The Press Gallery

So I’m late to the Gillard Speech party, or at least the ensuing commentary about the commentary. So shoot me. I didn’t much like the party, filled with cowboys and girls, their guns loaded with smug certitude and me packing just an old-fashioned belief in thinking things over.

But hey, so go these lawless fields of published opinion. Doubt will damn you. Shoot first, or be forgotten. Out here, it’s the same thing as being killed…

With 2 million+ hits, Gillard’s stirring polemic now nestles in Youtube’s firmament, amongst the videos of cattle playing Bingo and a Kardashian sharting on a red carpet*. Vulgar surrealism aside, our Prime Minister’s oratory exhilarated large numbers of people, both here and overseas. And I was one of them.

Initially I wondered why Australians might need their excitement—nay, ennoblement—certified by the press gallery, but it seemed churlish to insist on this after reviewing the stale uniformity of the gallery’s response.

The criticism of the Canberra press gallery—that they had missed the point of the speech by privileging parliamentary brinksmanship over its cultural impact—was met by a predicable defensiveness, but not all of it was illegitimate.

It’s the gallery’s job to contextualise events, explaining individual moments in a larger pattern of machination and strategy. Even so, the argument went, the international press was not blinkered by superciliousness—and they didn’t bury the lead.

This argument is broadly true, but it’s also broadly true that an international audience wouldn’t much care about the parliamentary context. The expectations of an international readership—and the obligations of international publications—are different.

Still. If we properly expect parliamentary debate to be both about and for us, the people, then the gallery’s framing of events must be broader than (but inclusive of) the brutal calculus of seats. The gallery shouldn’t instinctively reject criticism as impatience with the unlovely but vital crosswinds of politics—it’s often impatience with the unrelenting, incongruous attention to insider detail.

I can’t be the only person who bristles with the portentous sermons of our Sunday morning talk shows. The solemn intonation of the petty and the bleeding obvious; the substitution of baritone and pregnant pauses for wisdom.

Many—not all—of our gallery commentators preference things that the rest of us wisely ignore. Gallery writing is often dull, unfamiliar and artless—the emphases all wrong.

While our politics struggles to lift itself from shallowness, our reporting needn’t—and no, I’m not arguing that gallery members expunge the record of things that might not entertain or edify us.

The uniformity of coverage of the Prime Minister’s speech is worth pausing on. Is there an institutionalised consensus making here? If so, is it simply the self-reinforcing insularity of microcosms? Or is it structural? Are cutbacks forcing gallery members of the same tribe to share more and more material?

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for accuracy and corroboration, but it’s dispiriting to think on the uniformity—and the abject absence of eloquence or iconoclasm. Refinement of our national discussion is promoted by the diversity of our letters.

Writing on the death of George McGovern last week—the ’72 Democratic US Presidential candidate—journalist Ron Rosenbaum wrote that the ’72 election marked a significant transfer of power from the politicos to reporters—the “boys on the bus” were now writing the campaign narrative. McGovern thought the same.

The power of the campaign press was considerable, argued Rosenbaum, but so too was the insularity. While watching the hundredth iteration of a stump speech in Ohio, the boys on the bus were missing the larger story back in Washington—the systemic corruption and bastardry we now refer to by its infamous shorthand “Watergate”.

As the campaign bus rumbled on, and the narrative was sanded and lacquered by gifted but cocooned newsmen, two rookies were following the money. It’s fascinating to ponder if Woodward and Bernstein’s success was partly fuelled by their youthfulness and outsiderness—they just weren’t senior enough to hop on the bus and be driven away from the story…

It’s an imperfect analogy for our press gallery and the uniformity of The Speech’s coverage. But there’s enough in the comparison for reflection. Much like the gallery must be, I’m bored by the recent adoption of the acronym for mainstream media (MSM) as a four-letter word. Its use frequently reeks of schadenfreude. But the gallery must also realise that, like the men and women it covers, they are—in their own mediated way—there to serve us all.

*These videos may not exist.

One Response to The Press Gallery

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    If ever there were an indication of how irrelevant the MSM is doomed to become, it is this week’s saturation coverage of Sandy. (Sorry about the pun but it is the right word to use.)
    In her speech to the Lowy Institute about the Asian Century last weekend, the PM told the media that it needs to refocus so that our news is more inclusive of events in Asia.
    Now as anyone knows if they pay any attention at all to events in Asia, there are huge natural disasters there all the time, and the human suffering and the cost of it beggars belief because they lack basic infrastructure to manage it. News if there is any about volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods and fire in Asia is nearly always tucked away in a tiny column at the end of media reports about everything else. (It’s probably also hidden away in the ABC’s Asia Pacific which I never hear any more since they shifted its time slot. I see it has a wow-worthy 887 followers these days). How amazing that this program even exists, isolating news about Asia for a specialist audience!
    This week, the ABC has spent up to 15 minutes of each bulletin on the Sandy prequel, the dead period in the middle of the night when no one knew what was happening, and its aftermath, and then breathlessly repeated some of it all over again in PM and 7.30. As a break from that this week there was also an extended report about an election in an obscure European republic, so obscure that I now can’t even remember which one it was, except that there was a lot about a boxer who was standing for election.
    I heard this week too that universities are shelving their Asian languages courses because of poor enrolments, and this amazes me because it is the universities that have the power to exact the requirement that every journalism student major in an Asian language. I can’t imagine any journalist in the UK not having at least either French or German, but here our journos flit in and out of Asia relying on interpreters everywhere they go. No wonder they are so ignorant about the cultures they blunder in and out of, and no wonder they don’t realise how offensive it is that an American natural disaster takes up sooooo much air space and an Asian one barely rates a mention. No, not unless thousands and thousands die as in the Boxing Day Tsunami, which made it An Event worthy of our notice.
    The Gallery with its Same Old Same Old faces has lost the plot, telling us the Same Old Same Old over and over again and we have stopped listening.

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