Last night after his government delivered its first budget, Prime Minister Tony Abbott popped into a number of media organisations’ social events. Journalists at those events reported the visit.
People noticed the tweets. And talked. Here were a bunch of journalists relaxing after a long day of scrutinising the government … with the leader of that government. Having a good old laugh with him. Treating him like a celebrity.
I’ve seen a few people, journalists included, dismiss the discussion around Tony Abbott’s drinks with the media as “manufactured outrage”. But this is — wilfully or otherwise — ignorant of the relationship between journalism and politics in a democracy.
Journalists are quick and proud to wear the “Fourth Estate” and “watchdog” badges when it suits them, so if they’re going to incorporate these elements of liberal pluralism into their job description then perhaps its worth considering what liberal pluralism actually means.
It doesn’t matter if you’re Fairfax, News Limited, The Guardian, or blogger Bob Whocares. If you hold that your journalistic role is an adversarial one, functioning at arm’s length from the powerful you are tasked to report on without fear or favour, then maybe don’t invite politicians to (or allow them to join) your social events. Or if you do, maybe take advantage of such spectacular access by doing some journalism at them.
I know this is hardly the first time journalists have fraternised with politicians in this manner. I know that part of the budget ritual involves the whole Canberra elite getting shitfaced together after the speech. But why has Abbott dropped into these little parties? Why does any MP? Why do party staffers seek out journos in the sweaty Kingston gin dens? Wouldn’t your first instinct as a journalist, when faced with this situation, be to ask, “What does the PM/MP/staffer want from me?”
From the looks on the faces of those in the pictures, and the tone of the tweets, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of journalistic scepticism going around that room. What we see is journalists enjoying the feeling of being close to celebrity and power, and a relationship that is far too chummy for comfort. Tony Abbott looks to be having exactly the effect he desired.
Sure, journalists need to carefully manage relationships with their sources, and a journo wouldn’t be doing their job properly if they didn’t buy the odd coffee for a pollie, but how on earth could sharing a shandy with Tony Abbott after the budget speech generate any genuine and tangible benefit for a journalist or news organisation? It seems, at face value, to be a win for the PM and a loss for the “Fourth Estate”.
And if nothing else, it looks bad. Really bad. If you’re smugly tweeting about having a drink with the PM, and showing off your proximity to power, you’re not doing a very good job of demonstrating to the public you allegedly exist to serve that you’re serious about your watchdog role.
Any outrage a democratic citizen might feel about these photos and tweets is hardly manufactured. It’s justified and it matters.
RTYI: On The Media last week featured a very good segment about the White House Correspondents Dinner.