Laurie Oakes was right to report on the Midwinter Ball – but other questions need revisiting
In the dying days of 2009 I was in Copenhagen for the global climate change summit, travelling with the prime minister, Kevin Rudd. Negotiations were tense, and complex, and largely kept from journalists, and by extension the public. It was difficult for anybody not in the room to discern precisely what was going on.
In the hope of providing at least a little bit of insight, we offered the travelling Australian press an off-the-record audience with the prime minister. Of course, nothing in politics is given away without the hope of getting something in return: the journalists were becoming frustrated, and we hoped to improve their mood.
In political terms this was for nothing, because the summit collapsed and no amount of spin from one country could remake that reality. But my clear impression was that the briefing in itself was useful for the journalists. Rudd was tired, but forthright, and had encyclopaedic knowledge. They received information they would not otherwise have had, and an honest sense of Rudd’s feelings about the progress that was being made (or not made). They couldn’t directly use the information they’d been given, but it could inform their reporting, ensuring they weren’t completely off the mark.
Six months later, David Marr published a Quarterly Essay on Rudd, in which he revealed that the PM had that night said the chances of a Copenhagen deal depended on “whether those rat-fucking Chinese want to fuck us”.
As Rudd’s press secretary, I was pissed off. That briefing had been off the record, meaning that what the PM said could not be quoted. An agreement had been breached.
But the really annoying thing was that Marr himself hadn’t done a thing wrong. He wasn’t present at the off-the-record briefing. He hadn’t agreed to a thing. He’d obtained the information, recognised it as both a good bit of colour and newsworthy, and reported it, as he had a right to do. I might have been frustrated, but that frustration couldn’t rightly be directed at Marr.
Nevertheless, when I talk to university students about this episode, I always say that it raises interesting questions, because it does. If a journalist had told Marr (and it may not even have been a journalist), perhaps simply repeating it at a dinner party, then hadn’t they breached the agreement? Did Marr’s reporting of the episode make it less likely that such briefings would be offered in the future? If so, did he have some kind of collegiate responsibility to safeguard against that? When are off-the-record briefings useful, and when are they simply a tool exploited by politicians to say things they should have the courage to say in public?
These are important issues, and not talked about enough. They are also complicated.
The “controversy” that has surrounded Laurie Oakes’ decision to publish a leaked recording of Malcolm Turnbull cheekily impersonating Donald Trump at the off-the-record Midwinter Ball is, on the other hand, flagrantly ridiculous. I have seen a lot of outrage in the past 24 hours, and a lot of criticisms of Oakes’ report, not one of which makes sense. This is a simple matter.
The obvious fact first: Oakes did not attend the ball. He was not bound by any agreement. He can publish what he pleases – just like Marr.
That’s not unethical, any more than it’s unethical for a journalist to publish things said in a Cabinet meeting. Cabinet ministers are bound by Cabinet rules, journalists who wish to report leaks are not (at least by convention). The idea that a ball attended by reporters is somehow the only event in the country mystically protected from reporting is the most hypocritical bunch of hogwash I’ve heard in some time. (Oakes has said the hypocrisy makes him sick [$].)
Then there’s the argument that such reporting will ruin all the fun. There’s a simple response to this. I’ve been to a few Midwinter Balls, and none of the speeches have come close to being as funny as the on-the-record, televised speeches you see at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. If anything, the knowledge that the public might end up seeing their comedic attempts might encourage our politicians to lift their game.
I’ve seen the suggestion that the night is about trust: well, no, it’s not. There will never be blanket trust given by all politicians to all journalists, or vice versa – and nor should there be. Both classes should naturally distrust each other – in such suspicion lies the foundations of our democracy. Specific politicians or specific journalists may well earn trust from one another, but that is always the result of carefully built relationships, not fancy occasions for evening wear.
You know what’s more important than the mythical trust between all politicians and all journalists? The ever-declining levels of trust the public places in both. Something not helped by an expensive event with secret speeches meant only for the moneyed, the powerful, and the press.
Finally, people kept feeling the need today to say, “Oh, but it’s a charity ball!” Huh? Are people not going to pony up for charities if the PM’s speech starts getting reported? For God’s sake.
By the way, “starts getting reported” is wrong, too. Kevin Rudd’s crack about mining companies was reported in 2010, days before he fell. Here’s Crikey on the 2014 speeches. Of course a speech that is delivered in front of hundreds of people, half of them not journalists and therefore perfectly within their rights to tell anyone they want, is going to leak. “Leak” is actually a pretty stupid word in this context.
There’s a simple solution to this contrived circus of controversy that arises every few years: put the speeches on the record. I promise you, it won’t make a difference. What it will do is save us a blitheringly wasteful discussion about media ethics.
I say “wasteful” because I find it ludicrous that this is the hill that some quarters of the press want to die squabbling on top of.
In the past decade we have had an incident where three top press gallery reporters did not, and then much later did, report a conversation in which Peter Costello attacked then-PM John Howard. The reason for the non-reporting was that Costello’s press secretary called them the day after the dinner, as though such conditions could be imposed after the fact, and said it had all been off the record.
More recently we had Barrie Cassidy’s revelation that Rudd publicly denied approaching journalists to tell them that there would be a challenge to Julia Gillard. Cassidy said he knew about the approaches, but that Rudd was able to make those denials because the approaches were all off-the-record conversations.
Off the record is an important convention that prevents thousands of mistakes each year and helps journalists report things in more detail than they would be able to otherwise. I’ve given many off-the-record briefings, and believe it’s crucial. But it should be the subject of robust examination. The two examples above involve the most solemn question in politics: who will be prime minister? That is infinitely more important than either the rat-fucker revelation or the Trump impersonation, and the dilemmas involved are much more difficult to parse.
These types of issues should get more attention than they do. Get six reporters around a table and I guarantee they will not all have the same definition of “off the record” or “background”, two frequently used terms in political circles. Confusions like these determine what information reaches the public.
So will this fracas affect Turnbull? I’d ignore all the bleating about it affecting our relationship with America. Yes, Trump might get annoyed, but as David Smith, a senior lecturer in American politics at the US Studies Centre, told the Australian [$], the structures that uphold the bilateral relationship are far stronger than the whims of two men. It might make Turnbull look silly, given his recent suck-up job to Trump – or perhaps it’s more like the “scandalous” revelation that Rudd was taken to the Scores strip club in New York. It seemed like bad press, but actually it made him look more human, and didn’t do him a bit of harm.
But whatever the ultimate outcome of Turnbull’s Trump impersonation, there’s no doubting it was news.
In other news
- Trump impersonation views: Katharine Murphy, Tony Wright, Dennis Shanahan [$], James Jeffrey [$], Labor vs Liberal [$], the White House.
- Opinion Friday: Sean Nicholls is right in saying that there should be an independent review of donations laws. Laura Tingle on Turnbull’s choppy, but perhaps slowly calming, waters [$]. Mark Kenny asks if Tony Abbott is destroying his own reputation. David Crowe on Coalition chaos [$]. Michelle Grattan says Finkel should be sorted this year. Graham Richardson says Bill Shorten’s on track for the Lodge, but needs to bring back Beaconsfield Bill [$]. Katharine Murphy asks whether our political system still works.
- Politicians: Three Turnbull ministers will not apologise for their criticism of judges, but have withdrawn the comments [$]. Joel Fitzgibbon has been accused of contradicting himself on China.
- Understanding things: Michael Slezak on how to convince coal-lovers the Finkel review is good for coal. A detailed examination of the sweeping new citizenship powers Peter Dutton wants to give himself.
- Media: Red Symons under fire.
- UK: Gerry Adams tells Theresa May her deal-to-govern will breach the Good Friday agreement.
- US: The all-star legal team who might take Trump down. And just because: Obama on Jay Z.
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