FEDERAL PARLIAMENTARY PRESS GALLERY
The Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery (FPPG) was formed shortly after Federation in 1901. Newspapers selected journalists from the ranks of state press galleries to report proceedings, and to gather and present political news from the newly constituted federal parliament.
However, the vexed question of a site for Australia’s national capital was unresolved and the first federal parliament convened in Melbourne in Victoria’s Parliament House. This makeshift arrangement remained in place until 1927, and marked the first phase of the FPPG’s evolution.
During this time, government–media relations reflected existing Westminster conventions. The parliament’s presiding officers (the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate) issued media passes to journalists recommended by a committee of the Press Gallery. The passes permitted the fourth estate to enter the parliament, report from dedicated benches (galleries) overlooking both chambers and use a shared ‘writing up’ room inside the building. At that time, the Gallery consisted of stenographer-journalists, skilled in Pittman shorthand and able to reproduce verbatim accounts of parliamentary proceedings. They were complemented by a smaller, separate press corps of newspaper ‘roundsmen’, who covered the executive (the prime minister and Cabinet), attending briefings at ministers’ offices outside Parliament House.
When the parliament moved to Canberra in 1927, there was a significant shift in these arrangements. The new capital was a work in progress, and there were few services and virtually no social venues. As a result, the transplanted urban political elite clustered together in and around Parliament House, steering federal government–media relations into new territory. Ministers and their staff occupied one wing of the parliamentary building, while the parliament allowed competing commercial media companies to divide the common ‘writing up’ area into separate FPPG bureaux.
The executive and the media’s unprecedented co-location inside Parliament House was originally regarded as a temporary matter of convenience, largely because a permanent Parliament House on Capital Hill was scheduled to supersede the first building. However, this set a new precedent for the Westminster model. But by the time such a building eventuated in 1988, the Canberra model saw the executive and the FPPG deeply embedded inside the ‘sovereign’ space of the new Parliament House.
The terms of engagement for executive–FPPG relations are ill-defined, characterised by the arbitrary use of executive power to punish journalists for breaches of privilege. In 1931, the Scullin Labor government removed a media pass from Melbourne Herald reporter J.A. Alexander for five months for writing a story based on leaked cables between Scullin and members of the Labor Party, while in 1942, the Curtin Labor government banned Press Gallery journalist Richard Hughes from his workplace for an article headlined ‘Those meddlesome old men of the Senate’, and also removed media passes from all of Hughes’ colleagues in the Sunday and Daily Telegraph bureaux. In 1955, Frank Browne and Brian Fitzpatrick from the suburban newspaper the Bankstown Observer and the Things I Hear newsletter were brought before the bar of the House of Representatives and imprisoned for writing a scathing criticism of a government backbencher.
The divisive effects of the executive’s arbitrary exercise of ‘fear and favour’ explains the Press Gallery’s history of avoiding action or complaint when major injustices were meted out to their colleagues.
These incidents can be seen as definitive examples of the way ad hoc arrangements primarily work in favour of the executive’s media management. They demonstrate that the executive has the capacity to keep political journalists on unpredictable ground and make their rights of access to political information subject to political whim. This also helps explain the executive and parliament’s long-standing resistance to any form of institutional recognition of the Canberra fourth estate. Constitutional scholar Geoffrey Sawer described the arrangements under which the Australian media has access to the parliament as ‘wholly contingent and discretionary’.
In the late 1960s, after the FPPG had grown larger, more diverse and unwieldy, the parliament produced a set of guidelines. They were not a step towards institutional recognition, but rather a guide to the ‘rules of engagement’—a product of a reactive process overseen by the parliament’s Standing Committee on Procedure. Since the 1970s, new rulings have been made in response to developments in media technology. The end result is a large number of defensively detailed guidelines to control journalists’ audio, photographic and television coverage of parliamentary proceedings.
The advent of radio, television and electronic wire services significantly changed the FPPG’s size and configuration. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the Press Gallery grew exponentially from around 20 permanent members to 180. In the 1960s and 1970s, new icons of the press gallery—following Joe Alexander and Alan Reid—began to emerge, including Alan Ramsey, Laurie Oakes, Michelle Grattan and Paul Kelly.
The new parliament building now accommodates 300 journalists, as well as support staff such as photographers and camera crews. Fifty FPPG media bureaux occupy 3000 square metres of the building, and are charged a ‘licence fee’ based on market rental rates. The FPPG and parliamentary officials have been notoriously slow to respond to the advent of online and digital platforms. In the early 2000s for instance, Crikey had to fight for recognition, a media pass and space in the Press Gallery wing. Even the FPPG Committee fought against the notion of a Gallery website until June 2013, when its hand was largely forced by a Freedom of Information request from Margo Kingston—a former Gallery journalist and editor of the Sydney-based online No Fibs newsletter.
The website visual tour of the FPPG wing inside Parliament House (http://pressgallery.net. au) shows the physical organisation of the FPPG reflects the dominance of traditional media. This mind-set continues to create tensions over office and studio space. New media start-ups and smaller online political journalists are granted media passes but often have to work from the parliament’s café, whilst there are empty desks in the big Fairfax Media and News Limited offices. The dilemma was epitomised in early 2013 when Michelle Grattan left the Age newspaper to work on start-up website The Conversation, and her only option was to join an already over-crowded one room office rented by the specialist online newsletter Inside Canberra.
The ABC (Radio and Television) and Sky News Australia are responsible for selected parliamentary broadcasting of proceedings. Television footage is taken from fixed cameras set up by the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS). The DPS, administered by the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate, both appointed by the executive, exercises proscribed editorial controls over the work of political journalists through a set of Media Rules (the most recent were issued in 2013 are available at www.pressgallery.net.au). Still photographers must also follow strict guidelines and when journalists cover proceedings in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, there is a blanket ban on tape recording, mobile telephone recording and photographing.
REFs: H. Ester, ‘Fault Lines in the Federal Fourth Estate’, Australian Parliamentary Review, 26(1) (2011); C.J. Lloyd, Parliament and the Press (1988); G. Sawer, ‘The Media in Parliament: Background Paper’, in Proceedings for 4th Workshop of the Australian Study of Parliament Group (1983).