Journalists don’t always tell us everything they know, and sometimes a big story will be repressed just because that’s the way things work in Canberra.

That’s the bleedingly obvious conclusion to be drawn from this piece by Matt Price, and the kerfuffle in Parliament yesterday over his conversation in a lift with Tasmanian Liberal Senator Stephen Parry.

It’s interesting at all sorts of levels, of course, but the bit that fascinates me is the insight into how journalism can work in the press gallery. Price writes:

Ordinarily, this conversation (with Parry) would have remained private. Journalists and politicians routinely engage in this sort of chat — it’s how we learn what’s really going on.

In other words, this is a big story now because the conversation became public. It SHOULD be a big story – a Government member has admitted an area of policy is a “disaster”. Could there be anything more in the public interest to report?

But if it hadn’t been made public by Labor, if the words hadn’t been uttered in front of a Rudd staffer, this would have stayed under wraps, according to Price.

It’s true, of course, that journalists have background chats and off the record chats all the time. I have had two myself in the last 24 hours.

But when I was a cadet I was taught that it was healthy to strictly apply the “off the record” rule. That is, providing you have identified yourself as a journalist and providing you haven’t agreed to maintain confidentiality, then anything that is said can be used.

As Price acknowledges, that’s not the way things work in Canberra. There, journalists operate as political insiders – part of the political class rather than separate from it, and complicit in a whole series of unspoken understandings about how things work and what can and cannot be reported.

Is this good? Sometimes. It means journalists can be well-informed – but they are also able to be led up the garden path without their sources ever being held accountable.

But when a Government insider admits, without saying “off the record”, that a policy is a “disaster”, and the reporter seriously considers not reporting this, you have to wonder whose interests are being served. Is it about informing the readers, or is it about feeding the reporters’ thrill and sense of self importance at being “in on things”?

“Off the record” always involves a difficult ethical balancing act, but it is hardly surprising that in the insiders world of the Canberra press gallery there are hardly any mavericks or radicals. Convention wins, and those who will not or cannot conform soon move on or self select out.

Perhaps it is inevitable – but it is hardly edifying.