It’s probably not possible to accurately define the ‘Canberra Press Gallery’; in this piece I’m referring to the journalists who get to ask guest speakers at National Press Club events most of the questions, and those who report on federal politics.
Judging from what members of this group say in newspaper columns and on radio and TV news and current affairs programmes, their role seems to be four-fold – to report the facts, to interpret them and express an opinion, to predict, and ‘to hold politicians to account’, a task the group has assumed with some relish. This piece attempts to tease out these functions and assess how professionally Press Gallery journalists are doing their job – just for a change holding them to account. It will also argue that the bubble in which many Press Gallery journalists live has so divorced them from the electorate that they no longer correctly represent its values, beliefs and feelings.
It is acknowledged that there are some political commentators who do their job professionally and are respected by their audiences. We know who they are and admire them.
Reporting the facts
Information is derived from a variety of sources: parliamentary debates and QT, ministerial announcements, official press conferences, unofficial ’door-stops’, press releases, arranged interviews in private or on radio and TV, corridor and restaurant conversations with politicians mostly ‘off-the-record’, whispered bits and pieces, scuttlebutt, and of course the whistleblower’s email.
The quality of the information is highly variable. Although video clips or audio recordings of actual utterances must be the most authentic, this information source can be grossly misleading when cherry-picked to make a particular case. Likewise, quoting actual words in columns can be authentic so long as the quote is accurate and complete and the context is stated. But we all know that selective editing can distort or seriously mislead. We see it every day. We see it in the bootstrapping that has come to characterize much of what purports to be well-informed reporting. While it is usual to place words actually uttered in quotation marks, this does not always occur, leaving the reader wondering who said what, and what the journalist is saying.
Unofficial conversations are often used by journalists to embellish their pieces. ‘Informed sources’, ‘usually reliable sources’, or simply ‘sources’ are quoted while carefully preserving their anonymity. Readers have no idea how authentic these tidbits are, how accurately and completely reported, the questions that were asked, the context, or their origin. Was the ‘source’ another journo down the corridor or one in the favourite drinking hole? Often these so-called ‘sources’ are the ones that give rise to the bootstrapping Bushfire Bill described in the last piece.
In my view there is no place in worthy journalism for this; once I see it, I doubt not only its accuracy but also the journalist’s motives, and discard it as useless. It is a refuge for lesser journalists of which there are too many in the Press Gallery.
The whistleblower’s email has an appeal to journalists near the bottom of the pile. We all remember the infamous Grech email and how it was manipulated by News Limited’s Steve Lewis. This past weekend we had News Limited’s scuttlebutt supremo, Glenn Milne, with his very own email which he represents as coming from an authentic whistleblower, salivating at the prospect of inflicting damage on the Government. Do these journalists understand in what contempt they are held by those who believe in decent reporting?
On the fundamental task of presenting the unadulterated facts, many in the Press Gallery do poorly. Not because of their disconnectedness with the electorate – but because they so often present the facts inadequately, and too often disingenuously.
Interpreting the facts and offering an opinion
This is where journalists have the chance to insert their own views about the meaning of facts and events. The pure opinion piece usually can be identified for what it is, but most articles, or radio or TV commentaries are less easily identifiable as opinion. There is often a mixture of facts and opinion that cannot easily be unravelled. So when an opinion seems to be on offer, it is not always easy to know whose it is. Why can’t journalists preface their opinions with ‘in my opinion’? Moreover when their opinion is offered, consumers need to know on what it is based – the facts as presented, what others are saying, what the voters are saying, what interest groups are saying; or is it simply their own unique view based on their experience and inevitably governed by their biases.
Sometimes opinions are based on well-conducted polling on important issues, carried out mostly by newspapers or research houses. Sometimes focus group studies or party polling inform journalists’ opinions. These are at least supported by verifiable data, but when the opinion is not based on polling, on what is it based? Is it based on any intimate knowledge of what the electorate thinks? Not likely. How would they ascertain public opinion other than through polling? More likely it is based on chatter inside the Press Gallery bubble where groupthink operates so strongly, where expressing a contrary view is inimical to all except the most self-assured, where only the egotistical will go out on a limb to be the most macho journo around, and where what the editor thinks or what the proprietor wants influences what is reported.
When journalists’ opinions are so disconnected from public opinion, what value are they? It is only on those rare occasions where journalists are sent out to sample, albeit unscientifically, the opinion of the man in the street such as in the ‘Your Shout’ segment on the ABC’s Insiders, that the people’s views are actually heard, and even then the poor sampling and the way the questions are posed influences the answers, sometimes rendering them worthless.
My assertion is that much of the opinion expressed by Press Gallery journalists reflects their own idiosyncratic views, and although sometimes based on substantial experience, does not accurately reflect the view of the people.
Let me give an example. In Chris Uhlmann's Apologetic PM: absurd or genius? on The Drum on 5 March, he lists the ‘fixes’ the PM promised: grocery prices, petrol prices, the hospital system and education, climate change and environmental improvements, and goes on to opine: “Judged against those marks it's easier to see how a focus group or two might be toting up the scorecard now and marking the Prime Minister down. On almost all of the benchmarks he set - and the ones that matter to punters - he is in the red. It's also possible that the PM had atomised his message across so many fronts, and had become so hard to understand, that he left the impression of saying nothing much at all.” From where has that opinion come if not from Uhlmann’s thoughts? Was it based on a careful collection of punters’ opinions such as in focus groups? Not likely. He seems to be guessing what focus groups might be thinking. It is this style of journalism that sounds so well-informed and plausible that it is regarded by many as worthwhile opinion, which it is not.
A commenter on Uhlmann’s blog, James Mahoney, tellingly responded: “There's been quite a frisson this week over this apology and lots of puzzled frowning and beard pulling and pondering about why he did it. And over-reaction....Perhaps electors will view the apology differently from the commentariat and actually say, 'Goodonya Kevin for having the guts to admit you have been a bit dodgy on the performance thing.' Imagine the angle had he not said sorry: Rudd's too arrogant to admit it when he makes a mistake. All part of the news cycle really, isn't it? Can't win if you don't; can't win if you do. The only certainty in the news cycle is that whatever you do (or say) will be beaten into this day's angle. What is really needed is some real in-depth analysis and maybe even a break-out from the dominant paradigm of the Parliamentary Press Gallery that ensures reporters and commentators don't stray too far from what they think the competition will write. That is, whatever politicians do or say needs to be bagged. Maybe it does - but not all the time.”
That is just what this piece is asserting.
Press Gallery journalists have assumed the mantle of making predictions. Although this is the most hazardous of all their roles, they enjoy it most. It gives them a feeling of being sage, or being kingmakers or destroyers of political careers. They enjoy nothing more than having their wise predictions come true.
Yet it is in the dangerous field of prediction that they are most likely to be relying on mediocre data or none at all, hearsay, whispered asides in corridors, the ‘good oil’ from insiders, or just their gut feelings. How often have you seen Glenn Milne, who would die for a prescient prediction, declaring the Rudd Government will be a ‘oncer’? Now Fran Kelly has likewise chanced her arm. To be able to say – ‘you heard it first from me’ is a glorious feather in the journalistic cap. Dennis Shanahan declared that Peter Garrett was ‘finished’ and predicted his sacking – wrong on both counts. Several others insisted ‘Garrett must go!” no doubt confident in their prediction that his career was over.
When such predictions are made by known anti-Government journalists it’s hard to know whether these are well-based predictions or just wishful thinking.
In any case, this piece asserts that predictions by the Canberra Press Gallery are too often not based on hard and verifiable data, not based on an intimate knowledge of the voters’ opinions, but on hunches, on hearsay, on groupthink, on what suits their political or ideological position. It is ironic that the journalists who are the most self-opinionated, most judgemental, seem to be the ones who rely less on evidence than their own idiosyncratic viewpoint.
Holding the Government to account
This role has been taken on with enthusiasm by the Press Gallery. They seem to feel entitled to question everything the Government and the Opposition does and says, as if we the people have appointed them to act on our behalf. We haven’t, they just assume that is so. So we see aggressive, at time belligerent and discourteous questioning of our political leaders, especially if they are antagonistic to them generally, or over the issue under consideration. 3AW’s Neil Mitchell and the ABC’s Jon Faine are classic examples on radio, and Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones on ABC TV. At the recent National Press Club meeting when the PM announced the hospitals and health reform plan, we saw two of our better journalists asking questions inappropriate to the occasion. In the midst of the most important announcement about health for decades, Paul Bongiorno asked how the Government could administer the health reforms if it couldn’t run an insulation program, and Karen Middleton asked Rudd a question about his communication style. Did they imagine members of the public wanted them to ask such silly questions that distracted from the purpose of the event, or was this just journalistic bravado?
In holding to account, do they work from verifiable information? Sometimes, but sometimes they have little hard data to back their questioning. Do they seek the public’s opinion before pressing their points? No, they just assume we want them to pursue the line they take. We don’t. They have drifted away from what the people really think and feel, confined as they are in the Press Gallery glass house where they hear echoes reverberating around the walls and interpret them as public opinion. It is not.
In summary, what this piece proposes is that the Canberra Press Gallery has lost touch with the man in the street, and because it has limited means of communicating effectively with the public, it has limited ways of validly representing the public’s views, hopes and aspirations, their desire for change, and their opinion of the Government’s and the Opposition’s policies and actions. In my view the chasm between the people and the Canberra Press Gallery is widening, and that is why we get such mediocre and unrepresentative journalism from so many of them.
By all means feed us the facts, and give us your considered opinion. But when you do, make it clear it is your opinion, and tell us on what it is based. If you feel inclined to predict, please make it clear that’s what it is and not divine inspiration, and do tell us how you came to your prediction. Finally, if you feel compelled to ‘hold the Government or the Opposition to account’, show us how they are meeting or not meeting expectations, and whose expectations they are. But please do not assume they are the public’s expectations unless you have evidence that this is so. We want to be informed, but not indoctrinated by your ideology, your unsupported opinions or your uninformed predictions.
Visitors, what do you think?
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