Backbenchers and the Press Gallery: Aspects of the Canberra Political Process


Research Paper 9 1997-98

Dr Trish Payne
Politics and Public Administration Group
24 November 1997

Contents

Major Issues Summary

Introduction

Endnotes

References

 

Major Issues Summary

The relationship between the Canberra Press Gallery journalists and federal politicians is a vital contributor to the quality of political information. Both are key participants in the democratic communication process. The complexities of the relationship between the two are often underestimated because it is commonly defined as symbiotic. Despite the accuracy of this description it limits understanding of the levels of personal contact and the gameplaying that produces political news.

Assessments of the relationship and its value to backbenchers and gallery journalists vary considerably between individuals in each group. Some backbenchers claim not to see any advantage in national coverage, others do. Some who receive considerable coverage claim not to want it because it can damage the trust of other party members when they attempt to decipher the motives behind it. For many backbenchers it is the balance struck between constituent, party and national image that produces individual reckoning of the level of national coverage he or she would like. Obtaining this personal optimum level of public exposure, be it considerable or none, is a difficult equation to resolve and an even more difficult determination to control.

Gallery journalists do not all agree on the value to a backbencher of national media coverage. However few would deny the value of access to the information to which backbenchers are privy and their assessments of constituent, committee and party mood in the development of policy. Backbenchers also provide journalists with essential data on party politics and the machinations occurring within them.

The relationship between journalists and politicians is characterised by an understanding that they will use and be used. This produces an ever present cynicism from both in assessing each other's motivations in any instance. This cynicism produces at once a healthy scepticism and a damaging pervasion in the definition of intent by both. It diminishes the assessment of the worth of the role each is designated to fulfil in the political communication process. It can lead to a pre-occupation with the process of communication, what can be communicated rather than what should or perhaps more accurately, could be.

The worth of the gallery journalist to individual backbenchers will be determined by the varied ambitions of individual politicians as well as their experience in dealing with the national media. Only through contact with the gallery will a politician develop a vital understanding of the risks and value of a relationship with it.

Introduction

This paper derives from research being conducted by the author as Australian Parliamentary Fellow for 1997. The working title of the monograph being produced is Backbenchers and the Canberra Press Gallery. The study concentrates on media coverage of House of Representatives backbenchers during the 38th Parliament and specifically during the period February to June 1997. As virtually little investigation of backbench reporting has been done in Australia this study represents a beginning to the process of documentation and examination of media coverage of the backbench and its wider implications. Consideration of the relationship that exists between the Canberra Press Gallery journalists and backbench parliamentarians is central to any assessment of the vitality of the democratic communication process.

The reporting of the 38th Parliament has been dominated by issues that have involved conflict. As one gallery journalist asserted, 'the gallery is preoccupied with the politics of conflict because they make the best stories and our masters at head office are a lot more interested in conflict then we are. If there ain't no conflict, there ain't no story'(1). While this is the most expected criterion for news coverage the sequence of conflicts has also been characterised by considerable levels of moral and ethical debate. Issues have included: euthanasia, Wik, the 'stolen children', media ownership, tariffs, tax reform and the extraordinary media exposure of the Member for Oxley, Pauline Hanson. The concentration on political rorts begun in the 38th Parliament with accusations against Senator Colston and Senator Woods has maintained its momentum in the House of Representatives, partly as the result of an initiative from the Independent backbencher, Peter Andren, Member for Calare. These issues have accentuated the role of the backbench in politically reported conflicts. As a new Coalition government with a large and diverse backbench celebrated its return to power after 13 years, the enthusiasm of embracing that power was quickly balanced by the awareness that Australia is an increasingly difficult country to govern, and perceptions of success are becoming increasingly difficult to achieve within communities grown tired of promises.

Although debate on the quality of Australian democracy can be excited by optimism and pessimism on the present state of Australia's parliamentary processes, there is a consensus between journalists and politicians that the image of the parliamentarian is at present a very low one. While study into the reasons for many Australians' disillusionment with their elected representatives might start with accusations of the media concentration on the newsworthy 'rogues', serious analysis would fall close to a leading gallery journalist's assessment that the 'media doesn't create the chaos that erupts from time to time although it does enthusiastically report it, but the chaos is there to be reported.' The power of the media to decide to make that chaos public is often cited as illustrating the media's role as a political player rather than political reporter. The choice of content in news and commentary does increase media involvement in agenda setting of public political communication but all within the communication process are aware of what will attract coverage.

The sum of news practices and values form a pattern of responsiveness. As an institution news is particularly dependent upon and sensitive to external factors. Its central product is the deeds and words of others. Those others have their own interests to pursue and shaping news content may be one avenue toward their realisation.(2)

It is the lack of change to the assumed parameters of news values, by politicians and the media, that has limited improvement of quality in public information and eased the path of political manipulation of the media. Time, space, the flow of information and the search for accuracy are also, of course, vital ingredients in influencing the quality of media coverage.

One factor affecting the quality of public information is the relationship between backbenchers and gallery journalists. The value of a relationship is gauged differently by practitioners between and within both sectors. Perceptions as well as reality influence assessment by individuals about mutual worth. The following examination of present attitudes and practice that characterise the relationship between the gallery and the House of Representatives backbench is based primarily on the practitioners' own assessments. The analysis covers all backbenchers although some examples of the reportage are obviously confined to Coalition backbenchers. While the examination of the Tuesday Government Party Room briefing relates specifically to Coalition backbenchers there is some journalist comment relevant to the broader context of backbench communication with the gallery.

Who needs them?

The seeming clarity of first impressions, gained from a few experienced practitioners, that backbenchers were not important to gallery journalists, quickly proved to be erroneous as interviewing and media content analysis developed. A gallery doyen, now spasmodically gracing the gallery but still a central and powerful political commentator, confidently asserted that the responsibility of the political journalist was to 'deliver'. 'Journalists write under pressure, space is limited and they need to report news and news is about power. Why would you report the backbench? They can't give you a lot. Focus where the story is. How important are backbenchers? You've got to follow the structure'. It was an equally simple equation for another gallery journalist who, while willing to acknowledge limited value of the backbencher to the gallery journalist, stated unhesitatingly that 'backbenchers are the lowest form of political life'.

An experienced backbencher confirmed the journalists' viewpoint that they were of little use to the gallery. The politician reminded me that 'backbencher' was an inaccurate term for someone of his experience, a sentiment reiterated by another experienced backbencher who believed the term 'parliamentarian' was 'a more appropriate term'. The likely lack of interest of backbenchers to the gallery was explained by the role they played in the political process. 'Government is run by the Cabinet. The rest of us are here to put up our hands when we're told' and a similar expression of role in another backbench comment, 'the role of the backbench is really like that of the American electoral college'. There was no sense of complexity in the roles accepted by journalist or politician. I was, presumably, being given the facts. But the value of each to the other is not that simple and there are few if any politicians and journalists who don't know and acknowledge it.

The physical and working environment

The way individual backbenchers characterise their role and their personal political objectives has considerable influence on the way they determine the benefits and costs of establishing contact with the gallery. The advantages of publicity, positive and negative, can be reckoned at a personal level and also at a policy level. While all backbenchers will have had experience with the media, some have had considerably more than others. Some have already had contact with gallery and key national political reporters as former state politicians, sometimes from the frontbench, ex-heads of powerful unions and lobby groups when they become federal parliamentarians. This diversity of experience is also echoed within the gallery. The learning curves within the respective environments vary with individual characteristics and experiences but observation suggests the journalists' learning curve, by necessity, will be faster. The desire of new gallery journalists to establish source contacts with politicians is more immediate than that of new politicians contemplating the worth of establishing relationships with individual gallery journalists. As political journalist Mark Riley commented in an address to the NSW State Parliament, 'a stunning proportion of politicians fail to understand that journalists are only as good as their contacts.'(3)

Comment from journalists and politicians support written assessments(4) that the design of the new Parliament House has changed the ease of communication that existed between the two in the old Parliament House. Crammed in the new House into small, to some extent, claustrophobic spaces within their individual proprietorial areas, journalists of all levels of experience mingle, phone, type and work. The learning experience for any new gallery journalist will probably of necessity be faster than that of the House of Representatives backbencher tucked away in the backblocks of Parliament House in a room indistinguishable from the dozens that open inwards from long white corridors without even the punctuation of a chair or the predictable pots of evergreen. Only the occasional brave poster advertising the political and/or personal bent of the occupant and the small name plaque with its Member of Parliament (MP) status suggests to the passer-by that here reside many representatives of the people. While the gallery journalist also experiences the long white corridor, the space is rarely without movement and the floor rarely devoid of piles of papers tied for reading or untied awaiting disposal. To be totally accurate, sometimes a pile of Hansards might interrupt the perfect symmetry of the backbench corridor adorned with a sign, 'please don't remove'.

Across the width of Parliament House, a considerable distance, long corridors and discreet wings hide the movements of politicians that in the old House helped gallery journalists feel and interpret likely political trends and alliances. The huge open and visible spaces between the gallery and the offices of House of Representatives MPs provide little privacy on the other hand for contact between journalist and politician. Nor do the spaces lend themselves to the easy relationships that can develop when a smaller space is shared. There is no likelihood of a spontaneous cricket match between politicians and journalists played with a paper ball disrupting the quiet of the corridors of the House on the hill. This did happen in the old Parliament House. There was a consistent lament from politicians and journalists that the loss of a non-members bar had restricted the ease of association that can develop from unofficial meetings. The non-member's bar in the new House, however, never emulated the old as a popular political watering hole and was closed due to lack of patronage. Nevertheless, the point of the lament was telling. It expressed the mutual need to be able to congregate without official invitation. Many backbenchers exhibited a wariness to approach the gallery and had an even greater reticence about being seen with journalists.

Other changes suggest that any re-emergence of a non-members' bar could disappoint expectations linked to past practices. The change was succinctly summarised by one gallery journalist. 'It's very different here. The bar downstairs wasn't frequented partly because there has been a change. People don't go for long lunches anymore. We don't live like that anymore. Productivity has changed'. That change has not only been the result of an increased demand for more stories each day but has also been influenced by supposed technological advances which constantly shorten rather than extend print deadlines.

Producing media images of the role of the backbench

The public perception of the role of the backbencher in the political process is produced largely by media attention. This centrality of the media in the production of image works at two levels. One is the generalised view produced from the constant use of the terms, 'backbench' or 'backbenches'. The other is in the reporting of individual backbenchers. However, this pivotal role of the media should not disguise the reality that parliamentarians also define their role through their reported comment and activity that produces news. The Prime Minister, assured of media access, plays an influential part in producing a public perception of the importance he and Cabinet place on an individual's vote, illustrated by the ability of his or her elected representative to be seen to be contributing to policy. In such instances it will usually only be the Coalition backbench that will obtain media exposure. Nevertheless, the publicly conveyed consultative process in the media between parliamentary executives and their backbenchers produces a wider public appreciation of the potential role of any backbencher.

One example of the use of the media to produce public perceptions of the role of a consulted backbench was the meeting held on the evening of 16 June 1997 to discuss tax reform. A sense of urgency was conveyed because it was called the night before the Prime Minister departed for London. While various reasons have been advanced for the motivation of the meeting, one senior journalist described the Prime Minister's meeting with backbenchers as politically astute. He was 'winding them in'. The comment also illustrated the ever present gallery cynicism about political activity. Whatever the reason, the message conveyed was that the Prime Minister was concerned to publicly announce his discussion of the issue surrounded by his backbench. The Weekend Australian's front page news headline the previous Saturday read, Libs to pressure PM over tax, jobs. Political reporter John Short began the article with the comment:

Backbenchers plan to pressure John Howard at an urgent meeting on Monday to explain how tax reform will help solve the job crisis ... backbenchers yesterday told the Weekend Australian they would quiz Mr Howard on the link between tax reforms and jobs ... . Notices calling the special meeting were sent out on Thursday following the Prime Minister's last-minute decision to canvass backbench opinion on tax reform before his departure on an extensive overseas trip to Britain and America on Tuesday.(5)

On the morning of 16 June on the ABC's AM the Prime Minister elaborated. 'Tonight is part of a process of consultation and involvement. I want to hear the views of my colleagues.'(6) The publicly conveyed message suggested respect for backbench opinion. The increasing publicity of government backbench committees and their chairs has also emphasised publicly an image of backbench input into policy development. The image of backbench responsibility was dampened slightly by AM reporter Catherine Job's use of a Democrat press release to announce that Cheryl Kernot had asserted that talk of tax reform 'was a trick on the backbench.'(7)

Despite these understandings, the evidence suggests that many gallery journalists do believe that backbenchers are very important and the increase in the volume of backbench reporting suggests considerable interaction between the two groups. The Government has adjusted to winning, the Opposition to losing and the very large backbench of the 38th Parliament has emerged within the media as a political force to be recognised, at least publicly. Whether the developing backbench prominence owes as much to its size as to the issues and/or the first term of a new Government is still to be determined.(8) While one journalist acknowledged that backbenchers in the 38th Parliament appeared to be becoming more militant, the observation concluded with the remark, 'how important they are in what happens in these issues is another matter'. Another journalist asserted that the present public reporting that signifies developing unrest amongst backbenchers is normal by mid-term as they consider what is required to win another term in office. There seems little reason to doubt that some backbenchers at least see the advantages in national coverage.

Gallery assessments of the value of the relationship

The most common explanation of the value of a backbencher to the gallery journalist was as a source. 'Backbenchers are the ones that will leak to you out of the party meeting. Backbenchers are the ones that will leak to you out of smaller meetings with the Minister or with the Prime Minister'. The accessibility of the backbench as a source was also regarded as very important. The expectation of a ready quotable comment, whether as a specialist or a 'rent a mouth', to embellish a report also makes some backbenchers of value to reporters. Most journalists stressed the need for caution with those who seek publicity too often. There is also ample evidence that many gallery journalists respect the information to which backbenchers are privy, especially the 'feel' of an issue and party attitudes to it. 'I use backbenchers quite a lot because they often provide a wedge into what's going on in an issue for me', declared one journalist. 'There is always a backbench committee on an issue. The backbench will have heard the submissions from the ministers on that particular issue and taken a feeling from the electorate ... they act as a bit of a funnel for information from other MPs and lobby groups.' The journalist, in acknowledging the use of backbenchers, also balanced the user/used equation. Backbenchers' interests were also served because they wanted to 'be seen in the papers protecting their constituencies. . . . They have an interest in telling us what's going on, but from our point of view it is quite useful because they can quickly assess the political lie of the land.'

Most journalists expressed their belief that the local media is far more important to backbenchers, a perspective supported by the majority of parliamentarians, especially the new ones interviewed. Effort with the local media is seen as paramount for the re-election of a member and also more rewarding of a backbencher's energy. As with so many other considerations of the value of the relationship, this sentiment was qualified. With heated emotion, one journalist rejected the claim by backbenchers that they didn't need gallery attention-'the smart ones don't think that, the smart ones curry favour, the smart ambitious ones are on the phone to us. They don't stick with their constituencies, that's just garbage! Some of them do, but the ones that are ambitious want a profile more than anything'.

Another backbench comment that 'backbenchers wandering around the gallery invariably get into trouble and the ones up there are probably causing trouble' would also find support in the gallery but it would be balanced by a seemingly contradictory view that the risks for politicians aspiring to ministries would be worth it. Evidencing the value of experience and insight, one doyen of the gallery observed that 'if they set their sights low, propaganda usually for the local electorate rather than really coming to grips with issues, then that's got to be bad for Parliament and it's got to be bad for developing them as people who are possible decision makers in their own right.' The same journalist also noted the precarious balance for the backbencher between being 'seen but not heard too much or the executive will be critical.' Analysis of interviews suggests that a number of gallery journalists are also quick to develop a critical attitude to outspoken backbenchers and while many still use their lines, others withdraw from those who too 'constantly shoot their mouths off and who devalue their own currency'.

Some backbencher perspectives on the gallery

There are very mixed perceptions about the gallery and its value amongst politicians. Many noted the difference between dealing with the local media and the Canberra Press Gallery journalist. 'Canberra', exclaimed one politician, 'a different beast again, even from the metropolitan journalist, it's much more difficult here'. The gallery journalists are described as more professional, less willing to accept information at face value. But gallery journalists are also accused of being 'cold' and 'less human', 'distorters of the facts', 'plagiarists', 'cynical' and 'lazy'. One MP acknowledged that politicians also developed cynicism but believed gallery journalists developed it more quickly. The following comment from a seasoned gallery commentator illustrates a certain validity in the political assessment. 'I really enjoy observing politics-what you're observing is really human nature and how human nature reacts to power, how human nature responds to power, wanting it, seeking it, getting it, having it.'

The belief that a herd like mentality exists was constantly mentioned as a characteristic of perceptions on how the gallery worked. One politician claimed that he/she owed their electoral success to supportive comment from Laurie Oakes which unleashed positive reporting from Canberra and influenced state reporting.

Although many new politicians claim that the gallery is not important to them, and many experienced backbenchers also state that possible 'oncers' (a derogatory term used consistently by gallery journalists in discussion of new backbenchers whom they regard as unlikely to be re-elected) should concentrate on their local media outlets, the more ambitious acknowledge the importance of the gallery to their political careers.

Unless you work the gallery you get nothing from the gallery. Unless you are able to provide them with information they are not interested in you. So therefore you have to develop the relationship with the gallery. Everything I do and say is focused on being re-elected. Part of being re-elected is ID in your electorate and in your own party. The only way you get that ID, or one way, is the press.

The user/used relationship

Timothy Cook in his study of the relationship between US House of Representatives members and the media concluded that the relationship was one of 'mutual benefit and limitation.'(9)

Reporters need the news and the insights House members can provide; members need coverage to further legislative strategies. In effect, making news has become integral to making laws or, as one press secretary commented, 'press work is an extension of policy'. But the relationship also limits the kinds of issues on which legislators focus and shaped the processes by which policies are drafted, debated and enacted.(10)

In the examination of the relationship between backbenchers and the Canberra Gallery the connection between backbench input into policy development and the media is important. It is, however, usually the politicians that have longer experience in Parliament that appreciate this aspect of a working relationship with journalists. One politician in his second term of office assessed the personal importance of a relationship with gallery journalists. When first elected the parliamentarian had not sought any connection with the gallery.

Probably to my detriment I didn't seek out the gallery, I didn't want to be a show pony. I realised that to win my seat and to improve my majority I didn't need coverage at a national or state level. I generally worked on the principle that a small story in my local paper was generally worth more than a full page in a city paper.

When asked why he used the word 'detriment' he replied,

What this meant was that when I did need the national media to push a particular point of view that I wanted to I didn't have as many contacts as I might have.

Having now experienced considerable exposure to the gallery, the value of the relationship between contact and policy is hinted at in his continuation. 'So I suppose the ones that do respect me if I ever do have to call in a favour or I do have to take a stand on something I know I'll have some people to listen to me. That's true.' And on discussion of an issue that is receiving considerable publicity, the politician commented, 'I'd like a run on this , it's very important.'

Research to date suggests that there is a correlation between longevity in Parliament and the recognition of gallery importance. Equally, longevity usually also means more to say, or a more confident appreciation of how to use the gallery without being used, at least publicly.

If you've been helpful to a journalist, I don't mean leaking, but if you've been willing to discuss issues with them, to be helpful and frank, in a sensible and positive manner without necessarily spilling the beans on your own party, ... if they put a theoretical issue to you off the record ... and want a response from a proposition and you give them an intelligent response you can build up your rapport with them, have lunch with them occasionally, then when something is important to you they'll be prepared to listen.

Trust may not necessarily be expected to be included in a list of characteristics defining the relationship between politicians and journalists but nevertheless it does pervade the quality of the relationship. The balance between successful use of each other, while accepting and respecting that at times there must be conflicting agendas, requires a certain level of trust-an ability to balance the relationship of user and used.

The Government's Tuesday Party Meeting Briefing

The mutual dependency of gallery journalist and backbencher is not always equally reciprocated in any particular situation but there is little to suggest that it does not exist. The following case study illustrates the complexity of the working relationship between the two and its influence on resultant quality and flow of political communication to the public. The following discussion is focused on Coalition backbenchers.

On Tuesday mornings during sitting periods the Prime Minister and Executive meet with their backbench. Here discussion on policy and its direction, or party related matters can be raised and discussed by all members. The workings of the backbench committees and various other party political processes usually ensure that new policy brought before such meetings is expected to be approved so debate involving opposition would, where possible, have already taken place. Immediate developments on issues and backbencher response to the performance of the executive to current issues might also be aired. Following the Party meeting a designated backbencher (currently Kevin Andrews, Member for Menzies) briefs the journalists on what happened in the Party room. The briefings, attended by approximately 30 gallery journalists, are designed to improve the accuracy of media reports by reducing speculation about what went on in the meeting.

After a short and careful, or 'sanitised version' as one Liberal backbencher described it, summary by the Party spokesperson of the issues deemed of interest to the gallery, and, by extension, the Australian public, the journalists ask their questions. The questions need to be asked as carefully as they are answered, because the spokesperson, having provided information on the agenda from the party meeting has set a centralised agenda. Journalists can ask if other specific issues were raised and what was the outcome of these. No politician is referred to by name, references to backbenchers being phrased as 'he/she, Senator or Member'. At a certain point, designated usually by journalist initiative, one reporter will remove his/her recorder, placed close to the Member, and exit. That first movement results in a more general move of other journalists keen not to be beaten in the race to release the briefings gems. The news that flows from that briefing over the next twenty four hours says much about the relationship between the gallery and politicians and the avenues for backbench interaction with the gallery and national coverage.

The role of spokesperson at the party briefings is a backbench position that offers great opportunity for interaction with gallery journalists. The responsibility involved in handling the questions and checking information so that Senators and Members involved in party room debate can feel secure that the confidentiality of their opinions will remain within the party room is a task that illustrates to peers and press alike, the confidence in which the spokesperson is held within their party. But for an aspiring frontbencher the position is also fraught with danger. What is revealed and what remains hidden requires a very fine line which if crossed will produce party displeasure or press mistrust. The confidence of both is not easily won. It is more easily lost.

While the briefing produces limited identifiable sources the following media reports will likely fill the gaps. They will produce detail. 'I have spoken to journalists and told them what happened' said one Liberal backbencher,' but the next day it is written up in a totally different and distorted way because it happened to suit the political line they're running'. Another stated 'if rung about the party meeting I'll talk to journalists but to push the Government line. You shouldn't be afraid to speak to the press.' One journalist confirmed this tendency, lamenting that the only value a backbencher has to a journalist is as a source and that role was often poorly fulfilled. 'Nine times out of ten you will get a political message, you won't get information, you will get the filtered response. The thing is to find the politician who will tell you exactly what went on in the Party room.'

The very sensitive issue of the Party reaction to the decision of the Prime Minister not to apologise to Aborigines for the 'stolen children' on behalf of the nation produced continual questioning from journalists at the subsequent briefing.(11) In response to those questions the impression was left that one Member, probably a woman, had raised the issue.

Journalists are aware that their questions will be answered but the responsibility to ask the right question as a result of the briefing or to guess at what might have been discussed in gaining the story they want, is theirs. Reports the next day indicated that a number of MPs had called on the Government to be more sensitive in expressing its sadness at the events of the past. Lenore Taylor in the Financial Review claimed that backbenchers Mr Peter Nugent and Mrs Danna Vale had supported the need for a national apology while 'Dr Brendan Nelson, Mr Joe Hockey, Mrs Christine Gallus, Mrs Sharman Stone and Mr Phillip Barresi also called for a compassionate response by the government ... .'(12) Other Coalition backbenchers, Mrs De-Ann Kelly, Mr Ian Causley, Mr Bob Katter and Liberal Mr Wilson Tuckey were reported to have 'emphasised the need to move forward and the well intentioned nature of the policies at the time they were carried out.' Tony Wright, in the SMH, who had reported a day earlier Mr Peter Nugent's call for an apology as the Federal Government's representative on the National Reconciliation Council(13) after the Tuesday meeting reported that Mr Nugent, Ms Danna Vale and Mrs Christine Gallus had declared that a national apology was required.(14) He also wrote that the 'sensitivity of the issue within the Government was highlighted when the Government's official party room spokesman, Mr Kevin Andrews, later denied that any MP or senator called for an apology.'(15) The Age reported that Mrs Vale's comments 'had not been "passionate" and had been rejected by the meeting.'(16) In the Australian it was reported that 'John Howard won Coalition party room support' for his handling of the report although the final paragraph noted that '12 government members spoke about the stolen children report and 'two' had expressed concern.(17) The West Australian report by Randal Markey was headlined, 'Howard told to be more sympathetic'. The report indicated that Christine Gallus had 'expressed her sadness at the plight of the children' and reported that 'some MPs and senators had called on the government to be more sensitive in expressing its sadness at the events of the past.'

The reports indicated that the reporters were similarly informed by their various sources although there was some variation in the named dissenters calling for more sympathetic public response from the Prime Minister. The reports also indicated the flexibility accorded those who reported the issue to delve as deeply or as superficially as the value they placed on any agenda item. However, the reported responses illustrated a journalistic assessment that it was important to report what others present at the briefing would. Worthy of note is that the critical stand taken by three backbenchers on Government response to the issue was reported as a challenge to the Government but the fact that presumably over a hundred other backbenchers made no comment received virtually no press acknowledgment.

The responsibility of individual journalists to pursue all or any reports further than the information given after the joint Party room meetings requires consideration. If they choose not to add to what is offered at the meeting they will probably be regarded as lazy and if they do they could be responding to a government set news agenda. Even these considerations need to be balanced against the fact that a number of journalists know what happened in the party room before they attend the briefing and at times refuse to give away source advantage by asking questions that will alert, but presumably also inform, their peers less enlightened by their sources.

One journalist claimed that in the 'old Parliament more attention was paid to what went on in the Party rooms and therefore backbench leaks became important to you-you always needed two, one to tell you and one to check. You could get six versions, not because the members wanted to distort their reports necessarily, but because we hear what we want to hear and block out the rest.' Some backbenchers' belief that those politicians whose names appear most often in the reports are those that leak is denied by gallery journalists whose individual sources vary and are often those not involved in the reported issue. The denial could be as convenient as true. One journalist questioned the sense for backbenchers in leaking. 'It's self defeating to an extent. You are bound to protect your sources so what's the pay-off? You don't mention them in your stories from the party room but if you do a profile or something on them what you are really doing is pointing a finger and saying this is my Liberal party leak. You have to be very careful not to expose your leak.'

Some journalists regard the briefing as essential for gauging the appropriate contact to get the 'real story', 'it's just good housekeeping'. Others refuse to go to be humiliated with the offerings of what they regard as half truths. 'I never go to those briefings because I think it is a waste of time-you only get told what they want to tell you. I'll go to the people I've known for some years or I've developed and I'll say, what happened. ''This, this, this and this'' '.

Despite the levels of gameplaying perhaps such tactics inadvertently encourage the search for truth. Challenges in the 1970s and 1980s to the practice of 'objective journalism' have determined that political information will rarely, except for expediency by the lazy journalist, be taken at face value.(18) Nevertheless, the source of information retains considerable control of the news agenda.

An isolated environment

In addressing the criticism that gallery journalists are too isolated from the community, one gallery doyenne, Michelle Grattan, observed that it 'can be argued that journalists in the Press Gallery are in fact rather more divorced from the so-called "real world'' than the politicians. The journalists live in Canberra, unlike the parliamentarians, and they do not

have the advantage-if that is the right word-of the regular return to the electorate which gives parliamentarians much immediate feedback, welcome or not. Canberra based journalists need to make special efforts to keep in touch with opinion outside the national capital'.(19) One experienced politician agreed. 'This gallery is too isolated. This gallery wouldn't know if it was day or night most of the time. This is a very big problem ... it is endemic.' Similar comment is not difficult to document from politicians or journalists. 'As gallery journalists', stated one, "we tend to forget about what people are saying to politicians and how they are responding, especially stuck here in the parliament. The reason the size of the last election wasn't forecast by the gallery was because we weren't talking to 'Joe Blow'.' The comment emphasises a potential and perhaps underutilised importance of the backbencher to gallery journalists. But that conclusion requires qualification.

Some gallery journalists do contact politicians in their electorates to gain understanding of broad community concerns and the likelihood of these developing issues becoming part of the parliamentary agenda. Aban Contractor, a journalist with the Canberra Times, spent a few days each with three Government backbenchers in their electorates to write a series of feature articles on three backbenchers.(20) One issue covered by Contractor was how backbenchers sell the budget to their electorates. Another journalist claimed that he/she always rings around electorates in 'quiet times' but while the information gained would enrich reportage it was rarely if ever specifically reported. When asked 'why?' the journalist replied:

I don't have any responsibility to report a wide cross section of the views of Australia. I'm here to report about the power machinations and the policy debates that happen.

Conclusion

Perhaps one impediment in early formation of relationships between new politicians and the gallery is the identification of many MPs with their electorate-gratitude at being elected as well as determination to make a difference and remain elected. For most new federal politicians this equates in their first term of office with concentration on their local media outlets. For many new politicians, it is a slow dawning that national politics is not generous to localised considerations. The comment quoted above represented a clear understanding of one gallery journalist's role in relation to reporting the wider community. That journalist was also clear about the role of the backbencher in the political communication process.

It is for the politician to bring the views of the Australian people to Parliament - the views channel up[from the constituency]. If I ring for soundings it's because I can get a feel for the up-and-coming issues-but it is for the politician to bring them into Parliament.

The assessment of another experienced political commentator, that 'Parliament is not reported', illustrates the complexity of the issue of the perceived and actual roles of backbenchers and gallery journalists in the communication process.

When I asked a journalist with thirty years experience in the gallery if there was any value for a backbencher in establishing a relationship with the gallery, he asserted positively, 'Yes, there is value,' but in a quieter and increasingly reflective mode continued 'yes there is, there is, ... or there can be.' Another experienced journalist said 'Yes, because we need them and they need us'. It is evident in analysis of political reports and in interviews with backbenchers and gallery journalists that a strong, mutually valued working relationship exists in the 38th Parliament. It is sustained in an environment of contradictory elements and balances of trust and mistrust, approbation and disgust, laced with cynicism and a constant manoeuvring for control that characterises the best of games.

The value of the relationship between the two varies as a result of journalistic dependence on the backbench as a source and political determination of the value of national publicity. While a relationship with particular journalists may ensure that the individual member's voice is publicly registered each politician must weigh carefully the electoral constituency and/or party fallout from the use of media to voice opinion. It is for this reason that a number of very experienced journalists, after reflection on the value of involvement for MPs with the gallery have asserted that there is little to gain in the relationship. Others however, assert that it is only through exposure in the gallery that experience required in promotional positions in politics will be learnt. They have not only to be learnt they have to be survived.

The working of the relationship between backbenchers and the gallery has significant implications for the public image of MPs generated. That image helps to define the role of the locally elected MP in the formation of public policy and the resultant reflections of the balance between local and national concerns in the production of policy. Existing attitudes between the key players in the production of that image exert a central influence on the quality of political communication in Australia. The relationship between backbenchers and gallery journalists is well defined as symbiotic. It is vital, however, that the oft repeated acceptance of the mutual dependency between MPs and reporters does not disguise the many strands and complexities that comprise the relationship.

Endnotes

  1. Unattributed quotations related to journalists and politicians are taken from taped interviews conducted by the author in Parliament House during 1997. To date, thirty-five backbenchers and fifteen gallery journalists have been interviewed. The interviews were conducted at Parliament House and were taped. In selecting the backbenchers to interview consideration was made to balance factors such as party, state, experience in Parliament and the varying levels of media coverage accorded individual politicians. The selection of gallery journalists considered length of experience in the gallery, proprietorial association and communication medium. Some issues raised in this paper will be the subject of more detailed analysis in the monograph.

  2. Rodney Tiffen, News and Power, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1989, p. 69.

  3. Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Seminar, Parliament House Sydney, 1 October, 1996, p. 64.

  4. For example, veteran political journalist and commentator Mike Steketee, while acknowledging that access to politicians in Australia is easier than in many other countries where premises are not shared, claims that 'the sense of intimacy, even involvement, which this created in the old parliament House, where all the ministerial offices and those of senior Opposition members were within a few minutes' walk of the Press Gallery, has diminished.' Julian Disney and J. R. Nethercote (eds), The House on Capital Hill. Parliament, Politics and Power in the National Capital, Federation Press, Sydney, 1996, p. 197.

  5. Weekend Australian, 14 June 1997, p. 1, Libs to pressure PM over tax, jobs, John Short.

  6. ABC AM, 16 June 1997.

  7. Ibid.

  8. The closest recent similarity to the present political composition in the House of Representatives was the election of a Coalition Government in 1975. The resulting large new backbench produced considerable media coverage as the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser sought to maintain the image of Government harmony.

  9. Timothy E. Cook, Making Laws and Making News-The Brookings Institution Washington, DC, 1989, p. 1.

  10. ibid.

  11. Discussion of this issue began in late May, and was highlighted by the Prime Minister's address in Melbourne at the Aboriginal Reconciliation Conference, Monday 26 May 1997, where a personal apology was offered for the forced separation of Aboriginal children from their families but rejected the need for an official Australian apology.

  12. Financial Review, 4 June 1997, p. 4, ALP Wik stance renews election speculation, Lenore Taylor.

  13. SMH, 3 June 1997, p. 5, Liberal MP splits ranks on apology, Tony Wright.

  14. SMH, 4 June 1997, p. 1, PM should say sorry, judge tells the world, Tony Wright.

  15. ibid.

  16. Age, 4 June 1997, p. 4, Standing suffers over apology: judge, Ben Mitchell.

  17. Australian, 4 June 1997, p. 4, House waters down motion to apologise, Fiona Kennedy, Georgina Windsor and AAP.

  18. The term 'objective journalism' is usually used to describe the practice of reporting in the 1960s where reports contained 'the contents of official documents, or statements delivered by official spokesmen. ... Objective journalism preserved, with five columns of accompanying text, the official record.' Tom Wicker, On Press:A Top Reporter's Life in, and Reflections on, American Journalism, Viking, NY, 1978, (first edition, 1975), p. 3. See also Daniel Hallin, The 'Uncensored War', The Media and Vietnam, Oxford University Press, 1986 pp. 63-75.

  19. Julian Disney and J. R. Nethercote (eds), op.cit, p. 122.

  20. Canberra Times, 10 May 1997, C 3, Fretting at the edge, (about Mrs De Anne Kelly, Member for Dawson), 17 May 1997, C 2, A New Woman gets to Work, (about Mrs Joanna Gash, Member for Gilmore), 24 May 1997, C 4, Braving the Budget Blues(about Mr Gary Nairn, Member for Eden-Monaro) All three articles were written by Aban Contractor.

 

 

References

This paper is based largely on the interviews done by the author with gallery journalists and backbench Members of the House of Representatives during 1997.

Suzanne Charte, The New News vs the Old News: The Press and politics in the 1990s, New York: Twentieth Century Fund.

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Seminar, Parliament House Sydney, 1 October 1996.

Timothy E. Cook, Making Laws and Making News, The Brookings Institution Washington, DC, 1989.

Julian Disney and J.R. Nethercote (eds), The House on Capital Hill. Parliament, Politics and Power in the National Capital, Federation Press, Sydney, 1996.

Robert Entman, Democracy without citizens. Media and the decay of American politics, Oxford, NY, 1989.

James Fallows, Breaking the News. How the Media Undermine American Democracy, Pantheon Books, New York, 1996.

Peter Golding, Graham Murdock, and Phillip Schlesinger (eds), Communicating politics. Mass communications and the political process, Leicester University Press, Holmes and Meier, NY, 1986.

Stephen Hess, The Washington Reporters, Brookings Institution, Washington DC, 1981.

The Ultimate Insiders: US Senators in the national media, Brookings Institution, Washington DC, 1986.

Clem Lloyd, Parliament and the Press: the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery 1901-88, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988

Judy McGregor, Dangerous democracy? News Media Politics in New Zealand, Dunmore Press, 1996.

Ralph Negrine, The Communication of Politics, SAGE Publications, London, 1996.

Derek Parker, The Courtesans. The Press Gallery in the Hawke Era, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1991.

Rodney Tiffen, News and Power, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1989.

 

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