Silence hampers media review

by Chris Griffith
Published 25 October 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


The review by Queensland's Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC) into the activities of Ministerial press secretaries and government media units was never going to be universally popular.

It was, after all, prompted not only by Tony Fitzgerald QC's observations of the former Bjelke-Petersen government's use of taxpayer's money for paid political ads and media extravaganzas such as Queensland 2000.

It was also coupled with Fitzgerald's observation that the government attempted to manipulate political journalists through a punishment- reward system; leaks and exclusives to those who touted the government line, and the freezing out of journalists more critical.

The Goss Government, to its credit, has discontinued blatant taxpayer-funded political advertising, but, according to some, has mastered and refined the strong-arm and interventionist tactics of the former government in its dealings with journalists.

It is therefore not surprising that EARC, in seeking its information, has encountered some passive resistance from government, and from journalists, no detailed analysis of their adverse experiences with government media advisers.

In May, for example, the Commission received a letter from the Premier's Department denying it access to individual departmental responses to EARC's issues paper. Instead it was offered only access to a coordinated government submission from the Premier's Department.

Thankfully, this impasse was finally resolved when new EARC chair David Solomon worked to establish in each department a contact officer who could tell the Commission what it needed to know.

But there have been other cases, for example, when EARC wrote to five government ministers requesting a detailed analysis of their use of media releases in a special project conducted from June 15 to July 12.

EARC asked the ministers to fax all media releases during this four week period at the same time they were sent to the media. The Commission would gather press clippings referring to items in those media releases, and similarly would monitor radio and television broadcasts.

Four of those five ministers failed initially to respond and in June had to be sent last-minute reminder letters, a few days before the exercise was to begin.

EARC sources, however, are more alarmed with the lack of any journalists' perspective on their mostly very private relations with media advisers in the two submissions broadly classed as representative of journalists.

In this review EARC so far has received 39 submissions and comments in response. However, the sources say the submissions by the Australian Journalists Association (AJA) and the Queensland Parliamentary Press Gallery did not explore journalist-government relations.

They put forward three explanations: either journalists regard such an expose as none of the EARC's business, or the relationships with media advisers are too cozy to rock, or that journalists are too frightened to present their views fearing government repercussions.

Whatever the reason, EARC says it has absolutely no evidence from working journalists of any impropriety by media advisers, and as a result, it cannot explore the matter further.

Sources also stress the review is about the government side of the media equation; EARC is not empowered to reform the media, and certainly not the journalists' union, since amalgamation renamed the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

EARC's problems are also confounded by the two major submissions, the AJA's and the Press Gallery's, being contradictory.

Clearly the gallery journalists who work closely with politicians and media advisers were more sanguine about the system than those journalists more remote from it who prepared the original AJA submission.

The problem, however, is now coming to a head following the recent resignation of MEAA joint secretary, Arthur Gorrie, who in a Union circular claimed some members had obstructed the presentation of views in the original AJA submission.

In response Mr Solomon last week wrote to Mr Gorrie suggesting he place a personal submission before EARC, an invitation Mr Gorrie has accepted.

Mr Solomon's view is that Mr Gorrie and other journalists should once and for all place their experiences with government media units before the Commission.

"I don't think it is helpful for journalists to talk among themselves and complain nothing's being done when they're not prepared to come to EARC and provide facts," he says.

"Anyone can approach the Commission and take advantage of our Whistleblower provisions in the Act to ensure confidentiality and to ensure there are no repercussions against them individually."

However Mr Gorrie says EARC will get nowhere unless it is prepared to use its compulsory powers for the first time and obtain evidence from journalists under Oath.

"In effect you are up against a code of silence among people who say your review is ineffectual, that Fitzgerald was naive in objecting to practices regarded in the industry as `normal'", he wrote to Solomon.

In response Mr Solomon rejects any need for taking evidence under oath, but has not ruled out a future public hearing if Gorrie or others produce the goods. "That depends on the nature of any allegation he [Gorrie] might make which would be substantiated," he said.

Hopefully journalists will now come forward with the anecdotal information Mr Solomon is requesting, and hopefully Mr Solomon will make it easy for them by calling public hearings and inviting prominent journalists to give evidence.

Certainly some journalists are more comfortable with the prospect of being asked for evidence, rather than being required to provide it unsolicited.

If EARC conducts public hearings, the onus will then be on journalists to cooperate fully, and no one will have scope to accuse the Commission of passivity. It will be a case of put up or shut up.

Luckily the Commission is behind schedule on this review. Its report will not be completed this year because the staff allocated to it are also responsible for producing the Commission's soon-to- be-released parliamentary committees report.

Meanwhile the Journalists' Union (and some media organisation) should get on and respond to some recently raised perceptions of conflict of interest.

Clearly it is not healthy to suggest these be investigated by a government-sponsored body such as EARC if the media is to be regarded as independent from government. But that is no excuse for doing nothing.