Michael Owen, Adelaide bureau chief of The Australian, was recently caught out being rude to the Prime Minister, if rude is the correct word.

Julia Gillard called a media conference almost a fortnight ago in the South Australian parliamentary courtyard to announce a Labor leadership ballot to sort out Kevin Rudd “once and for all”. At some stage, she referred to Rudd’s administration as PM as dysfunctional.

“How can people believe you?” Owen jumped in, raising a point about whether she had in fact positioned herself to take over the leadership well before Rudd was ousted as PM in 2010. “Well, I’ve just told you the truth,” she answered. “How can people believe you when you were part of this dysfunction and you didn’t speak up …?” “That’s because I believed, well, your question is internally inconsistent …” Around this time the wheels fell off.

Owen’s line of questioning until then was fair enough, if only he had allowed the PM to complete whatever she was trying to say. But he kept interrupting — what he actually said is mostly indistinct on the audio track — and Gillard’s responses soon turned into a series of increasingly testy sound bites:

“Let me answer it … If you stop talking then I’ll give you an answer but I can’t give you an answer if you don’t stop talking … I’m not listening to this rudeness … I’m not going to have you speak to me like this, end of sentence …”

The PM then gave Owen a death-ray glare and the media conference was soon terminated.

A more timid journo might have taken the early hint and pulled his head in. Not Michael Owen. Timidity is not his style. Good for him.

Owen is not buying into the argy-bargy again. Contacted by InDaily, he said, “I am absolutely not commenting,” a line that must be familiar to him in his work.

The tiff with the PM was televised live nationally. Twitter quickly dubbed him #rudereporter.

His editors at The Australian in Sydney were watching, too. He later rang the PM’s office to apologise for his behaviour and said he meant no disrespect. The Australian published a three-par piece on the apology.

Owen did not respond to an InDaily question about whether he had been directed by the boss to apologise.

It was not Owen’s first run-in with political leadership. Far from it. He has a reputation in SA for being a pushy and prickly customer. He irks politicians on all sides. He has detractors. He rankles some of his own colleagues.

At SA Press Club luncheons Owen is usually early to the microphone with a curly question or two for the guest speaker; and then remains in place for another supplementary question or three while the other journos impatiently wait in line.

The standard defence for someone such as Owen is that a journalist’s job is to ask tough questions to seek straight answers from those in powerful positions. The journos’ role is not to please those they report on.

Why shouldn’t Owen interrupt the PM if it meant the public gained a greater understanding and appreciation of the ALP leadership battle?

What seemed to offend some observers, however, was the insufficient respect shown for the position of Prime Minister. Among those to be mightily offended was Haydon Manning, head of the Department of Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University. Addressing a committee for the Economic Development of Australia forum at the Intercontinental Hotel in Adelaide, Manning vented about journalists who “assume the role of self-righteous and pious judges of political acumen”.

His speech was delivered on February 24, the day after Owen’s run-in with the PM.

“I noted yesterday the Prime Minister get angry just over there in a courtyard,” Manning told the CEDA crowd. “I guessed who it was. I’m not going to name him. I found out later that’s exactly who it was. One of the prominent journalists in this state.”

His pot-shot came towards the end of an address on SA politics in which Manning railed against what he called “gotcha journalism” — “a particular method of interviewing that is premeditated to embarrass a politician rather than solicit information”.

“I would also add that part of the culture of gotcha journalism is a disdain for politicians … an abiding assumption that the pollies must be devious, must be lying, must be out for themselves,” he continued. “Closely associated as well is, I believe, a view held by some journalists and radio hosts that they are indeed democracy’s self-appointed guardians.”

Warming to the task, Manning turned on Matthew Abraham and David Bevan, the breakfast presenters of ABC Local Radio 891 in Adelaide. Predictable targets, it has to be said, given the line Manning was taking.

Last December, the duo was judged by the Australian Communications and Media Authority to have lacked impartiality in an interview with ex-deputy premier Kevin Foley about an alleged assault on him in an Adelaide wine bar. The presenters had pulled together various thought bubbles about Foley’s supposed risky behaviour, lack of judgment, argumentative nature, drinking habits and how his life had become a tiresome soap opera.

Now, almost every senior Adelaide journo, male and female, has a war story about being robustly abused by Foley at one time or other. Grist to the mill, though with the females he was sometimes known to ring later to apologise. So it could hardly be said that Foley was some lily-livered pissant unable to stand up for himself in an interview. Lots of people might have wanted to ask the same questions and probably thought Foley got his just desserts at the hands of Abraham and Bevan.

But the interview made for gruesome listening. The presenters kept talking over Foley, in what Manning thought was a hatchet job.

“I’ve never met Kevin Foley personally. Obviously I’ve written about him and commented about him,” Manning told CEDA. “I immediately wrote a letter to him expressing my anger at the way he had been treated that morning. My colleague, the late Geoff Anderson … he wandered into my office aghast at what he’d heard. He rang Foley.” Others put in formal complaints to ACMA.

Yes, derision had been used as a weapon to try to undermine Foley’s credibility, ACMA found in deciding Abraham and Bevan had displayed “fixed prejudgment on the topics discussed, asked loaded questions and used disparaging language”. The finding was afterwards disparaged by Abraham, who tweeted that their conduct had been no different than what any other Adelaide journalist worth his or her salt would have done.

Not much of a defence, it must be said, and many journalists worth their salt took exception to being included in such a sweeping statement. Abraham did not respond to repeated InDaily requests for an interview.

Politicians and journalists are participants in the democratic process. But journos are the fringe players, not the main act, and those who misstep into the spotlight risk paying a professional price.

Politicians, if crossed, can turn off access. All government co-operation is withdrawn. Political life goes on, just without those individual journalists at centre stage.Long before the ACMA episode, Foley and former premier Mike Rann had imposed an extended, undeclared boycott on the Abraham-Bevan show.

In November 2007, the Adelaide Sunday Mail ran a feature story reporting on how the boycott had been running for 14 months by that stage. At the time, Abraham was quoted in the Mail as saying he had no explanation for why Rann and Foley had turned their backs on the show.

“Our program sets its own agenda and that means we often ask questions that are sometimes difficult. And, I mean, we don’t apologise for that. But I think if that creates problems for some people, then there may be an explanation in that,” he told the paper.

The ban was lifted after a while but seemed to be back in place towards the end of the Rann premiership late last year. Mike Rann pointedly did not go on their show in his round of farewell media appearances.

Abraham and Bevan were by no means the only ones to be on a Rann-Foley blacklist, according to the Sunday Mail. The others variously included Graham Archer, the producer of Today Tonight on Channel 7; Ian Henschke, the presenter of Stateline on ABC TV and now on Local Radio 891; Kevin Naughton, former drive-time announcer on 891, who is now with InDaily; and Michelle Wiese Bockman, a predecessor of Owen’s at The Australian.

Adelaide has a long tradition of journalists who hector politicians and get sidelined for it — a badge of honour in some respects. Manning told CEDA that, in his opinion, it was a form of journalistic “distemper” and he had concerns about the impact on the South Australian body-politic:

“In a nutshell, politicians are not being given a fair go and it’s harming our democracy. Because worthy citizens keen to contribute to public life … rightly and increasingly shy away from putting themselves up for public office.”

The evidence for this proposition was purely anecdotal, Manning conceded, and it seems a stretch to blame a fear of Owen, Abraham and Bevan, et al, as the reason why elections have so few worthy candidates and a plethora of unworthy ones.

The community expects politicians to be held to a high public standard. As part of the process, the journalist’s job is to ask them questions and report the answers.

The ethical obligation on journalists, along with getting things right, is to strive to be independent and impartial in their efforts. Everyone questioned by a journalist also deserves to be treated with civility. And, yes, with respect.

The media debate is a bottomless can of worms, into which has now plopped the 474-page Independent Media Inquiry report from Ray Finkelstein QC.

The practical effect of the recommendations would be to require print and online media to be licensed by a government-funded and appointed authority. A proposed News Media Council, a combination of the existing Australian Press Council and ACMA, could potentially force media outlets to remove material from the internet. That sounds awfully like an attempt by the government to apply a tourniquet to some of journalism’s best political blood-letting stories.

The natural instinct of all governments is to suppress and inhibit the free flow of information. There are already more than enough laws, such as defamation and privacy protection, to constrain, restrain and punish journalists.

Love them or loathe them, people can make up their own minds about Owen, Abraham and Bevan — and also InDaily’s Tom Richardson from Channel Nine. Regardless, the community needs journalists like them to counter the press release mentality that produces tedious and supine political coverage. A robust, challenging media is essential to ensure an open, democratic society. It just is.

A smartarse, even a sneering line of questioning with politicians leaves democracy better off, not worse off, despite the protestations of Haydon Manning. The coyness of Owen and Abraham in refusing to co-operate with this piece is disappointing. Hopefully it does not mean they have pulled their heads in.

*This article was first published at InDaily.

Peter Fray

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