Out of touch maybe, but press galleries don't laud speeches

Out of touch maybe, but press galleries don't laud speeches

THE bubble of the Canberra press gallery has been decisively popped this week.

After the scorching oration of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, against the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, on Tuesday, the gallery, writing and broadcasting in the so-called mainstream media, came to a basic consensus. Sure, Gillard had given a great speech but it was founded on hypocrisy and wouldn't play well with the public, who would see it in the context of the sleaze and political compromise of the Peter Slipper scandal.

Tearing strips … the Prime Minister has become the darling of the social media set with her excoriation of Tony Abbott in Parliament this week.

Tearing strips … the Prime Minister has become the darling of the social media set with her excoriation of Tony Abbott in Parliament this week.Credit:Andrew Meares

But as the press gallery pundits (mostly middle-aged men, it must be noted) scribbled and spoke, something different was happening on the internet and in the community.

They were absolutely loving it. Gillard's speech, conveyed through embedded video and quotations in blogs, quickly went viral. Stripped of its context, the speech stood alone as a triumphant, long-awaited howl of indignation and fury against sexism and misogyny.


Fairfax's women's website, Daily Life, posted the speech on its Facebook page and within minutes was inundated with air-punching comments and ''Likes'' from its female readers.

Twitter exploded in delight and websites around the world, from US political blogs to feminist sites and even the conservative British Spectator cheered Gillard in admiration. One movie website even ran a piece about the top five Oscar-winning actresses who should play Gillard in her biopic.

The Herald columnist Paul Sheehan wrote a scathing anti-Gillard piece that ran on smh.com.au yesterday - the majority of reader comments wasted no time in telling him he had got it flat-out wrong.

Anecdotally, women I know outside of Canberra have said their workplaces were mesmerised by the speech, and one friend said her 86-year-old grandmother even rang her especially to discuss it.

Cue negative reaction against the mainstream media generally, and the press gallery in particular.

I have received numerous emails from readers saying the press gallery is ''out of touch'' and saying this divergence between real-world reaction and press gallery reaction is the ''reason'' newspapers are failing.

I think a lot of that is probably true. The press gallery is out of touch. The uncomfortable truth is it is very difficult to know, from Canberra, how ''real people'' react to political events - how much they notice, care or form decisive opinions on what happens in the Parliament.

I have my own Punters Panel I regularly consult - made up of friends and family from all parts of the political spectrum. I pick the brains of taxi drivers. Sometimes I ask friends to vox pop their workplaces for me. Most journalists try very hard to achieve balance.

Social media helps, although you have to be realistic about its limitations - Twitter is a raging cauldron of opinions, often brilliantly funny and occasionally very nasty, but it is used by about 1 per cent of the population, and is heavily left-leaning. Facebook is great, too, but one tends to be friends with people who share one's background and views, so it's not great for balance.

It should also be remembered that it is not the job of the press gallery to laud a speech. It is the job of journalists to place events in context, supply background and nuance, and to make predictions about whether political actions will deliver votes.

Many of the pundits accused of being out of touch are examining how Gillard's performance was received within her party, which is ultimately a more accurate predictor of her fate than a write-up in The New Yorker.

The art of thinking independently is very difficult to perfect but now, more than ever, it is especially important to strive for. And the more voices you listen to, the more likely you are to achieve it. No matter what the medium.

Jacqueline is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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