Political journalism refers to reporting on parliament, government functions, political campaigns and elections. In Australia, it is chiefly but not exclusively undertaken by journalists accredited to the press galleries of the various state and national parliaments, including theFederal Parliamentary Press Gallery (FPPG). State politics continue to attract news coverage, but since the 1960s, news media have invested more heavily in reporting on federal politics.
It is widely accepted that the media—particularly the journalists who specialise in reporting politics—should play a critical role in democracies. Political reporters should not only record their activities, but also serve as ‘watchdogs’ by scrutinising governments (and oppositions), and alerting voters to their follies and faults. However, it is now clear that the capacity of commercial mass media to finance a fourth estate has been eroded by the proliferation of alternative online news sources, audience fragmentation, and the consequent contraction of advertising revenue.
Like other areas of journalism, political reporting is being impacted by technological change. The 2009 merger of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age’s Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery bureaux is one measure of this, as is the 2012 spat over the accreditation of bloggers and new online publishers to the Gallery. Nor were political journalists insulated from the dramatic ‘downsizing’ of Fairfax Media and News Limited announced in 2012—witness the shrinkage of the Press Gallery from 283 in 1990 to fewer than 190 in 2012.
With the development of digital technology and the internet, newspaper and broadcast newsrooms have evolved into multimedia operations. Most political journalists now routinely file stories for immediate online distribution, as well as versions for subsequent publication via traditional print or broadcast outlets. In publishing online, they face immediate, direct reaction from readers, who can ‘like’ or comment on their work. Some political journalists have developed their own ‘brands’ using j-blogs, platforms such as the ABC’s The Drum and social media such as Twitter to build an audience.
The pressure on journalists to file immediately has also dissolved the regular daily deadlines and rhythms of the 24-hour news cycle. In its place, journalists are driven to provide a near-continuous coverage of parliament and politics—a pressure that critics argue has reduced the quality of political reporting. Political reporters themselves are openly professing concern that these pressures are now having an impact on the quality of journalism, and that, in conjunction with staff cuts, this has decreased the scrutiny of politicians and others.
Liberal politician Malcolm Turnbull has complained that the accelerating news cycle has encouraged journalists to substitute easily written commentaries for news. But there may be an even more alarming consequence: in a damning critique of the FPPG and its capacity to serve as a democratic watchdog, one member considers that more news is being generated with fewer resources in an environment dominated by public relations spin, with the result that much political reporting has become superficial.
It is clear that political reporting is being transformed in this new era, even if the changes being wrought are not yet fully understood—and perhaps not yet completely apparent. Political communication scholars have long understood that such technological developments will impact upon the culture and power relations of political journalism—after all, the introduction of free-to-air television broadcasting in Australia after 1956 undeniably transformed the field. There may even be lessons that date back to Federation.
In May 1901, the news that Australia’s first parliament had assembled in Melbourne was reported in newspapers as diverse as the Kalgoorlie Miner and Goulburn Evening Penny Post. In the early part of the 20th century, there were numerous provincial papers in addition to the 21 daily newspapers published in capital cities. Most of the early political coverage of federal parliament was provided by the Victorian Parliamentary Press Gallery, augmented by a handful of journalists from news agencies and several Sydney newspapers. News coverage included accounts of what might have been said or discussed in Parliament but also opinion and commentary.
Julianne Schultz notes that the period leading up to Federation was one of heightened political debate around issues such as free trade and Federation, and that this was ‘reflected in the press’. After Australia’s modern party system took shape in 1911, and in the post-war and Depression years, political reporting ‘tended towards political conservatism’—apart from union-funded newspapers such as the Labor Daily. At the same time, metropolitan newspapers in Australia acquired larger readerships and grew increasingly subject to the very same commercial pressures that elsewhere had ended the era of partisan press. Ultimately, commercial pressures for media to build mass audiences prevailed.
The trend to less blatantly partisan reporting notwithstanding, many Labor politicians continued to criticise biased press reporting. This was an impetus for the 1946 decision of the Chifley Labor government to have the ABC broadcast parliamentary proceedings. Yet, ironically, it was a concern about biased newspaper coverage of government formed by Labor’s foes that resulted in an independent ABC news office being opened in the FPPG.
Although the ABC broadcast a popular political commentary by ‘The Watchman’ (E.A. Mann) from the early 1930s, which carried some news content, the ABC was initially required by an agreement with press proprietors to draw political news for its bulletins from newspapers. But when in 1939 Prime Minister Joseph Lyons took umbrage with press coverage of his United Australia Party government, Cabinet requested that the ABC appoint its own Press Gallery representative and provide an independent news service. When Warren Denning was appointed to this role, his presence was initially resented by Gallery journalists. But eventually the ABC would establish a considerable presence in the Press Gallery and assume a substantial responsibility for reporting Australian politics.
With the advent of television, the ABC was the first to establish a network that spanned regional as well as metropolitan Australia. With This Day Tonight (TDT) in 1967, it pioneered current affairs programming with extended interrogations of political leaders and officials. TDT was known for its ‘hard-hitting’ interviews and ‘irreverent’ approach to political reporting. Contemporary Australians used to reading or hearing about ‘Tony Abbott’ or ‘Julia Gillard’ will be struck by the formality of early 20th-century press and radio reporting of politics: political figures were treated with some deference and routinely addressed as ‘Mr Barton’ or ‘Mr Lyons’. Gallery journalists would address Prime Minister Robert Menzies as ‘Sir’. Television allowed a new intimacy. It would also fundamentally change the FPPG.
In 1933, the Gallery numbered some two dozen ‘newspapermen’. By 1945, partly because of the addition of radio journalists, it had expanded by a third. Despite the presence of a handful of women, it remained a predominantly masculine institution. It had 38 members in 1950, 70 in 1967 and 105 in 1973. By 1988, the FPPG membership had more than doubled (to 283 in 1990), and lost much of its ‘blokey’ reputation and culture.
Clem Lloyd points out that television ‘perceptibly quickened’ the pace of current affairs and political news reporting. To accommodate its needs, from 1972 television stations began to install studios inside (Old) Parliament House. In recognition of the importance of television in parliamentary broadcasting, media were given an extended space in the new Parliament House from 1988. The Press Gallery is housed along a 200 metre corridor with Fairfax Media’s bureau at one end and ABC Television’s Lateline office at the other, located directly above the Senate. This unique arrangement allows an access and intimacy between political reporters, politicians and their staffers.
Australian politicians grasped the importance and potential power of free-to-air television, and employed increasing numbers of media advisers to secure favourable news coverage. Political reporters examine the actions of a range of political actors. Inevitably—and far more so than with other forms of journalism—the political actors who are the subject of news stories want control over the stories. In an era dominated by television, this means shaping both the pictures and the words political reporters use. Thus television transformed political reporting. Political actors learned to ‘stage’ speeches and other public appearances, while formal press conferences morphed into truncated ‘door stop’ interviews that allowed politicians to avoid detailed questioning in favour of sound bites.
All of the complaints made about the impact of new digital media—that it has encouraged shallow, superficial reporting that focuses on personalities rather than issues, and relies upon and churns spin—have their origins in an earlier, television-dominated age of political communication.
REFs: D. Cryle, ‘Press Culture and Political Journalism to 1930’, Continuum, 4(1) (1990); C.J. Lloyd, Parliament and the Press (1988); J. Schultz, Reviving the Fourth Estate (1998).