Criticism of Australia’s political journalists is routine enough. What is surprising is that many political journalists agree with some of the key complaints. Almost half of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters and photographers who responded to a survey conducted by The Citizen said that coverage of federal politics was unfair.
The reasons were diverse, but many said the speed of reporting in the digital age had led to superficial reporting. Many also perceived an anti-government bias, and particular antipathy to the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
The survey, sent to 299 press gallery journalists and photographers, was conducted in April and May, before Kevin Rudd returned to the Labor leadership.
Forty-three people responded to the anonymous survey, answering multiple choice questions and giving written responses about why they believed the gallery was fair or unfair and what they identified as the biggest challenge facing political reporting in Australia.
“There are some political agendas, on both sides, but the biggest problem is pressure to be quick, prolific and (to put it delicately) interesting,” wrote one. “This leads to frequent, if often only minor beat-ups that are short on balance and nuance.”
The perception that the gallery is more critical of the government than the opposition centred on two main issues: journalists “picking winners” as Labor languishes in the opinion polls, and a view that News Ltd in particular was hostile to the government.
Labor has routinely said that News Ltd, publisher of mastheads including The Australian, the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph, was biased against the government, with former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy accusing the publisher in 2011 of “running a campaign of regime change”.
That 45 per cent said the gallery covered politics “not very fairly” or “not at all fairly” was despite 62 per cent believing that, generally, political journalists were progressive in their own political views.
“I have never seen News Ltd more biased than they are against the current government,” wrote one respondent. “Their reporting is at best sub-standard and at worst a Coalition press release dressed up with disgusting lies. Fairfax and the ABC are balanced and fair but still miss so many opportunities to ask hard questions, particularly of the Opposition. The commercial TV stations are somewhere in between.”
And another: “There is a clear anti-Gillard bias in the print media, especially News Ltd. Journalists simply make up stories, with the Daily Telegraph being the worst. The electronic media is bogged down in he-said she-said style of reporting, with very little analysis or context.”
Nonetheless, there is an acknowledgement of News Ltd’s influence in setting the political agenda. “Most journos – particularly broadcast journalists – are sheep that follow the front page of News Ltd papers.” One respondent also mentioned the “openly expressed, unrelenting hatred of PM Gillard by key Fairfax journalists”.
Another was perhaps more pragmatic, saying that journalists simply “reflect the public’s hatred of the Prime Minister”.
The majority of respondents – 55 per cent – said that they believed the gallery reported federal politics “quite fairly” or “very fairly”. “The majority of gallery journos endeavour to be fair and even-handed,” said one. “They pursue good stories no matter which side of politics it helps or hurts. But even the fairest of gallery journos get accused of bias from time – usually by biased readers or viewers angry that we’re not reinforcing their political beliefs.”
The criticism of the press gallery is particularly sharp on social media, with some accusing it of being out of touch and focused on personalities and conflict rather than policies. The notion of a privileged gallery – whose members have access to the parliament including press conferences – is under challenge. Its role of political “gatekeeper” is less relevant with the Internet and pay TV providing those interested with instant access to press conferences and transcripts.
There are several newer online media organisations that have been granted gallery membership – including The Global Mail, The Hoopla and Crikey -- but it remains dominated by the traditional media. To date, the gallery has refused to release publicly its membership, although gallery president David Speers has said he is considering it.
Some respondents to The Citizen’s survey were frustrated that much of the criticism of the gallery was “ill-informed”. Many felt the public didn’t understand a press gallery journalist’s role. One said critics were “idiots who have no idea how the press gallery functions”.
Geoff Kitney, senior political writer at the Australian Financial Review, told The Citizen in an interview that the criticism of the gallery being a “club” was far-fetched. “Realistically, it is the most competitive place in journalism in Australia.”
But he suggested that the shrinking presence of Fairfax, which no longer maintains separate bureaus for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald in the gallery, was reducing the competitiveness and diversity of opinions in political reporting.
Many responses also cited the pace of reporting — “the 24-hour news cycle” — and shrinking resources as a hurdle to fair reporting. They felt that the increased pace meant that politicians and lobby groups were able to “bypass scrutiny” as they had a greater understanding of the online environment and more money and resources to feed it.
Kitney said that across all media organisations there were “fewer people, which leads to less coverage and eventually less scrutiny” of politicians. “That’s going to have a big impact over time. Time, energy and money is what’s needed for deeper stories, and they’re just not being done.”
“One of the things I’ve noticed is that there is now huge competition just to get a politician to talk to you,” he said. “So much energy goes into it. And in the end, they don’t actually really say anything once you get them.”
The Citizen asked journalists about their voting intentions, and where they saw themselves on the political spectrum. With just 14 per cent of the gallery responding, the numbers of who supported particular political parties were too small to be statistically significant. For the record, 40 per cent said they were swinging voters.
A number of journalists said they did not feel comfortable revealing their voting preferences. Some, opting out of the survey, said it was no-one's business. Others said they believed the voting intentions of journalists were irrelevant as to how they performed their job.
Kitney believes it is a very Australian attitude to see voting as a private matter. “America, for instance, is more open in general on political issues. But I do think there is an over-sensitivity among journalists in the press gallery to scrutiny. It shouldn’t be a national secret: we’re an organisation and like any other we should be open to scrutiny.”
The broadest survey to touch on the voting preferences of Australian political journalists was published by Queensland journalism academic John Henningham in 1996, drawn out of a larger general study of Australian journalists conducted in 1992. Thirty-seven per cent of the more than than 1000 participants said they intended voting for Labor and 31 per cent the Coalition, while 39 per cent described themsleves as leaning either “a little to” or “pretty much to” the left versus 16 per cent whose political leaning was “a little to” or “pretty much to” the right.
A survey by the University of the Sunshine Coast conducted over 12 months to March this year quizzed 600 journalists from across the country about their political leanings. More than half (51.0 per cent) claimed to have held left-of-centre political views, compared with 12.9 per cent who considered themselves right-of-centre. Of the 372 who revealed their voting intention, 43 per cent said Labor, 30.2 per cent the Coalition and 19.4 per cent the Greens.
The latter survey accords more closely with similar studies in the United States which show political journalists tend to vote for progressive rather than conservative parties. Some US news organisations have even revealed publicly the voting intentions of their own staff at election time.
Slate Magazine has surveyed their staff at each election since 2000, and even gave a breakdown of individual staff members' responses for the 2012 election, with 83.7 per cent supporting Barack Obama. Libertarian website Reason also published a breakdown of its staff’s voting intentions before the election.
There have been several international studies that suggest that a majority of political journalists in the US vote for progressive parties.
Thinking about the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, would you say that was:
How fairly would you say the Parliament Press Gallery reports federal politics at the moment?
In federal elections, how do you usually vote?
Politically, how would you describe yourself?
FOR FULL SURVEY RESULTS, AND RESPONSES, CLICK HERE.