29 October 2011

Barking at nothing, part 2

Why is there a parliamentary press gallery? What is it for? It is an institution that has outlived its usefulness, and it is a symptom of mainstream media failure that they continue to focus on it as much as they do.

We need to know how we are governed. We need to know what services the government is giving us, what laws the government is imposing upon us, what it is doing with all that tax. We turned to the mainstream media to act as the trusted (well, only) intermediary between the government and the governed.

For most of this country's history, the only way to find that out was through the media, and specifically from press gallery reporters. Government took place behind closed doors and was largely impenetrable. It only broke into clear sight when it was debated in Parliament, or in Cabinet, or came from a minister's office: journalists there had the ability to explain what it was that came from these bills and other instruments, and the interplay between personalities that we call politics, and how said personalities and interplay shaped the outcomes of government. When the first colonial parliament commenced in Sydney in 1856, it had a press gallery from day one. All subsequent parliaments in Australia were also set up with one.

Today, it is no longer true that the press gallery is the only place you can find out how we are governed. You can get that information in government reports, press releases and other information to a device wherever you are. You can get information directly from government departments, opposition parties, interest groups and some of your better blogs. Politicians hold media stunts using different parts of the country as a backdrop. You don't need to be in the press gallery in order to find out what's going on in government and politics.

In the US, media outlets don't just have a "Washington correspondent". They have a correspondent at the White House, a few at the Congress, one at the Pentagon and another at the State Department, and still others at different agencies of government (such as the Supreme Court).

Australian media organisations are lazy and stupid taking up space in a press gallery and assuming they've got politics covered.

It would be great if there was a High Court correspondent with legal knowledge, who could explain goings-on there in plain language, rather than journo cliches. It would be great if there were more defence policy specialists, following not only the ADF and the Minister and Shadow, but also the contractors and lobbyists. There should be foreign policy specialists.

Hell, all politics/government reporters should focus on policy first, and then assess politicians on how relevant they are to the debate. We might never hear of Christopher Pyne or Mark Arbib ever again.

If you want to know what's going on in government and politics, we are getting to a stage where it's actually better for journalists not to rely on politicians to tell them what's going on. Just because a politician says something, it doesn't mean that will happen.

People who are shocked by the extent to which the people of NSW abandoned Labor should consider the announcement of the Parramatta-Epping railway. Parramatta and Epping are two Sydney suburbs which each have a railway station, but those stations are not connected directly. In the late 1990s the Minister for Transport announced (actually re-announced a commitment from the previous Liberal government) that a line would be built to connect the two, and the press gallery trooped out to record the minister announcing that it would be completed by 2010. Then, after a while, it was re-announced again, and again, and again and again and again. A third of the track has been completed at twice the budgeted cost.

It became a joke, but that didn't stop journalists reporting it with a straight face. It didn't stop editors and news directors sending journalists out to cover those announcements, as though they were really news. The fact that a minister makes an announcement isn't news. The sun rose in the east this morning too, bears do poo in the woods, the Pope really is a Mass-going Catholic, and politicians make announcements: none of these things are news.

If mining activity is going gangbusters then surely this must cast some sort of light upon political rhetoric that taxes targeted at that industry will ruin it. A journalist cooped up in Parliament House, subject to phone calls from idle people and the appalling dramaturgy of "parliamentary theatre" cannot be said to know anything at all, regardless of how well or badly they report politics as a horse race or as Hollywood.

The fact that Tony Abbott contradicts himself and says things which simply aren't true is starting to be seen by journalists as an anomaly, rather than as fascinating or some sort of post-modern oddity which journalists observe but over which they have no control. It took a bunch of comics to give him the grilling that professional journalists couldn't bring themselves to do. It simply isn't worth drawing any sort of link between what he says and what might actually happen to our taxes, our society. After two years and an election he still has no policy consisting of more than dot points. He is a gibberer and even if he does get in he's just going to shrug his shoulders and say I lied, and a disconcertingly large number of press gallery will just accept it.

Politics and politicians have an impact upon government services as delivered, but a journalist need not be in the press gallery to report that. Being in the press gallery or having spent time there has an absurd amount of cachet among journalists, and when you consider how badly they fail at conveying any sort of meaning from the experience it should be something that falls off the resume.

If a bunch of journalists go into a location where they're outnumbered by PR people, they are probably in the wrong location. That's what happens in Parliament. Journalists are beset by gibberers. However much the journalists love it there is increasingly little link between what they write/say and what really happens, or even matters, which is why journalists can spend their entire careers on stuff like the imaginary challenge from Kevin Rudd/Stephen Smith against the Prime Minister.

The idea that the media can be managed is a lie. There are increasing resources devoted to preserving and extending this lie. The idea that it is worth managing the media at a time of media decline is also a lie, and silly. No politician should expect to have their words reported verbatim and everyone, everyone promising such is a charlatan. Journalists should have nothing to do with people who pretend to manage them.

Politicians tailor their output to catch the eye of journalists, who are looking for cliches. Parliament is designed to be the venue of great national debates, but great national debates occur far from the Parliament. Apart from each year's budget, the last truly unmissable parliamentary speech of national importance was Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generation on 13 February 2008. When the ALP rolled Rudd, everyone at the US Embassy or the AWU knew before even the better-connected members of the Press Gallery. All that connection-building, all that skulking in corridors and drinking in Kingston bars was wasted in the face of such a big story going begging. If the press gallery didn't pick up on that story, what did they know about anything? The press gallery is a waste of time.

Part of the reason why the press gallery is a waste of time is because politicians increasingly are. Party leaders notice that journalists don't interview colourless public servants, even though they know what's going on better than politicians, so they preselected party hacks who can't deliver a speech and who read the speeches written badly for them. The idea that these banal people might do something innovative and interesting is about as likely that they will do anything catastrophic, but neither are of sufficient consequence or interest to warrant the investment that goes into the press gallery.

Part of the reason why press gallery journalists report non-stories is the disconnect between journalists and their audience. Journalists disdain education, which means they're looking for cliches to dish up to "punters". People who are interested in politics and government are asking questions that simply don't occur to any but a handful of journalists, such as:
  • Is there anything else that can be done about intractable problems, other than the feeble and self-defeating pantomime before us?
  • How might money, time and resources be better spent? (a good Opposition will suggest alternatives, but I can't remember the last good Opposition we had);
  • How do the policies of political parties affect people who work in, or are otherwise affected by, those policies? The odd colour piece at election time isn't good enough;
  • What is it that parties do, anyway?
Bloggers answer those questions, not journalists. When confronted with economic policy most journalists do things like "beer, cigs up", or televise that groaning from the floor of parliament that has viewers lunging for the channel-changer. A few bloggers will paint the sort of complete picture that newspapers aim to achieve with special supplements, or that ABC Radio aims to achieve with AM and PM. Journalists can't handle policy and they can't get it across well, regardless of the medium, and they never will so long as they are confined to the parliamentary press gallery.

Smart journalists should fan out away from the press gallery because if you want to tell us what's going on you need to know what's going on, and you're unlikely to ever find that out in Parliament. We need to know how we are governed, and politicians can't tell us that because they just don't know, they've lost the words to describe it and bring people along with them. For journalists, it's time to strike out to the territories, find out what's going on and present it well. We will be grateful, but there are less grounds for gratitude for the sorts of journalism that comes out of the press galleries than you might imagine. The press galleries are broken and cannot be fixed. Abolishing the press gallery need not mean some sort of catastrophe for democracy, and maybe we might have to wait until Laurie Oakes or Michelle Grattan have died - it could be the very thing that breaks the politico-media complex and makes both politics and journalism better off.


  1. A great analysis, Andrew. I have posted repeatedly on different blog sites that I would be eternally grateful for quality political journalism - and I do feel that political journalists treat informed and discerning consumers of politics with disdain. I also believe that this territory has been taken over by insightful bloggers who do the hard work (research, analysis, synthesis) that underpins the questions you pose above. Thanks for the link to 'comics unafraid to grill.'

  2. you write of abbott "even if he does get in he's just going to shrug his shoulders and say I lied." You should have added: and spend the next six years blaming Gillard. And the unquestioning gallery will swallow it up.

  3. Wonderful post!

    The press gallery have colluded in their reduction to stenographers, uncritically passing on statements that contradict statements made by the same people the day before, and then having the gall to go on panel shows like The Drum and (not exactly) Insiders to comment on it.

    It wouldn't be so bad if they reported stuff that was actually happening, but because policy isn't as interesting to them as human drama, they imagine a Rudd challenge and report it as if it's actually happening.

    It appears that some of the younger generation don't even take a particular interest in what they are reporting on and it's clear some of them don't even know the meanings of the cliches they assemble.

  4. Alphabajangodelta29/10/11 2:55 pm

    In some ways new media, such as twitter, is heightening this problem. The classic example is a young radio journalist from who came to prominence through regular parliamentary tweeting. This person's actual journalism was unremarkable and was of interest mostly for timeliness in the heat of action rather than insight or analysis. They have gained quite a degree of recognition, including a (minor) Walkley and have subsequently moved to a major national broadcaster. So Twitter has enabled someone who otherwise would be a gallery hack to register as a person of note. I'm not sure anyone takes this person's journalism especially seriously but their career has benefited from, and hence reinforces, the problem you describe.
    Regarding your points, new media can make parliamentary action seem more accessible and immediate, and thus apparently important, but it is ultimately devoid of content. Parliament itself is the physical manifestation of the politico-media complex as a performance. But there is ultimately little behind the curtain.
    Academics talk of government having transitioned to 'networked governance' in which decisions are produced among distributed matrices of political, economic, social and intellectual institutional contact and influence. A majoritarian parliament is merely a constitutional rubber-stamp of 'decisions' that have been made elsewhere, often far beyond Cabinet. The media with its fixation on following the theatrics of politicians - the pantomime ritual of the doorstep being one - misses much of this pattern, both superficially but also at the level of journalistic methodology itself. Some of the better journos understand this - eg Mega's article on the tax summit - but there are few in Australia who do. Finally, given technology there's no need to be in parliament; one can 'report' from almost anywhere in the world with a good broadband link, phone, email, laptop, twitter, RSS feeds and a good list of networked contacts.

  5. Andrew did you read Laura Tingle's column in the AFR on Friday? =

    And Alphabajan- I think you're being a bit too harsh on this journo because she's inexperienced and there's hardly anyone for her to learn from, that is to say her superiors don't do much better.

  6. PK, that's the biggest problem - the unquestioning stenography and cliches have basically crossed a generation now, so as far as the newcomers know, this is how it's done.

  7. Cheers Anon1: I don't think they could deal with such an audience.

    Anon2, you're right and I think they will get a great shock when the votes depart from the narrative.

    Cheers Bill, people like Michelle Grattan practicising goldfish politics are particularly culpable. The model is bound to fail and people like those you describe can't and won't adapt.

    Alpha, you can't tweet what you don't understand.

    PK, I did and recommend it: at last! The problem isn't the stenographer concerned but thoe who have thrust her far, far out of her depth.