The Press Gallery contemplates reform: Join the conversation

Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher & editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is an Australian journalist, author, and commentator. She is best known for her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and her weblog, Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston

@margokingston1

Recovered journalist uncovered in 2013. #frightbat Queen in 2014.
RT @nedlukies: Only Labor in Victoria can help the federal budget by $3b http://t.co/BdvJ3G3MO7 #auspol #springst - 27 mins ago
Margo Kingston
Source: http://pressgalleryreunion.com.au/

The PG at old parliament house before the big move. Source: http://pressgalleryreunion.com.au/

By Margo Kingston

May 2nd, 2013

The Canberra Press Gallery is in a reforming state of mind, and to my surprise I’m making a contribution, thanks to Twitter. And thanks to the Press Gallery Committee President @David_Speers, Tweeps can have an input too.

The PGC decides who joins the club. In the old days we knew who belonged, journos chosen by their media employers. So there are no criteria for entry, no standard form, no process apart from emailing the president and obtaining a signature for Parliament officials to issue a press gallery pass. We all knew who belonged and who didn’t.

Times are changing. New media is moving in, old media is contracting, and the very definition of ‘journalism’ is contested. The increasing direct involvement of citizens in public political discourse is intensifying demands for transparency in the media, which has somehow kept its internal workings secret at the same time as it successfully demanded ever increasing transparency in the political institutions it interrogated.

The casual, oral tradition of volunteer working members of the Press Gallery exercising what amounts to secretly exercised, discretionary power is under serious pressure, exemplified its recent refusal of membership to @callumdav. His account in @independentausstory triggered Tweep questions on how the PGC worked and where they could access a list of PG members. Although I was a member for many years I didn’t have all the answers, and @walter_bagehot kindly briefed us.

I was surprised that the press gallery membership list, readily in Parliament House, was not a public document, and tweeted David for a a copy for  publication. Having received no reply, I lodged an FOI with the Department of Parliamentary Liaison, which has the list because of its duty to maintain the security pass database.

As a result, PGC secretary @Jamesmassola had a go at me by tweet: ‘FOI seems like a sledgehammer to crack a nut.’ David then asked for my email address. Here is our correspondence.


Hi Margo,

I have checked with the immediate past presidents of the press gallery, Karen Middleton and Phil Hudson and they both confirm the gallery list has not been made available for publication in the past.

It is made available to people and organisations who wish to use it for professional purposes – for example, political offices and PR agencies.

As you know, the gallery is made up of many journalists, photographers, producers, crew and administration staff.  Some may not be comfortable with their details being made publicly available.

Regards,

David Speers

*

OK. I don’t want details, just names and employing organisation. I will proceed with FOI for those.

I understand from a background conversation with a PG member that there may have been an unstated reason for turning down IA. I hope so, as I feel one of your reasons does not stack up. The unstated reason, as I was told it, does stack up, and should be made explicit as a condition of membership.

David, I feel the PGC will have to publish criteria for admission sooner rather than later, given the changing face of the media. The criteria you mention in your reasons for excluding Callum Davidson are inadequate. For example, I would have expected that the applicant’s adherence to a code of ethics, and the employer’s respect for the copyright of others, would be necessary criterion.

I don’t think it is tenable for the PGC to continue to operate on unwritten, variable ‘guidelines’ given the power it wields over the composition of the press gallery, which enjoys considerable privileges in reporting federal politics. As demand for membership from new media grows, the PCG will be required to demonstrate consistency in its decisions, and that it has applied written criteria for entry.

I also feel that not publishing the members and employing organisations of the gallery cannot be justified in this era of transparency, especially since the PG demands transparency from those it reports.

I would like to post your reply and my response as a comment to the piece on the press gallery recently published by @NoFibs. OK with you?

Regards,

Margo

*

Hi Margo,

Happy for you to publish the earlier email and this one too.

You raise some good points about the changing media landscape.  The Gallery Committee is trying to deal with this as best we can.  Suggestions are very welcome.

I can tell you a domain name has already been registered and we intend to create a Press Gallery website.

In regards to publishing the names of Gallery members, this is something we are also considering.  But we believe it’s only fair to consult Gallery members before a final decision.

Regards,

David.


I am over the moon with delight at David’s response. He has invited discussion with citizens on the way forward, and I hope Tweeps of good will contribute.

@nikt50 needed no invitation. Last night he tweeted a link to a 2009 comparative analysis of Western press galleries, by former PGC president @KarenMMiddleton. She  recommended a PG website and that the PG consider funding a secretariat to, among other things, ‘guard the principles of journalistic independence and interact more effectively with the public’.

He also found the website of Canadian Press Gallery which includes application forms and a membership list with contact details. The New Zealand Press Gallery list is also public.

I believe that a criterion for membership should be that the employer will not publish the work of a PG colleague without credit. Social media is often guilty of publishing photojournalist’s work without attribution, and sometimes of publishing journo’s stories in full in breach of their copyright. Press Gallery membership criteria could help clean this up.

I am also not averse to a requirement that the applicant has previously worked as a journalist because, among other things, ethical questions are acute in reporting politics.

I strongly disagree with Tweeps’ suggestions that PGC powers be transferred to the Speaker and Senate President or to a government department. Journos can and should do this work for themselves.

Now I’ll get radical. I feel that journalists, not media employers, are the true representatives of the 4th Estate, because, like judges, members of the government and parliamentarians, they are meant to contribute to the health of democracy. As the recent Senate Inquiry into media reform proved, media employers in the private sector believe their sole objective is to maximise profits. Journalists, not employers, have personal responsibility for complying with the ethical  codes of their ‘profession’. Thus it has always been journalists, not their employers, who have pushed hard for ethical accountability through external bodies like the Press Council and internal mechanisms like charters of editorial independence and employer commitments to ethical practice.

The Press Gallery Committee has, perhaps by accident, real power, which is a highly unusual state of affairs for journalists. They thus have the opportunity, at a time when reform of the PGC is necessary, to shape it in a way which empowers ethical journalism in traditional and new media, and thus makes the case for the special privileges granted to journalists’, including exemption from privacy laws and protection from disclosing sources, to continue and be strengthened.

The Media Alliance this week announced a new membership scheme under which social media can sign up to its code of ethics. This innovation would allow the PGC to include as a requirement for membership that applicants have committed themselves to and will comply with a credible code of journalistic ethics, whether or not they chose to be an Alliance member.

In my dreams the PGC would consider ethical complaints, perhaps via volunteer elders of journalism who have retired. The object would not be to punish, or even to adjudicate, but to publish considered opinions on ethical issues as they arise in practice for the purpose of informing and enriching ethical debate.

Ideally the issue of ethical journalism and its promotion will be addressed for all journalists one day. I feel that compliance with an ethical code is the main signifier of a journalist, and must be strengthened as part of our effort to save the profession/art/craft from extinction. I outlined my ideas in this regard many years ago in a speech to an anti-corruption conference.

That’s just a dream, however in its review the PGC might like to consider what steps it could take in the world of press gallery journalism to put ethics on the table.

Over to you. Good luck, David. I know you and your fellow office bearers are volunteers who work long hours and have little time to spare. Perhaps a few press gallery elders, past or present, might put together a discussion paper? Press Council chief Julian Disney might be willing to help. His evidence to the Senate media reform inquiry and his ideas at the recent media reform post mortem show he is a leading thinker in this field and a true friend to ethical journalists.

I have said many times that an imperative for successful modern journalism is reader trust and reader participation. I reckon David’s openness and goodwill deserve your respect, and I hope it will earn your constructive input.

Comments


  1. I’m so glad you are trying to (this is the ironic thing) make the PG more open and therefore more accountable to what is published….Good work Margo

  2. Liz Johnston says:

    All good points Margot and thanks for raising them with the CPG. I’m particularly delighted to learn from your piece that the MEAA is introducing a scheme for social media to sign up to the code of ethics. This is a great first step in educating users in ethics. They could also benefit from a course on libel laws through the MEAA..


  3. I wrote about the need to reform and formalise the Fourth Estate a few weeks ago. See: Stop the Press! Long live the Press! http://wp.me/p2QkUI-kg.

    My recommendations are perhaps Draconian. That’s due to the perceptions of bias we have witnessed during the past few years. A free Press (news media in general) is an essential part of a properly functioning democracy. Recognition of the Fourth Estate needs to be formalised. Professional journalists must sign on and swear an oath to faithfully observe the existing Code of Ethics. There should be stiff penalties for miscreant journalists, like those that apply to other professions.


  4. Reblogged this on The Kettle Press and commented:
    As the journalistic conversation changes …

  5. @TatteredRemnant says:

    Margot, Thanks for your article and thanks for taking the time to pursue reform in the press gallery. It’s an important issue.

    I very much agree with your ‘radical’ idea that its journalists that are the true representatives of the 4th Estate. This is absolutely right.

    But this great status comes with great responsibility. There is little use replacing revenue-focused media companies with revenue-focussed journalists.

    In that regard, I think that, like lawyers, journalists need to operate with the clear understanding that they have duel responsibilities – to their employer and to their profession. And like lawyers, the professional responsibility should always (at least as an aspiration) override the responsibility to an employer.

    While I’m sure many working journalists would already operate this way, for journalism to be in its rightful place as a real profession it must have real outcomes for its members for failure to abide by its codes and tenets. And yes, like the legal system, independent of government.

    As we all know too well with the legal example, such a structure does not ensure perfection, but the more professional that journalism becomes (by both the quality of its members’ work and the effectiveness of its governing bodies) the better it will be for working journalists to survive intact with the onslaught of social media and the democratisation of the tools of dissemination.

  6. Barry S says:

    Margo,
    a very interesting read. But alas, I believe your pursuit of ethical journalism is but a dream. The reputation of current journalism is far below that of a used car salesman. Trust is non existent. Never has the old saying “don’t believe a word you read in the papers” been more applicable.
    When one seeks advice the first consideration is the qualifications and experience of the advisor. Our Journalists are not prepared to give us this information yet expect us to believe every word they write.
    Too many times have I watched a media release or Press Club speech and then read a Journalist’s report of the event so far removed from what was actually said. Maybe they get their qualifications out of a Corn Flakes box and turn their hearing aids off.
    Ethical Journalism in my lifetime? I don’t think so. (Although I am in my mid 70’s)


  7. Tattered remnant, I was a lawyer before a journo, which explains my perspective I guess. Lawyer have a duty to the Court, journos have a duty to their readers.


  8. Well myself and Independent Australia seem to have unleashed somewhat of a beast so for what it’s worth I’ll put in my two cents…

    I was personally not surprised to be declined for the PG and David Speers was polite when he did so. But the reasons were odd. More for what wasn’t said than what was. I believe that more focus should be placed on the standards of the journalist; be this membership to MEAA or a certain level of qualification etc.

    I’m not (yet!) an overly experienced political journalist and professionalism and ethics indeed should be pivotal to entry. None of this was really mentioned.

    In regards to the media outlet Independent Australia does have many opinion pieces, but all outlets do. As I wrote in my response this part can be endlessly debated. I agree with Margo that the emphasis should be placed more on the journo and their writing rather than the outlet.

    As for accountability of the PG this was the part that really has surprised me. Given the influence they have there should be more transparency. I applaud Margo for her efforts to have this adjusted and David for his reception to this ideas.

    This has been a great coversation and I reckon only good will come of it.

    Thanks everyone.


  9. I am glad you are looking at this. Though still fail to see how the press gallery can stop a Journalist (as in qualified journalist) doing his job? I did also read the IA article on this and my reading of “established journalists working as such” should be that you not only are qualified but have worked as a journalist, well freelance is still working as a journalist? So I can only surmise Mr Speers means that you are established with the likes of News Ltd or other Mainstream paper, but then, why is the Guardian & Conversation allowed, yet not IA? The “Opinion-based” mentioned by Mr Speers is also not correct as others who watch the ‘investigations’ that IA have done.

    Now, I don’t have a problem with someone not being allowed in if they are not a Journalist, that is a fair call. No industry is going to allow non-professionals access to any sort of sensitive area that is a priority for that industry. Though to summarily just dismiss someone who is qualified seems very odd is very concerning.

    From an outsiders perspective, a member based organisation is deciding just what companies can & cannot report on the very serious business of what is happening politically in this country? As obviously it is the ‘company’ they base their decision on, as Grattan & Taylor still allowed back in, even though working for online publications. This ends up in a situation where, say, I decide I am going to set up the likes of a Guardian (big lotto win for that LOL) and I would have to make sure that I employed a political journalist that was already a member of that ‘club’ to report for me? That is ludicrous, I should be able to employ whatever qualified journalist I like? I wonder, if IA had funded the likes of an ex Press Gallery member whether they would have been knocked back?

    If this was in a business area to lock out what might be perceived as a competitor (which is how this is looking now) would actually be illegal & have you up in front of the ACCC?

    Another issue here, is that if they only allow ‘new’ players in that were previous Press Gallery members for the ‘big MSM’ in this country, does this mean that the only new journalists that get access are ones that start with the standard MSM? That seems like a very stale learning process for a Journalism career?

    Having said all the above, glad you are looking at this Margo & hope that David Speers is seriously looking at this as well, not just paying lip service :)


  10. Oops I just clicked the ‘don’t like’ on Margo’s comment by mistake and now I can’t unclick it – sorreee – I meant ‘like’. I’m not a journalist but I try to form an objective view of what’s best for our country’s democratic health – and reading AFPH adds some thoughtful insights not available elsewhere in the press. Good on yer (and I am contributing cash from time to time so not just throwing a few cheap words around).


    • Hi Babs, and thanks heaps for your support. We plan to announce a sponsor to keep Tony and my heads above water till the election on May 16. New look website too. So all donations now go towards commissioning journos to do stories the MSM don’t cover.

      Thanks again!


  11. Social media is often guilty of publishing photojournalist’s work without attribution

    This is not held to only the socmed realm, but is also an issue with mainstream media realm too. Many examples globally of unattributed photographs used sans-attribution in both realms.


  12. A great article Margo, good to see things happening. But you are a journalist aren’t you? Perhaps then you could correct the following:

    ‘I believe that a criteria for membership’ to become ‘I believe that a criterion for membership’ and ‘I am also not adverse to’ to become ‘I am also not averse to’. Sorry, the latter is one of my pet hates.

    cheers


  13. @grecialdawn, thanks Alison. Those years were a blank for me. Background to my press gallery list quest http://t.co/YQVqP3nlwe


  14. .@grumpyMichael, the history of my FOI for Press Gallery list http://t.co/YQVqP3nlwe


  15. .@pthr9, press gallery list public in Canada and NZ http://t.co/YQVqP3nlwe


  16. Thanks, Margo – a great article. If you watch the various news services, mostly the political reportage is reduced to sports-like analagies and one liners. You don’t learn much.


  17. @scott_thewspot, transparency, research, ensure consistency in PG committee rulings on who can/can’t join club. See http://t.co/YQVqP3nlwe


  18. .@realitypoop, you know why @independentaus not on Press Gallery list http://t.co/YQVqP3nlwe


  19. The Press Gallery contemplates reform: Join the conversat… http://t.co/UkWRqOOmvz


  20. It is not true that Speers is engaging with anybody outside the Press Gallery or his employers as to criteria for membership. There is no proof anywhere of Speers examining the whole idea of what a Press Gallery is, what it’s for etc. Speers is either pretending to be open to new ideas without any intention to be so (which is what I suspect) – or he’s scared of being the Gorbachev of the Press Gallery, the reformer who brings about its demise.

    This is partly due to the old problem that prevents journalism from joining the professions: you can’t set standards and then boot anyone out for not living up to them. The PGC should have to explain why “Australian Byline Products”, David Barnett, “Keating Media/Inside Canberra”, Niki Savva or Tim Hunt are actually doing there – and if they can’t, those people/organisations should be used as precedents for membership applications. Some of those “members” are people in admin roles.

    I still favour what now looks extreme, but which will soon be a “why not?” idea: opening note-taking in the chambers to anyone, enabling those who hold press conferences to invite whomever they choose to them, and letting “the Press Gallery” go the way of “the Tally Room”.


  21. @jthommo101 background to refusal to make press gallery list public http://t.co/IeaDmsLYDT &
    and http://t.co/1tDPIWWYru

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