07 May 2013

Shadows on the Press Gallery wall 2: Where the action isn't

Recent articles by Josh Bornstein and Erik Jensen on the downfall of Kevin Rudd have told us much about Rudd as an individual, and about how the ALP works both with and against such an individual. What they also show, however unwittingly, is the near-redundancy of the full-time press gallery and relying solely upon it for news about politics and government.

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:
  1. Rudd ran a dysfunctional Prime Ministerial office, rushing some announcements and slowing down others; which led to
  2. A lot of MPs who once supported the leader turned against him; and largely coincidentally
  3. 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
  4. 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.
In the Old Parliament House (1927-87) press gallery journalists could pick the tensions and directly observe knots of conspirators form and disperse. Leadership challenges tended to only follow steps 2 and 4 above (except when they died physically). When Parliament moved to the current building, much larger than the old one, they complained that it Wouldn't Be The Same - and so it has proven, but for reasons unrelated to the architecture.

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.


  1. I cannot believe that this excellent analysis has yet to attract a comment.

    Of course I think your examination is spot on, Mr Elder, because (as you may remember) I have a bit of a thing about Mr Minchin (and believe me, not a thing that he would enjoy one little bit).

    Anyone who doesn't realise that he is the "Liberal" Party's éminence grise has minimal if any understanding of the nature of today's Party. Menzies may even be on high rotation in his grave.

    1. Menzies is turning swiftly in his grave....

      The Liberals are not very nice at all to allow their respected founding father to be allowed to rest in peace....

      Speaks volumes about the partys morals today...??

      No respect at all!!

    2. I don't know. Minchin's likes and dislikes continue to baffle me.

    3. Keeps everyone on their toes Ian.

  2. Andrew the words that abbot said about


    was not on my local abc

    my husband made the comment that if he didn't have a switched on wife he would not know half of what is going on the country scary don't
    u think,,ido not have a face book account but now have decided to have one to get more news out very worrying when we people have to resort to this

    1. I met a lovely girl from Sydney the other day and she knew the Abbotts...

      He is sexist by her accounts despite his married status ,

      he has very conservative viewpoints...

      Mel Gibson fits into the same category and he has anti-semitic views as well

      You can be a family man and still be sexist and creepy

  3. Years ago when the corruption commission in Wa investigated Brian burke's lobby activities, a picture emerge of a man who spent almost every waking hour on the phone, wheeling and dealing. I would love to see Nick Minchin's phone records.

  4. So you reckon Abbott's 'Signature Policy', the PPL Scheme, is gone for all money then, as Peter Reith and the IPA(also 'Power Brokers' in the Liberal Party, don't you think?), have orchestrated a move against it over the last little while?

    1. Hard to tell. Equivocation will count against them but I suspect there will be a backdown to the effect of "when we can afford it".

  5. Superb as we have come to expect. The most extraordinary thing is how the Gallery has missed by far the most amazing story: that despite all the attempts by Abbott and his media allies to destroy this government and parliament, it has governed wel and introduced major reforms.

    And if that wasn't enough sabotage, it has coped with the Rudd forces on its own side trying to destroy it and/or its leader. http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2013/may/1367364737/erik-jensen/kevin-rudd-s-unrelenting-campaign-regain-power

    Historically it is an incredible story which has been ignored by the Press Gallery, or possibly a few have been complicit in attempting to destroy Gillard .

  6. You're wrong about one thing above. There are no industrial journalists left in the mainstream media. There are journalists like Andrew West or Joe Hildebrand who know their way around the union movement, but that dates back to a generation ago in terms of what they do today, which is a far more general journalism. There are no industrial rounds left.

    I know this because I have worked as a media officer with more unions than I can care (or wish) to remember, including on the Your Rights At Work campaign. Even those economic journalists who occasionally take an interest in union politics, mainly from the perspective of "productivity" (i.e. getting people on less the average wage to do more for less), have a poor understanding of the dynamics of union activity.

    Most journalists don't even understand how their own union, the MEAA, works, or who the key players are (that Chris Warren is a floppy figurehead for example, or that industry employers like Liz Lukin are on the national council), so it's no surprise they don't "get" things like the ASU or United Voice, let alone the arcane workings of the AWU or the Metalworkers. Instead it is left to sheet sniffers like Kate McClymont to hurl tabloid shock horror stuff about "union boss Craig Thom(p)son", while ALP operators like Kathy Jackson end up running off with the cash to marry Tony Abbott's mate Lawler - and no one bats an eyelid!

    Crazy stuff.

    So there are no industrial reporters for the droogs in the Gallery to turn to Andrew, which is why Howes (I remember when he operated the photocopier for John Robertson at Trades Hall in 2003) end up running empty shell outfits like the AWU. There is no oversight by those great gatekeepers of the public sphere.

    Apart from that this article should be read loudly to every journalist in the country before they are handed a pistol and invited to go off to the drawing room to do the right thing.

    1. Mark Skulley AFR comes to mind, but I take your wider point Lachlan. I guess you just can't report on the labour movement from Sydney anyway.

  7. VoterBentleigh8/5/13 8:32 am

    In Victoria, the media "insiders" have not enlightened the public as to the reason Premier Baillieu during his first term, but it would appear that Geoff Shaw's movement to the cross benches caused them to panic about an imminent election.

    Watching the ABC's “Insiders”, one learns less about the inside stories on national politics, than one does about the ideology, professionalism and empathy of journalists and how they view politics compared with how the everyone else sees it.

  8. A quick backtrack.
    From April 30 post "Playing the Clown"
    Re Tony Abbott:

    Quote from some journo [does it matter which one?] -"The days of his headline-grabbing stuff-ups are over."

    Comment by AW:
    "Bullshit. You wish."

    Well that prediction only took a week to be realized didn't it?

    I like Dorothy Parker's take on Abbott's classist and sexist comment .
    From Loon Pond


    "The sort of up-market breeder life, prescribed by Tony Abbott, you know, the one who wants "women of calibre" sent out to pasture and funded on a breeding program.

    Was it less than a week ago that the pond read in the Australian Financial Review of a "well-bred" woman, dropped by a filly who'd mated a knight, e'gad? It's good to know that the breeders of the eastern suburbs still think of the term and the concept as being useful outside of horse and dog racing. Oh she's frightfully well-bred, don't ya know ...

    Now it truly astonished the pond when reading Abbott raises hackles with 'women of calibre' remark.

    What on earth did people expect from a robust snob and north shore type, dedicated to funding decent breeding, as you'd expect from a scion of the Catholic church?"

    Abbott can't help it - he's a classist sexist ....


    1. Yep...

      Dumb yummy mummies!

      All status no substance!

      What would Abbott think of Michelle Obama then..??

      God forbid!

    2. No it doesn't matter which one, but it was probably Grattan.

  9. Another great piece Andrew. I'm really enjoying your break from blogging! ;-)

    1. Gave that away last week. It's back on with a vengeance.

  10. One of the big stories (or narratives) that the Press Gallery has completely missed over the past year is the astonishing changing of the guard at the top of the ALP parliamentary party under Gillard's leadership.

    Bitter old dynastic parasites and talentless union hacks, like Crean, Fern, Fitzgibbon, Carr etc have gone to the backbench, some with blood on their hands, none with any sense of shame. We should be pleased to see the backs of these vain and treacherous old men.

    Gillard also intervened in the NT and SA Senate preselections to boost good women like Peris and Penny to the top of the tickets over the time-serving seat-warmers.

    To replace those who have been moved aside, we now have ten #womenofcalibre in Gillard's Ministry, highest number ever, and all relatively young, whip smart and progressive. Gillard achieved this as part of her deft handling of Rudd's year-long self-immolation, and she has been given no credit whatsoever from the national press. Can't see the wood for the trees.

    Of course, the same sort of low calibre men who used to dominate the Gillard Cabinet still dominate in the Press Gallery, so its no wonder they cannot see what is happening before their eyes. They totally missed the Misogyny Speech after all, and still don't seem to get it. Fading Dopplegangers, reporting the same shallow shite each day, and infecting gullible young women like JMaley with their tired cynicism and intellectual vacuity.

    The Press Gallery is a closed shop, getting smaller, sillier, and more irrelevant every day. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

    1. You're dead right. When Howard did this each instance was a 'masterstroke'. Interesting also how the far right knock off Liberal MPs despite Abbott's support, compare and contrast.

  11. David Perth9/5/13 5:09 pm

    It a fair poke that you take at the union power brokers, but I think you have pulled the punch regarding the right wing power brokers. No mention of the external power brokers such as the IPA and their agenda to reshape Australia. No mention of recent photos showing Abbott silently genuflecting behind Murdoch's back, or receiving instructions across the back of Rinehart's hand.

    Have you missed something in this article?


  12. As a layman, I enjoyed this article. While some of it admittedly went over my head, I found it interesting and now have another list of journalist and political powerbrokers and bloggers that'd I'm keen to research. Disheartened by the MSM complete lack of journalistic credibility. My intelligence insulted by every channel now reporting the news to me as a consumer instead of a member of public who just a wants a fair and truthful account of the days events without an agenda, I have become my own news research student/teacher who discovers 20 new questions in every answer. Thanks