Leaks and lockups: a media anatomy of Federal Budget Day

Treasurer Wayne Swan hands down the long anticipated 2009 Federal Budget in parliament tomorrow night. Part of the budget ritual are the leaks to either soften the blow of cutbacks or provide good news on a slow news day. Despite Swan’s constant mantra about “not speculating” on specific budget measures, he chose Mother’s Day to announce 18 weeks parental leave would be introduced from January 2011 for those earning less that $150,000 a year. There have been a litany of advance warnings that items such as health insurance, health rebates, family payments and superannuation are all set for brutal cuts due to “the revenue hole”.

The other strange ritual is the infamous budget lock-up. For six hours tomorrow, the country’s finest journalistic minds will have the umbilical link to their mobile phones cut off and are holed up in a parliamentary chamber alongside opposition parliamentarians with mountains of budget materials. While most journalists describe the lock-up as an expensive waste of time, no self-respecting member of the Canberra Press Gallery will be anywhere else tomorrow. Fringe outlets such as Crikey fought long and hard to gain entry to the lock-up last year.

Media organisations had to submit the names and positions of those requiring access to the Treasury by Friday 1 May. Treasury directions were that space was limited and media should restrict their own numbers “to a minimum” and they were also required to bear their own costs of participation and attendance. News Ltd is sending 90 people.

Access to the lock-up begins tomorrow morning when media organisations are allowed to set up their equipment until 11.30am. An hour later, the journalists are allowed in. Every attendee must provide proof of employment and sign the Form of Undertaking witnessed by a Treasury official. They will then pass through metal detectors to check for mobile telephones, pagers, handsets, computers and personal data assistants (PDAs) which must all be deposited outside the room. The doors are then hammered shut at 1.30pm and the journalists are kept inside for the next six hours.

No one is allowed to contact anyone on the outside until the start of the Treasurer’s Budget Speech at 7.30pm (although a security guard will escort people to the toilet). The reporters have six hours to make sense of tonnes of budget books, press releases and analytics. No information is publicly available until announced in the speech. Inside the lockup, the temporary prisoners are given the entire set of budget information in hard copy and the data is loaded online at 7.30pm.

Because 7.30pm is late for the following morning’s newspapers, Treasury also has the secure sub-lock-up which applies to print organisations only. Sub-editors can establish and use secure encrypted landlines located in their headquarters for sub-editorial purposes. Production staff, subs, layout designers and editors all re-engineer their Canberra reporters’ copy for the front pages under the watchful eyes of Treasury officials. Journalists are not permitted inside the sub-lock-ups though most sub-editors and editors are also journalists.

None of this expensive secrecy is necessary. The purpose is to enable Government control of the initial news cycle. Writing in today’s media section of The Australian, Michael Wilkins says it is time to end the charade. He calls it an expensive, archaic practice that costs media organisations in excess of a million dollars for little reward. But Wilkins’ call is unlikely to be heeded any time soon. “The Government rarely has [this] chance to hold the nation’s journalistic leaders hostage within its walls, an opportunity during which officials can ply their take on the numbers to a captive audience searching for answers,” he said. For a government obsessed with staying on message, that opportunity is too good to turn down.

Btw, Australia is not alone with this nonsense. Check out this story of the Canadian budget lock-up from January this year.

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