Thursday, July 15, 2010

Journalists and politicians: A double danger to democracy

Journalists share an uneasy yet cosy relationship with the politicians they use as sources with both sides using available media for their own ends, neither of which usually serve the public good. That these relationships pose many difficulties to democracy was shown again in two incidents that occurred in the last 24 hours.

In the first incident, Australian Immigration Minister Chris Evans’ apparently off the record incendiary remarks at a Sydney speech were noted by a journalist and spilled into the public record today. In a second incident, NSW politician Barry O’Farrell accidentally sent a journalist a Twitter open reply that was meant to be an off the record Twitter Direct Message. Both incidents cast an unsavoury light on the closely bound relationships that govern both journalists and their political sources. Occasionally their relationships get both into trouble and lead to a public loss of trust of politicians and journalists alike.

Evans’ troubles began when he was invited to be the keynote speaker at a University of NSW-Harvard University conference on immigration. The event was publicly advertised and listed on wire agency AAP's diary with television cameras invited to capture his latest comments on the debate over asylum seekers. However on arrival Evans wanted to change the rules. He said he would do a quick media “doorstop” on arrival and then asked for a closed session where he could speak frankly to academics about the issues. The term “doorstop” is illuminating because it prevents a door from opening too widely. Evans knew he could give a brief and uninformative response before dealing with the meat of the issue without prying journalists around.

The problem was that 2UE journalist Matt de Groot was late arriving to the venue and knew nothing about the change of plan. He was ushered into the room where he heard an expansive Evans talk honestly about the asylum debate which he said was killing the Government. Evans also admitted that radio talkback shock jocks were deliberately promoting misinformation about the debate to stoke up a xenophobic reaction in their listeners.

At the end of the debate, de Groot approached Evans’ media adviser with the intention of getting the Minister to speak on these matters. The adviser was horrified and told de Groot the speech would not look good for the minister if reported and was off the record anyway. De Groot insisted he would report what he heard. Evans’ minders told the journalist if he did so, he would be acting unethically.

De Groot took the “publish and be damned” path but as expected, it was Evans who was mostly damned today. It was almost enough to feel sorry for Evans that he be punished for plain speaking but given that politicians are content to play the game with journalists, he has only himself to blame when the rules break down. Crikey’s editorial today put it best: “The moment your government promises a ‘frank, open, honest national conversation on the issues of border protection and asylum seekers’ then they must tell it like it is to everyone, not just a select group of officials.”

The O’Farrell slip-up was a different category error though it also involved a 2UE reporter and a senior politician. It throws light on the symbiotic relationship between journalists and their sources. NSW Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell was attempting to send a Direct Message to the Canberra Press Gallery journalist Latika Bourke. “Deeply off the record – I think the timetable & struggle to get candidates reflects internal poll – pre & post the ranga.” Translated, it meant the Liberals were struggling to attract quality candidates to stand for the forthcoming Federal Election and the ascension of Julia Gillard (the “ranga”) to the role of Prime Minister has made no difference.

But to O’Farrell’s horror the message was not as deeply off the record as he would have liked – he accidentally chose the Twitter reply option rather than DM making the message immediately visible to any of his 3,548 followers online at the time. O’Farrell quickly realised his error and deleted the offending tweet. But by then it was too late having been re-tweeted at least nine times and captured as a screenprint by Tally Room blogger Ben Raue.

The media immediately seized on the mistake which in time honoured fashion was renamed a “gaffe”. The Australian chose to highlight the unflattering nickname of Gillard as the ranga, (from “orangutan” referring to Gillard’s red hair) though any number of commentators have gotten away with this moniker using humour as a cloak – with Gillard herself often seeing the funny side.

But again no one picked up on why O’Farrell should decide to illuminate the journalist Bourke in this manner. The familiar tone suggested they had done this before. Forget the “ranga”, why is it that the Liberals preselection woes are “deeply off the record”? Politicians use the “off the record” tag to get damaging material off their chest without suffering the consequences. Journalists, ever protective of their access to senior politicians, collude in this game and it is the general public who suffer. As Wendy Bacon and Chris Nash wrote in 1999 “journalists should commit themselves to confidentiality only in the pursuit of the public right to information and generally should seek to place as much information on the record in ways that are verifiable.”

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