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Whither the federal fourth estate?

By Helen Ester - posted Friday, 1 October 2010


The Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery is tasked with the quasi-institutional watchdog role of the “fourth estate”. However, documentary and interview evidence gathered during the prime ministership of John Howard (Ester, H. 2007. "The Media" in Hamilton, C and Maddison, S. Silencing Dissent. Allen& Unwin) showed a number of extreme media management strategies stretched executive media relations close to breaking point. The data painted a picture of cumulative deterioration in access to sources of political news and information, as well as severely truncated time frames for analysis and a significant increase in tighter executive control over political communication.

Journalists described the challenges of a controlling, unregulated environment and an expanding “octopus-like” (Walsh 2004) network of media minders employed under the loosely constructed and opaque Members of Parliament (staff) Act 1984 (MOPS) - dispersed not only amongst the executive, but also the government backbench and the public service.

Lessons from the Howard years

This low point in the history of the federal fourth estate tended to be seen as yet another example of heavy-handed neo-liberalism. However, a closer examination of past and present media management strategies revealed a story of systemic flaws rather than of party ideology. The excessive controls in place in Canberra by 2007 were not new - but instead represent a major intensification in long-standing practices that have their origin in the unique way political journalism evolved in the federal Parliament and date back to the Parliament’s establishment in the national capital in 1927.


In today’s political climate this represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the fourth estate and the Parliament to re-think and re-mediate executive-media relations.


Fault lines began to appear soon after the move to the purpose-built national capital where the Australian Parliament compromised Westminster convention to allow both the executive and the media to set up offices within its realm. Unlike the early arrangements in Melbourne and any other Parliament in comparable political systems anywhere else, the Australian Parliament’s constitutional sovereignty is not underpinned with physical separation

The late Clem Lloyd’s seminal work Parliament and the Press (1988) shows how this Australian version of the Westminster franchise skewed executive-media relations and came to define federal political journalism. His work shows the laissez-faire attitude to parliamentary space was accompanied by ill-defined terms of engagement in executive-media relations that in turn led to an accumulation of arbitrary or “ramshackle rules” (Lloyd, C. J. 1988. Parliament and the press. Melbourne University Press).

Overall the terms of engagement crafted in Canberra:

  • Created a political news staffing structure that resources reporting of the executive at the expense of Parliament. Unlike elsewhere (e.g. UK/US), the entire Gallery is focused on the executive and the Australian Associated Press (AAP) wire-service is largely left to pick up the rest - creating in essence, a three-tier structure determined, not by media employers, but by the government executive - an ad hoc but effective manipulative technique coined the “drip feed” by former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating.
  • Fostered a culture of “leak dependent” journalism that is in itself vulnerable to manipulation exacerbated by weak or ineffectual Freedom of Information (FOI) laws and an absence of shield laws for journalists whose work is characterised by content clearly in the public interest.

The effect of such arbitrary arrangements was apparent from very early on, for instance within four years the establishment of the “Canberra model”:


The Labor government of Prime Minister James Scullin banned Joe Alexander from the Melbourne Herald from parliament house for five months for writing a story based on leaked cables between Scullin and members of the Labor party relating to leadership tensions.

Apparent again, when Prime Minister John Curtin’s government (1941-45) banned Gallery journalist Richard Hughes’ from his workplace for several weeks for an article headlined “Those meddlesome old men of the Senate”. And for good measure, removed media passes from all of Hughes’ colleagues in the Sunday and Daily Telegraph bureaus.

Apparent during Prime Minister Bob Menzies’s long incumbency (1949-1966) when Speaker Archie Cameron meted out ad hoc, oral and written punishments and more draconian still, when the Menzies’s executive infamously engineered the jailing of two journalists, Frank Browne and Brian Fitzpatrick, for the “crime” of writing an article scathing of a government backbencher.

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About the Author

Dr Helen Ester is an 2010 honorary visiting fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian University where she is conducting follow-up research to up-date her thesis Systemic Fault lines in the fourth Estate? The Media and John Howard PM.

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