Did someone say “glass jaws”? After being humiliated by Anthony Albanese on Tuesday, when he provided a free fact-checking session on the work of The Daily Telegraph’s Simon Benson — noting the same “secret documents” had provided contradictory “exclusives” two years apart — The Tele hit back today with an attack on the office of Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy, which has adopted the habit of distributing its responses to individual questions from The Australian to the press gallery.

The Oz, which has long been running an anti-NBN campaign (some of its gallery journalists, like Alan Jones, have rather peculiar ideas about the laws of physics and the speed of optical fibre) has plainly decided to run a campaign on the digital STB Household Assistance Scheme. The scheme was extended in the budget, but has already been running for two years with nary a whisper of complaint from News Limited. So in the last couple of days there have been a couple of emails from Conroy’s new media adviser, Lyall Johnson, providing the rest of us with Conroy’s response to whatever half-baked set-top box-related stories journalists have been trying to breathe life into.

Today Alison Rehn of The Tele was suitably outraged at Conroy’s threat to give it the same treatment, declaring Conroy’s office was “undermining journalists who work at The Daily Telegraph by threatening to publish communications between them and his office”.

How this would “undermine journalists”, Rehn didn’t discuss — one assumes The Tele‘s hacks haven’t acquired the past habit of some other News Ltd journalists of flirting via email with politicians — but she got her editor, that stout defender of middle-class welfare, Paul Whittaker, to compare Labor’s media management to Stalinism. “Next they’ll drag editors off to the gulag,” Rehn records Whittaker as warning.

As we know, it will only take a few minutes for the Bolts and Devines of the world to leap on this astonishingly insensitive comparison of a trivial media issue to the mass murder carried out by one of the world’s worst tyrannies. Indeed, I imagine even now right-wing commentators are winding up to … what — no?

Perhaps we need a new version of Godwin’s Law — Godwinov’s Law? — for losing an argument by invoking Stalinism. And let’s not even bother making the point that at least Stalin was brutally efficient in his tyranny, whereas Labor’s media management is some of the worst seen in Canberra in a generation.

But forget the thin skins in the News Ltd bureau here in the press gallery, let’s go back to Rehn’s point about “undermining journalists”. Whether deliberately or not, Rehn is really talking about an issue that’s right at the intersection of the media’s Augustinian demand for transparency for government, but only insofar as it doesn’t clash with individual outlets’ commercial interests. Here we have a parallel complaint to that of FOI editors about the government’s habit, under the much-improved FOI laws introduced by Labor, of making FOI material available to everyone on its website.

Crikey first reported in 2009 this new world of non-exclusivity — before that, FOI material was only made available to the outlets that requested it — and how it was already putting noses out of joint.

But the transparency-first approach of the government didn’t really gain prominence until Treasury’s release of carbon price-related documents in April this year. Seven’s Michael McKinnon, the nearest thing we’ve got to an FOI National Living Treasure, and The Oz’s FOI editor Sean Parnell, both complained to Crikey about FOI documents being made available to everyone, robbing journalists of exclusives.

And exclusives of course are a key driver of the media business model. Being able to claim you have something readers and audiences can’t get elsewhere is a key differentiator of your product and a way to drive sales and subscriptions. FOI is one area where the mainstream media still have a substantial advantage over new media or bloggers.

McKinnon and Parnell both called for a “grace period” before the wider release of FOI documents (McKinnon suggests three days), to ensure the lure of the exclusive remained as a driver for journalism while strengthening transparency. A number of Crikey readers thought this fairly rank hypocrisy, given the media’s incessant clamour for greater transparency from government.

What wasn’t addressed is that the government’s approach seems to have reduced the incidence of “gotcha” coverage of FOI documents despite the considerable expansion of successful FOI applications. Since the same documents are now available to everyone and coverage can be assessed against the source materials, the wave of “gotcha”-focussed FOI stories feared by bureaucrats, in which advice to government and data is taken out of context or manipulated, doesn’t seem to have eventuated. The coverage of the Treasury carbon price material, for example, was mostly free of the “savage attack on family budgets” line you’d have expected from a single outlet.

A minister’s office providing all media outlets with the same information in response to individual requests only “undermines” journalists in the same way as providing all outlets with FOI documents undermines them, by reducing the driver of the “exclusive” in favour of exactly the transparency that the media is always calling for from government — and by reducing the potential for journalists to spin, distort and manipulate material.

That’s why Conroy’s office of course is doing it. But they’re so far only applying this selectively. It’s therefore unfair, no matter how partisan the coverage of The Oz and The Tele. Better to treat them as the propaganda outlets they are, and refuse to deal with them, than apply an inconsistent standard.

Peter Fray

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