As David Broadbent was leaking the State Budget on Nine News last night, Michelle Grattan was a few kilometres away at Melbourne University delivering the Deakin Lecture on the political media and the culture of leaking. And a very thoughtful contribution it was by the Grand Dame of political journalism: Watching the watchdogs.

Bemoaning the intimidation by government of the public service, and the lack of political investigative journalism, Grattan says: “When I arrived in Canberra in the 1970s, if you were armed with a Commonwealth Directory it wasn’t hard to get to know a lot of bureaucrats and obtain basic background.”

“Now, although some bureaucrats, especially senior ones, will talk to some journalists whom they trust, the majority will run a mile from the most innocuous media call.” And the problem isn’t just a victory of government bullying over public service culture: “The media must also take some blame for the failure to extract information from the public service,” writes Grattan.

Her solution? A “simultaneously more constructive and critical media” and “I also believe that media organisations, editors in particular and senior journalists, should be pushing in an organised and united fashion for more access to information, and examining and laying bare to the public how the media operate.”

It’s a fair comment, particularly given the failure of the media to raise so much as a shrug about the Federal Government’s decision to ban Crikey from next week’s Budget lock-up. “Today’s problem is not so much that the bureaucracy has been politicised, though there’s that, but that it’s had the fear of God put into it,” says Grattan. “Many professional men and women have been turned into mice, afraid of what should be a useful and non-controversial role in helping inform what the media convey.”

The relationship between the media, government and the bureaucracy has created tensions forever. Bob Menzies’ Speaker, Archie Cameron, tried to ban journalists from the parliamentary library because of complaints they “eavesdropped”. Frank Packer wrote to the Speaker, on behalf of newspaper publishers, bluntly retorting: “We cannot accept the view that Parliament House is a kind of private club for members.”

Michelle Grattan rose to prominence at The Age under the editorship of Creighton Burns. The patriarchal Burns was accused of presiding over a dour broadsheet in his time at Spencer St, and he defended his editorship this way: “I think it is absolutely essential that cabinet ministers are not able to have breakfast in comfort unless they read the front page of The Age“. And if that meant boring the readers to death with dull copy from Canberra about the latest policy initiatives, so be it.

Many in the Press Gallery have taken their cue from the government and largely ignored the bureaucracy in recent times. This is not helped by the fact that in Canberra, power is increasingly concentrated within the executive – and that means parliament is the focus, rather than the departments scattered around the nation’s capital. So what are the ramifications of the Broadbent Budget leak for the media and government? The knee-jerk reaction yesterday by the Treasury, rushing off to the courts to get an injunction, shows the culture of secrecy is alive and thriving in the Victorian bureaucracy.

Maybe Broadbent’s scoop will remind journalists what good reporting is about, and encourage a hack or two to spike those insidious press releases and burn some shoe leather in search of the truth.

Peter Fray

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