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Aug 3, 2011

Time for a ministerial meetings register — starting with media execs

If the Cameron government is prepared to be open about whom its ministers meet, so can the Gillard government, write Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer.

They’ve a funny approach to consistency at News Ltd. Should the Prime Minister have accepted an invitation to meet with News Ltd executives and editors last night when federal cabinet is yet to decide on the contentious Australia Network contract tussle between Sky News and the ABC? It’s not so long since The Australian, via ageing hitman Dennis Shanahan, conveyed the empire’s displeasure that Mark Scott and Michael Millett lobbied cabinet ministers over the contract. Behind-the-scenes influencing of politicians is the Murdoch modus operandi, thanks very much. Just ask Rebekah Brooks. So hands off, Aunty.

Was the Australia Network mentioned at all last night? Was it explicitly ruled out beforehand? Why did the meeting happen at all?

This isn’t the first time Julia Gillard has had a chat with the powers-that-be in the Murdochcracy. She met with Chris Mitchell during the election campaign, apparently to ask for something approaching fair coverage from The Oz, which anyone could have told her was a fool’s errand, particularly given the misogynist drivel then appearing in its pages over her earlobes and other apparently unsatisfactory policy failures.

Under pressure from the phone-hacking scandal and the Conservatives’ extensive links with News International, the Cameron government recently announced it was revealing all meetings with media proprietors and executives to date and would do so from now on. The virtual revolving door at 10 Downing Street for News International executives and editors was promptly revealed.

But Cameron’s commitment to transparency wasn’t as unusual as it first appeared. Since 2009, when a parliamentary committee recommended an overhaul of the regulation of lobbying, British cabinet ministers have been required to publish details of meetings with “interest groups” as well as hospitality received by ministers and some senior civil servants. Some of the meetings on Cameron’s list had already been revealed via the website set up to pull together all data on whom ministers are meeting.

It’s time for a similar website for Australian ministers and a similar commitment that all meetings be revealed by ministers, not merely with interest groups in their portfolio but anyone lobbying them other than constituents, and any social engagements at which more than polite chit-chat is exchanged with representatives of people outside government. Currently the only requirement is for all parliamentarians to reveal gifts via a register of pecuniary interests. It could be made a requirement of the ministerial code of conduct.

If all meetings are too much for starters, it could be immediately established in relation to meetings with media executives, especially given there’s a convergence review, a privacy discussion paper and possibly a wider media inquiry currently on the table and policy is up for grabs.

It should also be extended to the Opposition Leader, but that’s outside the government’s control.

This would have caught the ABC’s lobbying of cabinet ministers, as well as the Prime Minister’s meetings with News Ltd executives, as well as Stephen Conroy’s on-piste discussions with Kerry Stokes and, for that matter, when James Packer politely guided Conroy outside for a chat about the Ten Network at Foxtel’s birthday last year.

At the moment, such meetings and social engagements rarely emerge, unless there’s another agenda at work, such as the strange incident in which Mitchell was relaxing with Kevin Rudd before the latter took a phone call from George W. Bush, and the “what’s the G20” story emerged a couple of days later from a gallery journalist at The Australian.

If it’s good enough for Julia Gillard to declare that News Ltd has “serious questions to answer” like News International in the UK, it’s good enough for her to commit to greater transparency about whom she and her cabinet ministers meet, just like her British counterpart.

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16 comments

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16 thoughts on “Time for a ministerial meetings register — starting with media execs

  1. CML

    Bernard, I agree with your position in this article. Since we don’t know what was discussed between the PM and News Ltd. execs, one can only hope that she gave them the same treatment as the big boss and son received from the British parliament. But who knows? Not good enough.

  2. Pete from Sydney

    why would she give them the same treatment, when the same problem doesn’t exist?

  3. Mark from Melbourne

    I agree with the principle of a registry, long overdue, but am I missing something?

    1. the PM was transparent about there being a meeting so why the rather pompous closing line “…it’s good enough for her to commit to greater transparency about whom she and her cabinet ministers meet,…”
    2. a registry would not (possibly could not) disclose what was discussed so is really of limited value

  4. PatriciaWA

    So, did Bernard Keane have to hide behind a dustbin to discover and break this story on the Prime Minister’s meeting with News Ltd editors?

  5. drmick

    Wedged again. Damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.
    She was the only individual in Australia with the balls to state the bleeding obvious.
    Of course not one gutless snivelling section of the trash that parades as “the press” in this country supported her.
    These bastards have done worse than the pommie child abusers and phone tappers but there will be no investigative journalism here unless Murdoch approves it.
    The ABC is as bad as Murdoch and seems complicit if not a subsidiary of limited news.
    Good on the PM launching Nixons book. There is no shortage of women this mob have abused and Gillard can retire doing book launches for the women that have been smeared by this trash.
    The Melbourne Club rules.
    It is a direct payback for limited news taking the governments advertising budget then shi**ing on them in the same paper.

  6. davidk

    This is the Greeen’s policy position isn’t it?

  7. nicolino

    Old habits die hard with politicians. They’re still running scared of Murdoch. Why meet with Limited News at all under the present circumstances. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall.

  8. CML

    @ PETE FROM SYDNEY – Are you naive or what? News Corp is a worldwide company. Are you confident that none of the News Ltd. papers in Australia published ANY stories from News International in Britain, which were obtained by illegal means? None of the gossipy stories, nothing about the child murders, no articles that contained personal details of celebs, pollies, etc. etc. And best of all, no “news” items with info from bent police? Good luck!

  9. Margaret Kerr

    Transcripts of these meetings should definitely be made available to the public. The situation in the UK, where Cameron was in effect reporting back and receiving instructions from News Corp almost fortnightly (26 meetings in 15 months) meant Rupert was the person really running that country.

    And here it’s no better. Chris Mitchell to our elected prime minister, Kevin Rudd on the mining tax: “you personally have to get this off the agenda as soon as possible.” Since when did we vote for News Ltd to tell our prime minister what to do?

    No elected representative should ever have to curry good press in return for favourable consideration in upcoming business deals. With no transcripts available, I can’t help suspecting both Gillard and Abbott of coming to an understanding with News Ltd that is not necessarily in the Australia’s best interests.

  10. Venise Alstergren

    Oh for God’s sake Bernard. WTF do you have to be in line with all your press pals to condemn the woman for existing? It’s like reading something chucked out at high speed from an automatic tennis-ball returner. She gets out of bed in the morning-wallop. She has breakfast-wallop. She says hello to a frightened dog-wallop. She ignores the dog-wallop. On and on and bloo^dy on. WTF’s the matter with all of you?

    You and Glen Dyer sound just like the very thing you purport to deplore-the gossip columns. And the one sane point you had to make was “”It should also be extended to the Opposition Leader, but that’s outside the government’s control.”” you failed to elaborate on.

    Why not write an article wondering why the Oz voter is so far behind other countries in demanding transparency of the media? Perhaps you should write about the ghastly inferiority complex the Oz electorate suffers from, and how it manifests itself by screaming how we can beat the English at marble-tossing and toe-badminton?

    Instead of pontificating about the supine grovelling to our social betters. Ask what causes us to be so inferior. Perhaps it’s just old fashioned gutlessness in the face of the rich and the powerful. Or the old convict curse back to haunt us. On a scale of five I’d mark this article as half of one star.