Is the Howard Government’s manic media management putting the lives of journalists – and others – at risk? That’s the charge being seriously levelled in the wake of the Garuda Air disaster earlier this month. The heads of our major media organisations are furious.

The PM and his ministers are free to travel overseas on the RAAF’s VIP fleet. Media are permitted to accompany them, as long as the equivalent full commercial fares are paid.

Increasingly, though, they’re being left behind. Journalists are being forced to scramble in politicians’ wakes on commercial flights – often with dodgy carriers.

In the past this didn’t happen. It doesn’t happen overseas, either. Media still usually travel with the President of the United States or Tony Blair.

The PM and his ministers are playing favourites about who’s allowed to travel with them. They want coverage, but want to ensure that it’s favourable, so journalists get bumped, sometimes in favour of other journalists. 

The issue has been raised at various times with the Prime Minister’s Office before. The media have been given a response along the lines of: “You bag us about the VIPs, so we only have a limited fleet with limited room.”

Now, the Gallery has had enough. A column on the topic by Sydney Morning Herald veteran Alan Ramsey was spiked the week before last. Crikey understands that a second similar story by another senior Gallery figure met the same fate last week.

As Herald editor Alan Oakley put it: ”Yes there was a Ramsey column, yes I deemed it to be inappropriate, and yes, I spiked it.”

Ramsey’s column, a sidebar to his main Saturday piece had begun: ”Howard crashed and burned this week…”

Spiking is one thing, but behind closed doors editors and proprietors are taking the matter seriously. Very seriously indeed.

Fairfax is about to raise the matter formally with the Prime Minister’s Office. it has already informally advised the PM’s media minders that its staff will not tag behind on potentially dangerous commercial flights.

Crikey believes that senior management at News Limited are about to take similar steps.

That may only be the start of it. Crikey understands that some recent decisions  about just who could and couldn’t travel on a VIP are about to become the subject of some very serious scrutiny.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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