Daniel Andrews coronavirus press conference briefing
(Image: AAP/Erik Anderson)

Over the past week journalists have been out on Twitter arguing with their audience about the job they’re doing at COVID-19 press conferences: “It’s accountability!” they declare. “It’s a political hit job,” Dan-stans reply. It set the hashtag “#Thisisnotjournalism” trending over the weekend.

It’s a clash of wants: the community wants to know what the lockdowns mean for it and journalists want the story. Maybe both matter.

The problem? Pressers have gone post-modern, keeping only the shell of accountability. Journalists are no longer the audience — they’re part of the show: the chorus classic Greek drama, filling out the stage, amplifying and clarifying the hero’s words.

Politicians from Scott Morrison to Daniel Andrews aren’t talking to journalists. They’re seizing the screen, talking direct to the community, live streaming into a 24-hour news environment.

Press conferences and briefings have always been more public relations than political accountability, shaped by the media of their time. The press conference from Bob Hawke to John Howard had its own theatre, designed for the demands of nightly television news. It dragged big policy announcements off the stage of parliament and on to the small screen.

Still, the journalists mattered. They were the channel of delivery for the message. They had to be accommodated, respected.

It meshed those announcements with the insider press briefings, brought to Canberra politics by wartime leader John Curtin. Think of it as an early Team Australia moment, a device for bringing the gallery’s newspaper reporters into the tent with shared information.

The all-in background briefings in Canberra were smashed up in the late ’60s by the emerging gallery stars of the late 20th century. Nation Review’s Mungo MacCallum declined to attend, freeing himself from confidentiality conventions when other journalists told him what he’d missed.

Alan Ramsay (then at The Australian) destroyed its conceit, shouting “You liar!” at prime minister John Gorton from the parliamentary gallery when Gorton contradicted a background briefing.

The expansion of long-form interview programs in the 1980s — from Laurie Oakes on Nine’s Sunday or Kerry O’Brien’s Lateline — empowered (or forced) leaders like Paul Keating and Howard to conduct their once-were-background briefings out in the open, until the format became tainted by the relentless hunt for the gotcha moment on one side and politicians’ “media training” on the other.

Any pretence at background was destroyed when Keating’s off-the-record “Placido Domingo” speech at the 1990 press gallery Christmas party was publicly reshaped into his leadership challenge.

During last summer’s bushfires and now with COVID-19, premiers are reverting to the press conference as briefing — direct to their audience.

They’re adopting the style popularised by former Queensland premier Anna Bligh during the 2011 floods, positioning themselves as the channel between the experts and the community, making themselves the go-to for advice and information.

The journalistic chorus is expected to fill out the room, to clarify if necessary, and to keep out of the way.

Meanwhile, with the second coronavirus wave in Victoria, journalists want a life-imitates-art accountability, through exhaustion if necessary.

Australian politicians are cautious here: under questioning about her 1990s legal work for the AWU, Julia Gillard exhausted the reporters, but the questions carried all the way through to the subsequent trade union royal commission.

No wonder Morrison prefers to lean on his standard press conference dismissals, from “on-water matters” through to “just gossip”.

As with all political theatre, Donald Trump has hurried us on to the reality-TV conclusion. He hand-picks his own chorus, starting with Fox News before moving on to the new right-wing kid in the room, One America News Network.

Last week he went all the way, inviting members of his Bedminster golf club into the room who alternately cheered and booed his exchange with reporters.

America’s press pool once again found itself elevated to the antagonist in the Trump populist drama, positioned where Trump wants it: the enemy of the people.

Peter Fray

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