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Reporters and the reported

By James Campbell - posted Friday, 24 August 2007

Scorn personal exchanges between columnists. Observers presuming to be participants in debate remove the reader from the reality of controversy; theirs is merely a photo of a painting of a statue, or a towel-throwing contest between fight managers. Insist on columns taking on only the truly powerful, and then only kicking 'em when they're up.

This was the advice William Safire gave to young journalists as he signed-off his last column for the New York Times last year. Recently the air in the Canberra press gallery was thick with flying manchester as its members took time off from speculating about the date of the next election to write about their favourite subject: themselves.

As everyone now knows the debate was about the ethics or otherwise of Michael Brissenden’s decision to confirm, two years after the event, some of Peter Costello’s table talk about the Prime Minister. The sour grapes on display have been hilarious.


At least Matt Price was prepared to concede that “some of the details” of the story were “very interesting”. Dennis Shanahan, who has lately had to admit that the Labor party under Kevin Rudd is “competitive”, was having none of it. “The story had well and truly moved on since June 2005” he opined, reassuring his readers that the revelation “will amount to little more than a lost day for the Liberals”.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Allan Ramsey thought it was a “dead cat of two years standing” and that “most people, other than the Labor Opposition, were bored by the story, it was the reporters who wouldn't let it go”: a position reinforced by his decision to devote his Saturday blog, sorry column, to the subject.

Likewise Glenn Milne in the Daily Telegraph thought the story “consumed not many more people than the occupants of Parliament House in Canberra”.

You’ve got to love the press gallery, not only do they report what goes on in Canberra, they’re experts on what the rest of us find interesting as well.

On one hand their dismissal of the story is easy to understand: who knows how many times over the years they have heard the Treasurer say what he was “gonna do” with no follow up action to follow his words? Perhaps it is all par-for-the-course over there.

On the other hand, while it might have seemed old hat to them, the story was extremely interesting to the rest of us, not least for the light it throws on the press gallery’s relationship with the politicians. Apparently the fact that the Treasurer was prepared to destroy the government if he didn’t get his way was not newsworthy. What else are they keeping to themselves?


Probably quite a lot. That we might feel miffed at being left out of the loop (as we were over the love between Cheryl and Gareth) occurred to Matt Price, but he pleaded for our understanding:

“This is not a perfect system, but private conversations with sources help reporters understand what is happening so [they] are better able to inform their readers” he said, ignoring the point that in this case that was what the reporters had spectacularly failed to do. And anyway it was unfair to single out the press gallery: “it's the same for people who write on sport, police rounds, business, entertainment, gossip columns and all other areas of reporting.”

It was strange that Price should cite the world of sport in mitigation because the we-know-things-but-we’re-not-telling-you disease is far more advanced in sports reporting than anywhere else.

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About the Author

James Campbell is a free lance journalist based in London. He is a former adviser to Victorian Shadow Health Minister, Helen Shardey.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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