PRESS GALLERIES, STATE
From the earliest days of colonial settlement in Australia, the cry for press freedom accompanied the struggle for elected democracy. One of the focal points of newspaper agitation was the right to cover the proceedings of the handpicked Legislative Councils, chaired by state governors, which met in secret.
Newspaper coverage of the House of Commons and the House of Lords was banned in Britain until the late 18th century, and it was only in December 1831 that the first reporters’ gallery was constructed at Westminster. Still recovering from the loss of their American colony in the American War of Independence (1775– 83) and the menace of the French Revolution (1789–99), the British colonial authorities were apprehensive about extending the same right to their penal colony on the other side of the world.
In 1833, the editors of the Monitor, the Australian, the Currency Lad, the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser and the Sydney Herald, forerunner of the Sydney Morning Herald, were given access to copies of the votes, printed papers, Bills and proceedings of the council, and in 1838 reporters were allowed into the chamber in a specially constructed strangers’ gallery to report debates and decisions. ‘Members of the press are to be provided for in the gallery of the Chamber, which we think a much better plan than merely to give them a promiscuous seat among the visitors,’ reported the Australian on 1 June.
By the time responsible government was granted in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart and Adelaide in the 1850s, press coverage by skilled shorthand writers was the mainstay of the circulation of the leading daily newspapers in those cities. Indeed, the coverage was so detailed that commercial dailies were regarded as parliaments’ official record until the publicly funded Hansard was established in 1879 to provide a verbatim record of all proceedings. The lavish coverage of parliament—lengthy debates on Bills, the introduction of new regulations and ministerial statements on land, agriculture, mining, roads, education, disease and justice—was compulsive reading for settlers and convicts, and many people became literate and informed citizens by reading the spirited parliamentary news. On a proportional basis, the circulation of Australian newspapers was much higher than any of the London papers. Several of the nation’s early MPs, some future prime ministers and premiers, including (Sir) Henry Parkes, (Sir) Graham Berry, Andrew Fisher and W.A. Holman, had owned newspapers or worked as journalists, sometimes covering colonial and state politics.
In 1895, the Speaker of the NSW Parliament, Sir Joseph Abbott, was informed by letter that a meeting of parliamentary reporters on 20 August had voted unanimously to form themselves into a committee for ‘the proper representation and safeguarding of the interests of the representatives of the press engaged in the NSW Parliamentary Gallery’. Mr D. Murray of the Sydney Morning Herald was elected chairman and Captain J.W. Niesigh of the Evening News was the founding secretary. The new body submitted a code of rules that guaranteed only parliamentary reporters would be accredited to the press gallery and tickets of admission would be issued by the Speaker on the recommendation of the gallery committee. The Speaker of the South Australian House of Assembly, Sir Jenkin Coles, reported in 1895 that he controlled the press gallery without written rules and by an arrangement of self-regulation, while the Speaker of the Queensland Legislative Assembly, (Sir) Alfred Sandlings Cowley, provided accommodation for 11 reporters—six passes allocated to three dailies and the others shared by bi-weeklies and weeklies. In the same year, the Victorian Legislative Assembly provided reporting facilities for one Melbourne afternoon newspaper and two morning papers, the Country Press Cooperative Company Limited, and provincial papers.
In the first half of the 20th century, the prestige of state parliaments began to wane as the federal parliament took centre stage in the life of the nation, as a direct result of Australia’s involvement in two World Wars and the intervening Great Depression. State MPs resented press in australia’s external territories the loss of their parliamentary pre-eminence and made frequent attacks on the paucity of coverage. This led to tension between the legislators and the gallery, but never open warfare. The advent of radio and then television broke the newspaper industry’s exclusivity in the press galleries around the nation, and some MPs welcomed electronic broadcasting media as a way of delivering parliamentary proceedings ‘live’, unedited and direct to the public. It wasn’t to be, though: experimental broadcasts simply didn’t interest the general public. There was one significant breakthrough: in 1968, Helen O’Flynn of the Sydney Daily Mirror became the first female member of any gallery in Australia.
By the end of the 20th century, membership of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery far outnumbered state political correspondents, and also commanded greater prestige within the profession. The media no longer covered debates in state parliaments, and only offered sketch pieces on rare occasions. State premiers, including Jeff Kennett (Victoria), Brian Burke (Western Australia), Neville Wran (New South Wales) and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen (Queensland), built media departments comprising ex-political journalists who, according to Sir Joh’s famous phrase, ‘fed the chooks’ with stories. It meant that coverage was debased by the introduction of spin, which was rained on gallery reporters from several sources—the premier’s office, ministerial staff, departmental spin doctors and powerful vested interests.
Royal commissions in Queensland (1987–89) and Western Australia (1990–92) found endemic corruption at the heart of government, bringing the tier of state government into further disrepute. The relationship between politicians, vested lobbying interests and state political correspondents became such a public scandal that the Commissioner of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, David Ipp QC, remarked in 2010: ‘A widespread perception of corruption in the government decision-making process has the capacity to adversely affect the proper working of our system of democracy’.
In September 2011, there was excitement when ‘Macquarie Street Observer’ tweeted on the internal machinations of the NSW press gallery. During the federal election in August 2013, members of the Victorian press gallery were forced out of their offices, which occupied the same building as the Coalition’s national campaign headquarters—apparently due to concerns about leaks. Later that year, during a Victorian political crisis, the embattled Speaker of the Victorian Parliament banned the media from knocking on MPs’ doors and walking the corridors near their offices. In recent years, the live proceedings of some state parliaments have been broadcast over the internet.
At their inception, press galleries in state parliaments had filled a vital public watchdog role. By the beginning of the 21st century, they had evolved into lapdogs under the pressure of concentrated media ownership as well as coercive political and commercial lobbying. It appeared that state reporters—even those striving for independence—were trapped in a system of embedded journalism and arcane media communications technology, and the public interest suffered as a result. State galleries, with exclusive membership and exclusive insider access, appeared to have outlived their existence.
REF: C.J. Lloyd, Profession: Journalist (1985).