Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Stop the Press (Gallery)

And then I went up to the Press Gallery, which was my favourite part of the entire building. It retains its original decor – rather nasty mushroom-coloured walls – and is very shabby compared with the rest of the building.

Audio recordings are available for the public to listen in on some past interviews, such as this one from press journalist Gay Davidson, “In general I don’t think journalists should play God, but I see no reason why they shouldn’t comment and interpret and the more of that there is in newspapers, the better.”

The tiny corridors and soundproofed rooms are empty now, but it is easy to imagine them resounding with footsteps and the chatter of typewriter keys. The space in which all the journalists worked was minimal, and the press gallery members and politicians all worked together intimately. Press Gallery journalist, Fred Brenchley wrote,
“One of the joys of working around here was that you were so close... you felt always that you were a part of public policy making because you were working so close to ministers... and you could write things that you felt perhaps influenced the debate here and there. Journalism after all is the first rough draft of history.”
The press boxes at the top of the stairs would have been the main site of all the action. Members of the foreign press such as The Guaming Daily (China), Pravda Tass (USSR) and The Times (UK) were accredited members of the gallery with a press box, although they did not have offices here. Yuri Yasnev, a journalist with Pravda, said in 1965, “We’re covering Australia because it’s [becoming] more important in covering international affairs.”

Canberra was very small and the press and politicians alike missed the familiar surroundings of the bigger cities. They spent time socially together and built up camaraderie on trains between Canberra and state capitals. They stayed in the same hotels, drank in the same bars, and even played cricket together, although that rivalry may not always have been entirely friendly. 
Prime Minister Bob Hawke hit in the face while batting in the annual cricket match against the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1984. The bowler was ABC journalist Gary O'Neill
 It was clearly cramped and there was no sense of privacy, but there must have been an element of excitement about the place. Colin Parkes, Press Gallery journalist, explains,
“The nature of this building was that the whole building and everyone in it was a source. You could walk in this building at nine in the morning and you could sniff something. You could feel an atmosphere that something was going on. It was a quickened pace or, ‘What are those two talking about? Those people are enemies, why are they talking? ...You could hide nothing. You couldn’t have secret Cabinet meetings. You couldn’t have secret committee meetings. If a minister was summonsed to the Prime Minister’s office, the odds were he’d pass six journalists on the way.” 
Paul Malone agrees, “There was a buzz about this place. You could be sitting in my little office and you would suddenly hear footsteps in the corridor and people rushing. And the common greeting was, ‘What’s happening?’ Nobody ever said, ‘Hello’ or ‘Good day’ or anything. It was always ‘What’s happening?’”

The equipment was clearly archaic, but the reporters loved it, especially as they began to be taken seriously for their work. Press Gallery journalist Alan Ramsey explains that reporters rarely got by-lines in those days and their articles were headed, ‘by our political correspondent’, but The Australian changed that, building up its staff and promoting its journalism.
“They introduced not only a degree of competition, but also the worth of the journalist himself. That somehow the person writing the story was as important as the story they were writing.”  
It appeared that not everyone agreed, and there was a little friction between some of the politicians and the press. J.S. Rosevear, Speaker of the House of Representatives was keen to point out in 1947, “After all, the press has no right to be here. The only right the press enjoys here is the privilege bestowed upon them by the Parliament.”

In one of the sound-booths, you can have a go at recording your own interview from an autocue and then listen to it played back, if you can bear the excruciating embarrassment.

In 1945, the ABC broadcast from the House of Representatives, and you can see the room set up as it would have been, with bench-boxes in place of the desks. Everyone sat in this office: Chief of Staff; Reporter; TV News Reporter; News Reporter; AM and PM desk; Radio News Reporter; Radio Australia's Desk; TV Producer; Nationwide Desk; TV News Correspondent. Note the importance of the position of the beer fridge!

Not everyone was happy with this development, and the new technology, with war correspondent and Press Gallery journalist Ian Fitchett bemoaning the loss of the romance and acumen of the newspaper journalist.
“Television has ruined, to me, political reporting. It’s become political comment, because today the politician can beat the pressman, the Gallery man, to the box. He’ll get on the box. He can either, the Minister, tell the truth, tell a half truth, or tell a lie, but he’s gone nationally. All the pressmen can do is follow and make a comment. The idea of being of being able to break what the Minister’s going to tell the nation and get a beat, is gone.”
It’s an interesting distinction between reportage and commentary. And he would be horrified if he could see the glib dross that passes for news on today’s TV shows. The Press Gallery provides a fascinating insight into the relationship between media and politics. I was thrilled by this slice of recent history, and I’m not even Australian. If you are, and even if you aren’t, I highly recommend visiting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Kate,

congratulation on a great blog. I'm going to bookmark this and learn some culture, and interesting facts along the way. I tried to comment months ago, but the tricky robot test your site requires before I can comment beat me into submission - today I have struck an easy one I suspect. Mick