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)
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.