The decision by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to limit hers and other ministers’ appearances at the 11am presser is bad for journalists. But it could turn out to be good for journalism.
It challenges the privileges of the craft: the right of the journalistic cat to look at the king, er, premier — and ask the questions, hard and otherwise.
Breaking out of the daily news cycle dictated by rolling state government-controlled press conferences offers an opportunity to break the restraints of access journalism that has led Australia’s media to miss so many of the big stories of disease and pandemic inequity.
All-in press conferences — whether these pandemic times’ televised events or the ever more mundane ministerial affairs that mark the daily round out of Canberra — are a poor tool for accountability. They’re the pretence of access; all theatre using the journalistic audience as a device to be seen on the evening television news with a tight message.
Journalists embrace it as one of the all-too-few opportunities to get answers to hard questions that reveal unknown facts, but their structure and content (and the premier’s control of the mic) meant it was only ever another opportunity for the government’s political messaging.
How the media shame game is replacing what used to be called reporting
Premiers have used the conferences to shape the behaviour of their citizens, with months-long discipline: stay locked out in Western Australia and Queensland; locked down in Melbourne’s 2020 wave; get vaccinated in NSW’s 2021 breakout.
Every protagonist needs an antagonist — and that’s where the journos come in. Their questioning attempts to knock the premier off-message, dig out a gotcha moment from the endless round of lockdown-too-hard, lockdown-too-soft finger pointing which, jujitsu style, the premier turns back as talking point.
The only stumble seems to have been the admission by NSW’s Deputy Premier John Barilaro to a regional media briefing that the hard curfew in the local government areas of concern was driven by media bullying. Embarrassing? Sure. But for whom?
By making the media the counterpoint, premiers have been able to sideline both real accountability and the media. Exhibit one: the slide of the Herald Sun as Melbourne’s dominant voice in part due to its unrelenting search for a political scalp over the breach of hotel quarantine.
Since early August, Berejiklian has attempted to shift the press conference narrative from fear (“national emergency!”) to hope (“6 million jabs!”), marked with more nurses, fewer police. She seems to think this is good behavioural psychology, encouraging people to endure lockdown for a little longer and get vaccinated a little sooner.
Now she’s laying the groundwork for the post-lockdown political landscape with the 70% roadmap out. But she’s finding the Sydney media is reluctant to let go of the catastrophised narrative of rising cases and overwhelmed hospitals. She’s also recognised that the journalists are getting bored with repetition and are eager to talk about something else, like… maybe ICAC.
The solution? Lower the profile of the 11am presser by limiting the central character to occasional guest appearances.
No wonder journalists feel used.
Sydney’s media has never seemed to like Berejiklian (some of it, perhaps, for good reason). As a women, she can’t even rely on News Corp — it would be much happier with her more acceptably male Treasurer Dominic Perrottet.
The presser reset is an opportunity, too, for the media to reset on pandemic coverage. The centring of political leaders has made COVID-19 a political story rather than the social and economic story that most people are living. The narrow policy differences between states and parties has seen reporting spiral into an accountability of process rather than policy.
“Why didn’t minister Hunt meet with Pfizer?” Not: “What concessions should governments make to accommodate the commercial interests of big pharma?”
Or: “Did NSW get ‘secret’ vaccines?” Not: “What’s the right mix of need and per capita distribution of a constrained resource?”
This has hurt Prime Minister Scott Morrison (“hose-holding” is not his strong suit) and strengthened the premiers who control the doing part of the country’s public health infrastructure.
Now, as the pandemic debate shifts from lockdown and lockout, journalism can keep up by turning the lens from politics to a reporting that centres where people are, with issues like vaccine equity and finding out what’s likely to pass for post-COVID normality.
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