What lies beneath Canberra's silence?

For us outsiders, some of the reporting and commentary out of Canberra is confounding. That’s putting it mildly.

We assume that the significant, if dwindling number of journalists who make up the Canberra press gallery are there to inform us punters about what’s happening in federal politics.

That’s a broad brief but the press gallery is home to some of the country's best journalists – veterans and up and comers – so the task should not be beyond them.

We can assume that they are based in Canberra and spend most of their waking hours in Parliament House because that gives them great access to politicians, political staffers and even public servants.

That access, we suppose, means they can provide us with news, analysis and commentary that is informed, accurate and fearless. We are also entitled to assume that they are telling us everything they know.

That includes telling us when politicians say one thing in off the record conversations and something entirely different for public consumption.

There are clearly rules of engagement in journalism and that’s particularly true when it comes to politicians and the journalists who cover politics.

These rules are rarely discussed and rarely open to public scrutiny. These rules are contentious because the interests of politicians and the interests of journalists are – or should be – entirely different.

In my view, the rules of engagement, for some time now, have not worked. They have allowed politicians to get away with telling untruths and have led to a situation where journalists can’t tell us what’s really going on.

It often feels as if the rules of engagement are such that most of what journalists in Canberra know can’t be revealed to us outsiders.

Indeed, there are times when journalists report statements that politicians make publicly when the journalists know that these statements are untrue. How do they know? Because these same politicians, in off the record conversations – which means they can’t be reported – have given journalists the 'real' story.

Take the issue of Kevin Rudd’s future. There were two major opinion polls this week. Both showed that Julia Gillard and the Labor government had made significant progress in climbing back from the parlous state both the prime minister and the government were in three months ago.

Kathryn Murphy is a senior Fairfax journalist in Canberra. Part of her take on the polls was to say that Kevin Rudd and his supporters "haven’t got much time" to mount a challenge to Gillard.

"Camp Rudd feels it needs to leverage the next two published poll cycles; this week’s Nielson and Newspoll and the Newspoll the fortnight after. So if that’s the game we are in (and I’m afraid we are, whether readers want to be or not) what does today’s Age/Nielsen Poll tell us?"

Murphy was not the only journalist in Canberra who examined the polls through the prism of what they meant for 'camp Rudd’.

Indeed most of the analysis of the polls at the very least touched on Rudd and whether he would or wouldn’t run out of time in the remaining four weeks of parliament to mount a challenge against Gillard.

Now this is bizarre. For a start, is there really a 'camp Rudd’ and if there is, who’s organising the camp, where are their tents pitched and what exactly are their motives?

How about some names? Who are these people and how organised a group are they? Does the group include cabinet ministers, and if that’s the case, don’t they have to be 'outed’? Isn’t there a real ethical issue if cabinet ministers are involved in organising a challenge against the prime minister?

Kathryn Murphy, and other journalists, no doubt know the answers to these questions but what about the rest of us – is it possible for us to know as well? Isn’t that what the journalists are there in Canberra to do?

What about Kevin Rudd? There he was last week doing an interview from the World Economic Forum where, he let it be known, he was meeting all sorts of important people, including the former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Nothing wrong with all that. But if there is a 'camp Rudd’, was this interview part of the camp’s plan for a Rudd challenge to Gillard before the end of the year?

And is Rudd active in 'camp Rudd’? It’s hard to imagine that Kevin Rudd is not briefing journalists whom he trusts about his hopes for the future.

So many questions, so few answers. Just as there were so many questions and so few answers back in February when for most people outside Canberra, the Rudd challenge to Gillard seemed to come from nowhere.

This was in part because Rudd had insisted publicly that he was not mounting a challenge when quite a few journalists were being told, off the record, that a challenge was on the cards. The only question was when it would be launched.

I do not mean to suggest that Kevin Rudd is the only politician who uses the rules of engagement with journalists to his advantage, but he is bloody good at it, up there with the best of them.

Meanwhile, the controversy over whether Tony Abbott did or didn’t punch the wall beside the head of a young woman who had beaten him for the presidency of the SRC at Sydney University 35 years ago rages on.

What’s interesting about this controversy is that it was sparked by one paragraph in a 12,000 word profile of Abbott by David Marr in Quarterly Essay.

Marr is a very good profile writer and everyone knows, surely, that given his politics and his social liberalism, he was unlikely to feel great warmth for Abbott when he set out to research his essay.

There is no evidence in the essay that Marr changed his views about Abbott, after Marr had completed his research. In a sense, that’s the greatest shortcoming of his Abbott profile.

But of course none of this has been much discussed. What has been discussed and endlessly analysed is the alleged wall-punching incident – and if it happened, what it says about Tony Abbott back then and more importantly, today.

Here again there has been a sort of failure by the press gallery, especially by those reporters and commentators in the gallery who have known about Abbott for decades.

They should know whether he is still the angry misogynist that the wall-punching incident suggests he was when he was young. That’s the real issue. Some Labor politicians and some commentators – based on nothing much – reckon he still has an anger management problem as well as a 'problem’ with women.

Is this true? Michelle Grattan did say in a piece on the controversy that, having known Abbott for decades, she didn’t think Abbott was an angry, bad guy with a problem with women. But there has been virtually nothing from other journalists who have known Abbott for a long time and who surely should have something worthwhile to say about all this.

The rules of engagement in Canberra need to be re-examined. It would be good to feel that we are being told what’s really going on in national politics.

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Thanks for this it clearly illustrates that our press quality is marginal at best – e.g the screams about NSW Govt holding or reducing funding for education no doubt a serious issue but where did any journalist puts it of the context of the whole or show the shortfall of funding that the State will receive (What lies beneath Canberra's silence? September 18.)
Why? Too lazy/ignorant or more interested in a headline.
The real effect is that an accurate comment/review of the totality is completely hidden.
Great article on the Canberra press gallery but it does not go far enough (What lies beneath Canberra's silence?, September 18). It is not only David Marr that has Left leaning politics and social liberalism.
The whole press gallery and especially the ABC are generally Left leaning and give the Labor party an easier ride than the Liberals.
Even when covering the Liberals, Turnbull is always written about in a more positive light than Abbott yet both are equally educated and successful in their own way. The difference? Turnbull is actually more a Labor politician than a Liberal one.
We learned little or nothing about Kevin Rudd's real character until late, very late into his Prime Ministership when his shortcoming could no longer be brushed aside.
The good thing is that the rise of the Internet and social media has exposed journalists to competition and their diminishing ranks now cannot always set the agenda.
Michael this is not a Canberra-exclusive event - it is country wide and media wide (What lies beneath Canberra's silence? September 18). Journalistic standards have dropped dramatically in this country: the focus is apparently on promoting a reaction, rather than providing a balanced, objective, truthful report on the observed event.
An example is the widely misreported selective edits of Gina Rinehart's recent comments regarding the state of this country, which led to widespread attacks on her character. The context of her comments was deliberately ignored in order to provoke a response. The fact that international organisations are widely reporting deteriorating business conditions, falling standards and performance in Australia were ignored. Instead we hear of $2 a day workers, and worse...comments reinforced by some Labor backbencher twit yesterday. She made no such call, she simply pointed out that this is our reality and this is what we must compete with. To do so successfully, we must alter the way we do business, the way we operate, in order to be competitive. Sadly most never went and viewed the video - had they I'm sure most would be as concerned as I am for where we are going as a nation.
Obviously there are many questions that need to be asked about the under-performance of our journalists. I guess we can start with a simple one: what are they being taught in the universities these days?
No surprise then that Australians rate both politicians and journalists around about the level of second hand car salespeople (What lies beneath Canberra's silence? September 18).
Michael, I can only suggest you read 'The Australian' more often (What lies beneath Canberra's silence? September 18). Its readers were unsurprised by the February Rudd challenge having been warned about its imminence by their paper's reporters. If good news and analysis is what you're after, the Oz gives it to all its readers. Fairfax papers have a much narrower range of views.
Now you know how the rest of us felt when you ran 'The Age'.
What a pathetic lot most of the media and their consumers in the Western world are (What lies beneath Canberra's silence? September 18). They go on and on about some one maybe punching a wall and on the other side of the globe about a young lady having her boobs shown on the front page of a magazine. In the meantime Iran builds a nuclear bomb, the middle east is a social, political and economic wreck and European economies and political unions flounder. To say nothing of China having financial indegestion.
Maybe journalists should look at what matters, not at what grabs the temporary attention of a fickle audience
With regard to the use of off-the-record material, perhaps a publicly organised re-examination of the rules of engagement, as recommended in this article, could be undertaken by a panel of ex-insiders (What lies beneath Canberra's silence? September 18). Lindsay Tanner and Michael Gawenda should be among the first co-opted.
With regard to what's on the record, we definitely need senior journalists to make brave judgement calls from time to time. Michelle Grattan was one of the few who did this over the current significance of Abbott's wall-punching and, for that matter, over Julia Gillard's Slater and Gordon imbroglio. The national affairs editor of the Age, on the other hand, spent Saturday's column telling us to move on from the wall-punching incident. Perhaps, he could have confined that advice to one sentence and, for the rest of his column, acted on it.
Quite obviously the 'Business Spectator' should only be read by and is for 'the right' as is suggested 'the Auistralian' (What lies beneath Canberra's silence? September 18).
Has it ever dawned on Sam Richards (September 18, 10.59am) the real difference between Turnbull and Abbott is that Turnbull is more thinking, positive, articulate and eloquent than the ah angry,ah negative, ah less articulate and ah less eloquent Abbott.Thus making Turnbull more plausable and acceptable than Abbott. It has nothing to do with the reporter or interviewer.
The real Abbott showed himself when he was being interviewed by Mark Riley in 2011 as he stood facing the reporter in a state of catatonic speechless anger. He has little 'cred'.
I have long been frustrated by political reporting in our news media (What lies beneath Canberra's silence?, September 22). It seems that politicians can control much of what is reported and virtually write their own headlines. Politicians simply make a suitably outragous and attention grabbing one liner and it is sure to become the headline of most media outlets. Whether the statement has a skeric of truth is often a minor aspect of the reporting. When reduced to "he said" , "she said". It all becomes meaningless. The equivalence implied in this reporting allows politicians to manipulate the story. They know that even if their quotable line is total lies, once it is out there, it will carry equal or perhaps greater weight than the truth, as long as they can rely on a cooperative media. So now Michael, you tell me this is actually part of a bargain or "the rules of engagement."
How frustrating!