Joh's chooks are better fed now

by Chris Griffith
Published 17 May 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


Queensland's 35-strong Parliamentary Press Gallery is a body always reporting the news but rarely in it.

However this appears to have changed with the Gallery's decision to break ranks with other Queensland members of the Australian Journalists Association (AJA) and present its own submission to the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC).

The topic - EARC's review of government media and information services - was born out of Fitzgerald report observations about the former Bjelke-Petersen government's masterful manipulation of the Queensland media. Submissions to EARC closed Friday.

This review has generated plenty of heat among Brisbane journalists over recent months; yet strangely it has been the subject of little media attention.

The Press Gallery's contribution to this debate is significant, given these journalists are the ones who have the most regular contact with government media advisers. The public depends on these journalists for much of its political news.

So have things changed in Queensland as far as government media manipulation goes? Are the chooks still being fed, or have they turned into emus and kicked that Cabinet dunny door down?

Under this government some practices have changed. Gone in the taxpayer-funded extravaganza Queensland 2000, and the routine practice of ministers appearing in blatant political party propaganda masquerading as state government TV ads.

And soon to go with new defamation laws will be the government's ability to geld incisive journalism with stopper writs - and the practice of the Crown paying for defamation actions brought by ministers.

Despite these changes, some submissions to EARC argue the Goss Government has adopted up-front media management skills including personal intimidation and brow-beating.

Take for example the submission of John Phelan, former 4KQ newsreader, former press secretary to Vince Lester currently working for Liberal MLA Santo Santoro.

Mr Phelan's submission refers to a 1990 senior Ministerial official's berating of a TV journalist in the middle of the Press Gallery "simply because he had dared to report the truth about something which the government had wanted to remain hidden".

"It has become not only normal, but expected, that if a journalist writes or broadcasts a critical story, he or she will receive a telephone call or personal visitation from a government `minder'," it says.

Mr Phelan is not alone in his claim of this government heavy- handedness.

Meanwhile, the AJA's submission questions the secrecy of all deliberations surrounding cabinet; it endorses a previous EARC recommendation for a register of Cabinet decisions and the wider availability of the government publication "State Cabinet News".

It attacks the practice of government leaking cabinet information exclusively to privileged journalists, and alleges some sinister media manoeuvreing surrounding the Newnham misconduct hearings.

It says: "Most political journalists interviewed for this submission believed the Government tried to limit media coverage of Cabinet deliberations that day to ensure maximum media coverage of the disciplinary hearings involving the Police Commissioner, Mr Noel Newnham, which also began that day."

So what does the Press Gallery's submission make of these claims? It says: "...some early submissions on this paper have made political observations that seem to have little to support them -at least in the experience of our membership which have daily contact with Government and Opposition decision-makers."

It does NOT find, as John Phelan and others find, evidence of untoward intimidation by government against journalists.

"That the current government and Opposition press corps have not been guilty of heavy-handed treatment is possibly more a symptom of the new boys on the block ...".

Nor is it perturbed by the prospect of secrecy surrounding not only cabinet's deliberation, but also the general availability of cabinet information in publications such as State Cabinet News.

"Journalists acknowledge the right of Cabinet - and the need in the interests of the State, to be confidential."

"State Cabinet News could be made a public document, but any such direction would almost certainly see its production discontinued, or a sanitised version produced."

So what is the public to make of all this? It appears the media cannot agree about its observations on its interaction with the government, let alone basic questions like a right of access to cabinet decisions.

As for the Press Gallery - it says of the previous government "...their rationing information could well reflect now just who in the poultry farm of life were the real turkeys!".

Yet one sees little in its submission that ruffles the present government's feathers.