The question Canberra journalists would like us to be asking today is whether we can trust Peter Costello and his relationship with John Howard. The other urgent question is whether we can trust the Canberra Press Gallery.

What do they think they are doing, and why do they think they are there, earning their fat salaries and insiders’ perks?

We now know that more than two years ago, three of Canberra’s best and brightest had a story of national significance, revealing of both the state of the Government and the judgement of the Prime Ministerial heir apparent. According to Michael Brissenden, they believed this story to be on the record “as background”. They were planning to run it big.

But then – wait for it – a press secretary rang them up and pleaded with them. And they crumbled!!

What credibility is left for journalists who want to complain about spin and the rise of public relations when three of the most senior journalists in the land are so compliant, and act with so little sense of their duty to their audience?

What credibility is left for Canberra press gallery members who deny that they run as a pack when three journalists working for allegedly competing outlets all fall in to line when the spin doctor whistles?

This adds to the telling Matt Price-Stephen Parry lift conversation affair that I wrote about last week as an example of how so-called journalism works in Canberra. Press Gallery members have become insiders, so hungry for the thrill of being in the know that they can be played like trout by the politicians and their minders.

Tony Abbott had a point this morning on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program. He said if this is a big story now, why wasn’t it a big story then? Abbott, a former journalist, clearly hasn’t entirely forgotten how it is meant to work. The Gallery should be ashamed at having to be reminded by him, of all people.

The rules, in case people have forgotten, run like this:

Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.

“Where confidences are accepted”. In other words, if you don’t agree that it is off the record at the time of the conversation, then it is on the record and can be reported. Off the record agreements should not be made lightly. They can be necessary, but always involve an important ethical decision.

There are times when protecting sources is vital – when a whistleblower is risking his career or more, or when someone with good information simply can’t or won’t talk publicly. In those cases the public interest demands that journalists protect the source. We have seen in recent months with the Kessing case and the Harvey and McManus case how important this convention can be.

But to convert important “on the record” material to “off the record” merely because a self-interested politician thinks better of what he has said over a few bottles of red? That brings the whole convention, and the whole profession, into disrepute.

Brissenden and the others claim that Costello has breached the rules by telling a direct lie about the encounter, thus liberating the journalists concerned to speak truth. We can perhaps be reassured that Brissenden at least was not prepared to let Costello get away with this.

Brissenden also claims that elements of the story have come out in any case, and the conversation has “informed” the work of the journalists concerned for the last two years.

But this reduces the poor audience — the audience whom these journalists are meant to serve — to having to do textual analysis, trying to guess at what lies behind the words to glean what is going on in the halls of power.

How many other big stories is the Gallery sitting on? How different would our understanding of politics be if the Canberra Press Gallery decided to have a “tell all” day in which they strictly applied the rules of off the record?

Perhaps the Canberra Press Gallery should have a Disclose Day, similar to the pyjama days some schools hold. In return for a gold coin donation to charity, they get to show us how they look without the insiders’ gloss.

It could hardly bring them into more disrepute.