only real benefit to non-gallery reporters.

  6. Wouldn't it be refreshing if this article could be published in one of the mainstream media. Should be.

  7. They are too sheltered from the real world. Cassidy has posted that the NDIS levy agreement is a win for Abbott, and earlier that Gillard was 'playing politics' on the issue.

    I had some hopes for Cassidy after he broke ranks to expose the Rudd destabilizing through selected reporters. But it seems he is back in line with the press gallery circle jerk now, (or possibly ensuring that Scott and others don't come calling on him).

    It does reinforce why "Insiders" has become such a waste. How are we to learn anything about what is happening from these so-called "insiders" merely taking to themselves? Providing comic relief with Ackerman does not redeem it.

  8. John Bloomfield3/5/13 11:04 am

    Great article Andrew,
    The Canberra Press Gallery needs a good shake-out if only to reflect the changed state of media though technology advances.
    I expect the 5th estate will ultimately replace the corporate owned 4th estate, as citizens wake up to the fact that corporations are using the MSM to corrupt democratic processes to achieve their rapacious ends.
    Access to our politicians should not be regulated by vested commercial gatekeepers.

    In the meanwhile, could not this exclusion be challenged under our discrimination laws?
    Isn't this is a case of restrictive trade practice?
    Aren't there some legal based grounds on which this decision could be challenged?
    if not, pressure needs be applied to our legislators to open up parliamentary reporting to independent media.

  9. Did Margo Kingston intend to convey she is not 'averse'to a requirement that an applicant has previously worked as a journalist... or am I missing some kind of play on words here.

    1. I think she seriously meant journo = ethical and non-journos can't possibly be. I hope she reconsiders.

  10. VoterBentleigh3/5/13 12:54 pm

    The Leader of the Opposition is a former journalist and his lack of even basic civility, let alone ethics, has been on display for years. This former journalist treats the truth as a flexible commodity, able to be bent according to its political usefulness. When he was asked for the names of the donors to his fund to prosecute Pauline Hanson, he said: “There are some things the public has no particular right to know. ''

    The journalists he once worked amongst allow him to be unaccountable for his immature and perverse behaviour and his vacuous statements, not to mention his exaggerated, malicious use of language to create dislike of an individual, group or issue (e.gs.: “not necessarily pure of heart” , “debauched government”, “disgorging illegals” and “toxic”). So what does that show about the ethics of the media?

    Like a thief running from the jewellers, calling to the security guard and pointing to the other shopper, while shouting, “Stop! Thief!”, the Leader of the Opposition is allowed to walk away with his lies and propaganda by the media, while he accuses the Government (usually falsely) of doing the very things he and the his front bench are doing.

    In my reckoning, the majority of journalists are untrustworthy, now below the proverbial used-car salesman.

    Having watched news and current affairs interviews and watched the occasional Press Club Address, one can only despair at the rarity of questions which penetrate the veneer and extract the truth, provide knowledge or illuminate the viewer about important issues and powerful people. The media do not have truth and public interest at their core; their concern is with profit and ratings.

  11. I would like to know who is engaging in 'class warfare' now?

    How can we ask the journalists some serious questions regarding their own integrity, without being told to F off you don't have a clue mate.

  12. Dear Carol

    I would request an explanation as to why the press council can limit who has access to being a journalist allowed to be a member of the press gallery.

    I would request the Presiding Officers approve who can have access to Parliamentary members and senators because what we now have is the limitation of news with the Murdoch enterprise dominating the access to ask questions of our representatives we need a diversity of organizations to be able to attend the parliament and ask questions at press conferences.

    I would ask you to pass on my request to The Speaker and the President so they are aware that the press council are limiting who can be a member of the parliamentary press council because what we now have is journalists who are not employed by the two major news organizations wanting to be part of press council and giving a divergence of views.

    Independent Australia requested membership of the press council and have been refused by David Spears of the Fox organization and Lewis how can this be so.

    Thanks for your email. I will look into the issues you have raised and get back to you.



    Carol Mills


    Department of Parliamentary Services

    Parliament House

    I sent this request to parliamentary services so lets see what comes of it.

  13. Andrew,

    you have made it.

    i would like you to make it again

  14. The misogyny speech reaction, and now the Abbott really was the winner NDIS claim, simply show that the press will never learn from their mistakes.

    I have no time nor respect for the lot 'em anymore.

  15. Frangopoulos' speech to the national press club says it all....

    CEO of Sky News is true in that sense....

    We are a business model.....blah,blah,blah et al

  16. Great doco on s.b.s about The New York Times...

    The ex crack using journo is a real character.

    Must watch t.v. Andrew!

    Mutdoch documentary also pretty boring thus far..waiting for court case episode to be screened