The Canberra tradition of non-attributable party room briefings is intended to circumvent the problem of leaks.

Knowing full well MPs will tell the press what went on inside Caucus or the Coalition’s joint party meetings, both sides send out MPs or senators to brief the press afterward on most of what happens, although discussions about political tactics don’t get mentioned. Because the spokespeople are not there representing either themselves or in their ministerial role, the tradition is they aren’t identified.

While journalists invariably extract further detail from MPs, they also obsess about every word in the official briefing. Mark Latham relates in his diaries that he celebrated one Melbourne Cup Day by turning his report into a form guide, utterly confusing Michelle Grattan, who had been taking careful notes.

That’s why what might be seen as relatively innocuous questions or comments in party room meetings are put through a sort of melodrama filter so that, when they finally make it into the press, they are loaded with high drama. MPs invariably “slam” their leaders, “bluntly warn” them, “demand answers” or “revolt”.

The process doesn’t always go according to plan. Early last year Senator Brett Mason briefed journalists on the joint party room meeting at which Malcolm Turnbull had discussed opposition to the Government’s second stimulus package.

Under questioning from Laura Tingle, Mason wrongly gave the impression Turnbull had indicated he would pass legislation for the package. A hasty ring-around by Turnbull’s office had to correct the record a couple of hours later. Thereafter, Turnbull’s press adviser Tony Barry sat in on all of Mason’s briefings. Eventually Mason was replaced by the current incumbent.

Whether Tony Abbott actually declared that the Coalition was “within reach of a famous victory”, as the spokesperson said, still isn’t clear. Wilson Tuckey this morning at doors said “it probably was said”, which given Tuckey’s delusional state probably means everyone else was right in denying it.

What it does show is just how obsessed with trivia the Press Gallery can be. The Coalition are obviously within reach of what would be a remarkable victory, trailing only 4 points in 2PP terms. If Abbott said it, it’s a statement of the bleeding obvious. But because the golden rule is that no politician should ever say anything other than comment on how tough an election will be, it’s become fit subject for detailed analysis and extensive questioning of MPs, despite being about as relevant as the utter non-story about Abbott’s mortgage.

These are the same journalists who lament the unwillingness of politicians to ever say anything other than carefully-prepared talking points.

Perhaps journalists should be focussing on something else, like the line repeatedly coming from the Coalition that the election campaign will be “filthy”. When you produce race-baiting garbage like this, you don’t get to call anyone else “filthy”.

Peter Fray

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