The press gallery is scrambling to realign their contacts book and make friends with the right people in Tony Abbott’s government. So who’ll be in favour and who might be shut out?
“When the government changes, the country changes,” Paul Keating famously said. So too does the media. Each change of government produces winners and losers in the fourth estate — and the Tony Abbott era will be no different.
The most obvious change will be seen on News Corp’s opinion pages and heard on talkback radio — the natural habitat of the right-wing culture warrior. After six years railing against Labor, Andrew Bolt, Tim Blair, Janet Albrechtsen, Miranda Devine and Piers Akerman finally have a conservative government in office. In theory, their popularity among the Liberal Party’s base should give them a better shot at influencing policy.
So should their personal connections to those in power. Bolt is particularly close to Abbott. The then-opposition leader dined with Bolt after he was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act and urged him not to scale back his media commitments. Abbott has been a regular guest on The Bolt Report, despite it having fewer viewers than ABC rival Insiders. The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan may also see a renaissance under the Coalition; Sheridan was Abbott’s best friend at Sydney University and the pair remain close.
But Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton, an acerbic critic of the Coalition and News Corp, is not convinced the conservative commentariat will be more influential under Abbott.
“It’s harder for the Tory bunch — they are a cheer squad for this government,” Carlton told Crikey. “They need to set up hate figures and straw men, that is Bolt’s method. Once his lot are in power they become hard to find … Governments of any political colour will stuff up and they won’t want to write it or admit it.”
Carlton and The Australian’s Albrechtsen agree on almost nothing. But the conservative columnist also believes you can have more influence pissing on the tent from outside, rather than being inside pissing out.
“You can often be more relevant when the other side is in power because the arguments are more important,” Albrechtsen said. ”You’re up against a progressive orthodoxy on a lot of issues and have to work to break through. After all it was down to the lovers and defenders of free speech on the Right to defeat Roxon’s [anti-discrimination] bill and Conroy’s [media reform] bill.”
With the Coalition in power, Albrechtsen sees her role as attacking from the Right when necessary. “If a conservative government is in you have to keep the bastards honest,” she said. Albrechtsen plans to put a rocket up the Coalition if they fail to give principals more autonomy to hire and fire teachers or don’t appoint a freedom commissioner to the Human Rights Commission. (It’s worth noting Bolt has already given Abbott a tickle-up this week for centralising media control in his office.)
When it comes to access to government MPs, Sydney station 2GB is likely to be a winner under the Coalition. Breakfast host Alan Jones has championed Abbott throughout his career and coached him from the sidelines during his successful 2009 leadership tilt. Expect to hear Abbott and his ministers on Jones’ show more often than under Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard. Labor MPs effectively boycotted Jones’ show after his offensive remarks about Gillard’s father dying of shame. Ray Hadley should be favoured too, given his perceived influence with younger, aspirational voters in Sydney’s west.
Press gallery insiders also named The Australian as a likely winner under Abbott. “The thing everyone is expecting is that we will see the Oz spoon-fed stuff,” a press gallery reporter said. “In the Howard years it used to be called ‘The Government Gazette’.” A Canberra reporting veteran predicted: “It’ll be back to the old Howard strategy where everything is leaked to the Oz, or to the tabloids if it’s a story about a specific city, and it’s up to everyone else to follow up.”
Since the election, The Australian’s front page has featured exclusive after exclusive about the government’s policy plans. The paper had the inside running on the ban on lobbyists serving as party officials, the crackdown on protests against big infrastructure projects, and a possible boost in single parent payments.
The paper’s political editor Dennis Shanahan is seen as having strong Liberal Party contacts. So does associate editor Chris Kenny, a former chief-of-staff to Malcolm Turnbull. Former Coalition staffer Christian Kerr has been a favourite for drops from Eric Abetz.
Leaks to the Oz frustrate other reporters — including in News Corp — because the paper has a small and dispersed readership. But it devotes more resources and attention to national affairs than any other paper; the Oz will give a political scoop more prominence, and cover it in more detail, than other outlets.“Politicians love to see their story on the front page of a paper — even if it’s one nobody reads,” a press gallery veteran said.
“Access, of course, isn’t everything. And many argue the Canberra press gallery is at its best when acting as a proxy opposition, rather than sidling up to the government.”
By contrast, the ABC may struggle to get access to Abbott and his MPs. Although Abbott ruled out funding cuts to the public broadcaster on election eve, he was reticent about fronting up more often for Aunty interviews. The PM has shown a particular aversion to Lateline and Q&A — a favourite of both Gillard and Rudd. Abbott stared down Tony Jones’ pleas to appear on Q&A during the election campaign, a strategy backed by Albrechtsen. “He wouldn’t turn a single vote by doing Q&A. There is nothing in it for him. It’s an incredibly left-wing audience and they would love to spend an hour mocking Tony Abbott,” she told Crikey.
With over a million viewers most nights, 7.30 appears too big to ignore (Turnbull sat down with Leigh Sales this week). Insiders, though, has been a Coalition-free zone over recent weeks. Bill Shorten’s appearance this Sunday follows Anthony Albanese and Joel Fitzgibbon on the previous two weeks. On Radio National Breakfast, Andrew Robb is the only Coalition frontbencher to be interviewed over the past two weeks. Abbott waited over 400 days before speaking to Fran Kelly in an at-times testy interview during the election campaign. When Kelly asked him to commit to more appearances, Abbott sidestepped by asking her to campaign for him. Coalition MPs are unlikely to have forgotten Kelly’s strident advocacy for a carbon price on Insiders (she latter admitted she was too opinionated on the issue).
Another press gallery veteran singled out new arrival The Guardian as an unlikely Coalition favourite: “The Guardian is the polar opposite of what the Oz is perceived to be ideologically. The Libs will see it as the anti-Christ. Lenore [Taylor, the site’s political editor] will get stories in spite of the outlet, rather than because of it.”
An amusing irony in the media is that while journalists loathe being labelled, they’re more than happy to pigeon-hole each other politically. Politicians — who tend to see the world in terms of friends and enemies — do it too. Columns and tweets are examined for signs of bias; romantic relationships with MPs are noted. So are stints as a political staffer — for example, Barrie Cassidy’s time spinning for Labor or Dennis Shanahan for the Liberal Party. Such pigeonholing does not necessarily reflect what a journalist actually believes or who their contacts are. But the perceptions stick.
But as a gallery insider noted: “Laura Tingle won’t be getting many hand-outs from a Liberal government, but when has Laura Tingle ever needed handouts? She has better contacts in the public service than anyone else in the gallery. A lot of journalists in the press gallery wouldn’t know a public servant if they fell over one.”
Tingle’s Fin colleague Phil Coorey is seen as well-placed to sail through the change of government. “Phil Coorey rings everyone every day until they tell him something,” said a reporter at a rival paper. “He’s the best newsbreaker under Labor and the Liberals.” So are Daily Telegraph political editor Simon Benson and News Corp Sunday political editor Samantha Maiden.
“Tony is a Sydney man and is close to [Tele editor Paul] Whittaker,” said another gallery insider. “With the Sydney media cycle the way it is there’s no way Benson won’t get great yarns.”
Despite protesting claims he was a barracker for Rudd, Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher was seen as especially close to the ex-PM. Mark Latham once even joked that Rudd never changed his underpants without telling Hartcher first. “Hartcher needs a new muse,” chuckled one gallery scribe, elongating the “u” in muse with relish.
The Age’s political editor Michael Gordon has been more vocal than most in advocating a compassionate approach to asylum seekers, which makes him an unlikely candidate for exclusive interviews or leaks from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Fairfax economics correspondent Peter Martin was a favourite for Treasury drops during Wayne Swan’s tenure, but may not find Joe Hockey so amenable.
Some Liberals have still not forgiven Channel Seven political editor Mark Riley for confronting Abbott in 2011 over his “shit happens” comment in Afghanistan. Channel Ten’s Paul Bongiorno has not won fans in the Coalition with his opinionated Twitter style; according to conservative commentator Gerard Henderson, Bonge “is regarded by the Coalition as the journalist of the commercial wing of the Canberra press gallery who is most opposed to the political conservatives”.
Access, of course, isn’t everything. Persistence counts too. Many argue the Canberra press gallery is at its best when acting as a proxy opposition, rather than sidling up to the government.
“When you starve journalists of contacts and stories, you put them on steroids because they have to work harder,” said one gallery veteran. “The best way to keep journalists lazy is to put them on the drip.”