by Felicity Powell
Political journalists need to be able to report fairly and accurately on complex government policies, while always striving to keep the government in question to account
But reading that the number of public affairs staff – staff used as a buffer between government departments and the media – is more than five times the estimated 300 journalists in the Canberra press gallery alone makes me very cynical about being able to do the former.
Wading through the spin of the public service is the latest hurdle for journalists.
Annabel Crabb, a respected Australian political commentator, recently reflected on an encounter with a member of the public service on a domestic flight. She noticed he was leafing through a public service report Annabel herself had tried to get her hands on, to no avail. The report was about an “obscure government program” on which she was hoping to write an article.
You could presume Annabel wanted to get access the government report so she could, well, report on it and do her job properly as a political writer by outlining the key ideas within the report and translate them into an article for the public to digest.
Annabel made an excellent point that keeping public servants gagged and restricted from talking to the media inhibits public debate. If journalists can’t relay important information to the wider public, then how can journalists do their jobs properly?
In response to Annabel Crabb’s article, former public servant Amy Stockwell argues it’s up to journalists to get it right, on the record.
But as experienced journalists will tell you, you’ll never get any juicy scoops on the record. It’s your hard work making contacts, and building a collection of reliable and reputable sources who will spill the beans off the record that will help you get ahead in the world of journalism.
Reading about an issue like this is incredibly frustrating, and I’m not even an employed political journalist.
When there is a vast wealth of knowledge regarding the public, gathered at taxpayers’ expense, why can’t the public know more about it?
It’s time we allowed for greater dialogue between the public service and journalists to improve the standard of debate. What has the government got to hide?