What lies beneath Canberra's silence?

The rules of engagement between journalists and politicians have been broken for some time. If they worked, those in the know would tell us what's really going on with Kevin Rudd.

For us outsiders, some of the reporting and commentary out of Canberra is confounding. That’s putting it mildly.

We assume that the significant, if dwindling number of journalists who make up the Canberra press gallery are there to inform us punters about what’s happening in federal politics.

That’s a broad brief but the press gallery is home to some of the country's best journalists – veterans and up and comers – so the task should not be beyond them.

We can assume that they are based in Canberra and spend most of their waking hours in Parliament House because that gives them great access to politicians, political staffers and even public servants.

That access, we suppose, means they can provide us with news, analysis and commentary that is informed, accurate and fearless. We are also entitled to assume that they are telling us everything they know.

That includes telling us when politicians say one thing in off the record conversations and something entirely different for public consumption.

There are clearly rules of engagement in journalism and that’s particularly true when it comes to politicians and the journalists who cover politics.

These rules are rarely discussed and rarely open to public scrutiny. These rules are contentious because the interests of politicians and the interests of journalists are – or should be – entirely different.

In my view, the rules of engagement, for some time now, have not worked. They have allowed politicians to get away with telling untruths and have led to a situation where journalists can’t tell us what’s really going on.

It often feels as if the rules of engagement are such that most of what journalists in Canberra know can’t be revealed to us outsiders.

Indeed, there are times when journalists report statements that politicians make publicly when the journalists know that these statements are untrue. How do they know? Because these same politicians, in off the record conversations – which means they can’t be reported – have given journalists the 'real' story.

Take the issue of Kevin Rudd’s future. There were two major opinion polls this week. Both showed that Julia Gillard and the Labor government had made significant progress in climbing back from the parlous state both the prime minister and the government were in three months ago.

Kathryn Murphy is a senior Fairfax journalist in Canberra. Part of her take on the polls was to say that Kevin Rudd and his supporters "haven’t got much time" to mount a challenge to Gillard.

"Camp Rudd feels it needs to leverage the next two published poll cycles; this week’s Nielson and Newspoll and the Newspoll the fortnight after. So if that’s the game we are in (and I’m afraid we are, whether readers want to be or not) what does today’s Age/Nielsen Poll tell us?"

Murphy was not the only journalist in Canberra who examined the polls through the prism of what they meant for 'camp Rudd’.

Indeed most of the analysis of the polls at the very least touched on Rudd and whether he would or wouldn’t run out of time in the remaining four weeks of parliament to mount a challenge against Gillard.

Now this is bizarre. For a start, is there really a 'camp Rudd’ and if there is, who’s organising the camp, where are their tents pitched and what exactly are their motives?

How about some names? Who are these people and how organised a group are they? Does the group include cabinet ministers, and if that’s the case, don’t they have to be 'outed’? Isn’t there a real ethical issue if cabinet ministers are involved in organising a challenge against the prime minister?

Kathryn Murphy, and other journalists, no doubt know the answers to these questions but what about the rest of us – is it possible for us to know as well? Isn’t that what the journalists are there in Canberra to do?

What about Kevin Rudd? There he was last week doing an interview from the World Economic Forum where, he let it be known, he was meeting all sorts of important people, including the former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Nothing wrong with all that. But if there is a 'camp Rudd’, was this interview part of the camp’s plan for a Rudd challenge to Gillard before the end of the year?

And is Rudd active in 'camp Rudd’? It’s hard to imagine that Kevin Rudd is not briefing journalists whom he trusts about his hopes for the future.

So many questions, so few answers. Just as there were so many questions and so few answers back in February when for most people outside Canberra, the Rudd challenge to Gillard seemed to come from nowhere.

This was in part because Rudd had insisted publicly that he was not mounting a challenge when quite a few journalists were being told, off the record, that a challenge was on the cards. The only question was when it would be launched.

I do not mean to suggest that Kevin Rudd is the only politician who uses the rules of engagement with journalists to his advantage, but he is bloody good at it, up there with the best of them.

Meanwhile, the controversy over whether Tony Abbott did or didn’t punch the wall beside the head of a young woman who had beaten him for the presidency of the SRC at Sydney University 35 years ago rages on.

What’s interesting about this controversy is that it was sparked by one paragraph in a 12,000 word profile of Abbott by David Marr in Quarterly Essay.

Marr is a very good profile writer and everyone knows, surely, that given his politics and his social liberalism, he was unlikely to feel great warmth for Abbott when he set out to research his essay.

There is no evidence in the essay that Marr changed his views about Abbott, after Marr had completed his research. In a sense, that’s the greatest shortcoming of his Abbott profile.

But of course none of this has been much discussed. What has been discussed and endlessly analysed is the alleged wall-punching incident – and if it happened, what it says about Tony Abbott back then and more importantly, today.

Here again there has been a sort of failure by the press gallery, especially by those reporters and commentators in the gallery who have known about Abbott for decades.

They should know whether he is still the angry misogynist that the wall-punching incident suggests he was when he was young. That’s the real issue. Some Labor politicians and some commentators – based on nothing much – reckon he still has an anger management problem as well as a 'problem’ with women.

Is this true? Michelle Grattan did say in a piece on the controversy that, having known Abbott for decades, she didn’t think Abbott was an angry, bad guy with a problem with women. But there has been virtually nothing from other journalists who have known Abbott for a long time and who surely should have something worthwhile to say about all this.

The rules of engagement in Canberra need to be re-examined. It would be good to feel that we are being told what’s really going on in national politics.

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