Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 20:34 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 20:34 | SYDNEY

Wise words from the Press Gallery


Graeme Dobell

28 October 2011 09:32

Two of the greats of the Canberra Press Gallery have sent down pronouncements from the Hill on the past and future of that murky place where journalists joust with politicians and policy.

One missive is the Andrew Olle Lecture by Laurie Oakes. The other is from Rob Chalmers, musing on a life devoted to getting 'Inside Canberra'. Each has much to tell anyone trying to understand how Canberra ticks.

Oakes delivers some serious thoughts wrapped amid great anecdotes. Enjoy his description of a long-ago editor chucking a Rupert Murdoch-written editorial into the bin because it was 'rubbish'. And savour Oakes on the mixture of journalistic nous, political knowledge, subterfuge and bluff that produced one of the scoops of the century and helped trigger a double dissolution election over a diplomatic appointment.

Then consider the four dark predictions Oakes makes about what is happening to hackdom:

Prediction 1: What's been called 'the industrialization of journalism'.

More stories being produced for more outlets at ever greater speed by fewer people...with consequences unlikely to be pretty...My fear is that tomorrow's press gallery will be serving up Happy Meals.

Prediction 2: Spin will become even more pervasive and powerful, believe it or not.

The PR industry is getting stronger and stronger. "Bulking up as if it's on steroids," someone has said...And increasingly, overworked journalists battling the 24-hour tyranny, and news organizations forced to do it on the cheap, will be sitting ducks.

Prediction 3: Political journalists will be bypassed more and more.

In the last US presidential campaign, all the candidates made the rounds of the comedy shows. David Letterman announced, only half-joking: "The road to the White House runs through me"...In the US, Barack Obama's communications director has taunted members of the Washington press corps that eventually they could be rendered obsolete through the use of presidential messages posted directly onto YouTube and other internet sites.

Prediction 4: Bloggers will start to usurp the role of determining what is news.

...the greatest challenge is the risk that the blogosphere, with its tendency to rush to judgement and circulate scuttlebutt, will push the mainstream media into a race to the bottom.

For all its meat, treat the Oakes' lecture as entrée for the marvellous memoirs of Rob Chalmers, 'Inside the Canberra Press Gallery: Life in the Wedding Cake of Old Parliament House'. The book can be downloaded for free. Arriving in the gallery in 1951, Rob stayed pounding out words from Parliament for the next 60 years until his death this year, covering 12 prime ministers, 24 federal elections and five changes of government.

The yarns are classic Chalmers – sharp analysis delivered with Rob's broad grin and a slight cocking of the head, the better to hear the next juicy morsel.

The book shows there has never been a golden age in the deals and duels between hacks and pollies: a symbiotic relationship that continually erupts into war. Consider as one example Chalmers' account of an 'historic injustice' in 1955 when the House of Representative summoned a journalist and editor to the bar of the House and then sent to the two to jail, on a motion moved by the Prime Minister.

To see some of the origins of Oakes' worry about the power of spin, see Chalmers' chapter on The Influence Seekers. Or just surf through and savour the stories and the personalities.

Rob Chalmers has done Canberra proud, as he always did. Yet, gentleman that he was, he never hesitated to make the hard calls when he fronted the keyboard. Here are the opening words of Rob's final chapter:

The political system must be turned on its head. After nearly 60 years of observing politics from the gallery, I believe the system has lost its way. The competition for ideas is constrained as parliamentary colleagues of the Prime Minister or Opposition Leader are required to fall in behind whatever policies they hand down from on high. Before new policies are introduced, the political leaders give too much weight to the political advantage or disadvantage that might follow. There is excessive attention devoted to market research and devising the best spin for new policies, and not enough to the intrinsic merits or otherwise of policies. The stranglehold on political power by the two major parties, Labor and Liberal, needs to be broken. We need more parties, not less, and a system that will encourage the participation of the grassroots of parties in policy formulation. Rigid party discipline and television have combined to transform the Prime Minister from a party leader to an elected dictator and celebrity. Few prime ministers or presidents in modern Western democracies are as powerful as the Australian Prime Minister.