Journalists and politicians: A double danger to democracy

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

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 a Direct Message. Both incidents cast unsavoury light on relationships governing journalists and their political sources.

Evans’ troubles began when he was 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 Evans wanted to change the rules. He said he would do a quick media “doorstop” on arrival and 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.

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

At the end of the debate, de Groot approached Evans’ media adviser for an interview with the Minister. 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 approach, but it was Evans who was mostly damned today. I almost feel sorry for Evans punished for plain speaking but 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. NSW Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell was sending 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 visible to his 3,548 followers online at the time. O’Farrell quickly realised his error and deleted the offending tweet. 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 “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.

No one picked up on why O’Farrell should decide to illuminate journalist Bourke in this manner. The familiar tone suggested they had done this before. Forget the “ranga”, why are the Liberals’ preselection woes “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 the public suffers. 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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