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Polly Peck
24 June, 2010  
Out to lunch

Most of the army of political reporters in Canberra have been asleep … Caught by surprise at the festering about Rudd within the caucus … Most press gallery hacks prefer to lecture their readers and the pollies, rather than shake down hot stories

imageAs a whippersnapper during the 1970s I worked in the Canberra press gallery for The Australian Financial Review. What a lark. It was the Whitlam-Fraser era and everything was infused with sex and liquor and politics.

The political reporting caper never got in the way of social engagements.

One day the entire office headed to the Narrabunda Golf Club for lunch, a game or 10 of snooker, drinks, discussions, and refreshments.

By the time we sashayed back to the office in old parliament house it must have been six o’clock and the phones were ringing off the desks.

It was the editor in Sydney. Didn’t we useless &#@# intoxicants know that a mini-budget had been brought down unexpectedly? Where’s the copy? Where’s the analysis?

Quick as a flash, our chef de bureau, the late, great Robert Haupt, replied that of course the whole team was on top of it all.

We hadn’t been answering phones because we were so busy out and about gathering remarkable insights into the government’s new economic measures. The copy was almost ready and would be sent up the line in a trice.

Ashen faced, and suddenly sober, we rushed to the “boxes” – pigeon holes stuffed with politicians’ press releases.

We snaffled all the bumf we could lay our shaking hands on, added little paragraph hooks and a sentence or two at the top and flung them at the teletype operator.

Next morning, one of the editorial bosses rang from Sydney to say the Financial Review had “the best coverage of the mini-budget”. Apparently, no one else in the media held a candle to us. “Well done boys. Top job.”

Which proves you can be out to lunch and no one need know the difference.

I rather got the impression that the current press gallery has been a bit out to lunch, so that we have not been getting the real story building in Canberra over the last few weeks – with a few notable exceptions.

No one even got around to subbing up a few press releases.

Even the Murdoch daily broadsheeet, with its dozens of political writers and the acres of space drowned in political sludge, never told us what was really happening.

The first glimmer, at least the first glimmer I saw, was Peter Hatcher and Phillip Coorey in Wednesday’s Herald with the story about Rudd’s people rushing about the caucus trying to gauge support.

The truth is that hardly any journalists know what’s really going on, but that doesn’t stop them lecturing us and politicians about policy and performance.

The effect of this relentless barrage is that politicians become awkward constructs, too terrified to be true to themselves.

I had in mind the marvellous journalistic technique pioneered by Channel Nine’s A Current Affair reptile, Ben Fordham.

During recent proceedings in the Supreme Court about whether Ben and his producer had breached the Listening Devices Act (judgment pending) it emerged that the fearless reporter had lured the hapless subject of his sting, a male prostitute, to a hotel room with secret cameras rolling.

The victim seems to have been under the impression that Fordham was a potential client, rather than a journalist.

Fordham opened the interview with a novel approach: “I’ve been hired to kill you.” The victim, who went under the name of Aalex Valentino, told the court that his mind “went blank”.

Many reporting on Canberra cottoned onto Ben’s technique and every day they told Kevin Rudd they had been hired to kill him. Like Mr Valentino, his mind ultimately “went blank”.

Already the new Prime Minister is under instructions. There was a report from Canberra in yesterday’s paper that said Julia Gillard would be unable to make any big changes because she was an integral member of Rudd’s kitchen cabinet.

Au contraire. Now is the perfect time to be bold and to stare down and out-argue those dedicated to the idea of Australia as a small, compliant, fearful country.

One of the delights of the last 36 hours or so is not the tracing of these big events by the conventional media but the engagement of the social media.

News about what was brewing in Canberra on Wednesday could be seen on the Twitter stream ages ahead of the mainstream. The same with Lindsay Tanner’s resignation yesterday.

Certainly Twitterers came up with the best critique. This one from Jason Wilson, a digital media guru at Wollongong University, about Rudd’s farewell remarks yesterday.

He said that the ousted leader had an attack of “Bomberitis”, which is a “psychological condition afflicting ALP leaders whereby they can only give a good speech after they’ve lost a ballot”.

Another Twitterer asked: “Does Julia Gillard come with free earplugs”?

We should also remember Roddy Meagher’s session On The Couch.

Asked what was his greatest fear, he replied: “Julia Gillard becoming Prime Minister.”