No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in the room where it happens.
Once again, Hamilton the musical has an answer for everything.
On Tuesday night, a young man bowled up to the Prime Minister to ask some hard questions, phone ready for a handy TikTok, gatecrash with a purpose. What did he gatecrash? The PM's drinks events for media in western Sydney.
That wasn't what outraged Australians. What outraged Australians was discovering how the sausage gets made - that journalists drink with politicians.
I'll be honest. I was surprised anyone was surprised. The drinking culture in this country is massive whether you are a childcare worker or a CEO. People socialise in their workplaces and even get on with each other, sometimes. I mean, not me. I have an almost pathological dislike of most people yet here I am, talking to dozens of people a day and doing my best to be charming and sociable. I can tell you it's hard. Nevertheless my loathing of others has stood me in good stead as a journalist.
Would I have a drink with a politician? Sure, although to be honest I'm not a great drinker of alcohol in the first place. But if the drink meant mingling with staffers who on the whole are more competent, kinder and brighter than their bosses, then damn straight. Staffers also are able to give you information and insights their bosses seem incapable of providing. Remember politicians are frightened of the public, despite their best efforts to remain calm when confronted with the angry and the vulnerable.
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As a former educator of journalists, I would have said to my students, go ahead, don't get drunk, don't shag anyone. You'll be sorry when it all goes bad. I'd argue that most would have followed those simple rules. But I wanted to know what other contemporary journalism educators thought so I asked them. Here's what they said.
Catharine Lumby, professor of media studies at the University of Sydney and acclaimed author, rejects the idea that journalists can't go to drinks with politicians.
"I completely push back on that. As someone who has worked for the SMH at the press gallery, it is a hothouse atmosphere and you are often there until midnight. Journalists socialise with both sides of the aisle. It doesn't strip them of objectivity and they get personal connections," she said.
"Let's not infantilise journalists. In Canberra people work hard and play hard. That's just the reality of it."
Caroline Fisher, associate professor at the University of Canberra and its discipline lead of journalism, says there is no single rule.
"Often these drinks are a working opportunity to do your job and to get access to information, build relationships and build rapport to help you do your job," she said.
"It is the attitude you take to that event. If you go to that event and drop your professional impartiality, and forget you are a journalist and forget your duty and forget this person is not your friend, then it's a problem. If you go to that event as a working journalist, understanding what the boundaries are with politicians or with any other source then it can be a useful exercise. As long as you take your professionalism with you."
The president of the peak body for journalism educators and the head of the journalism program at RMIT, Alex Wake, says: "Drinking with politicians is a long-standing tradition. You might get the inside scoop or you might have the opportunity to talk with a politician so in the future you get the drop. It does feed into the whole perception that 'what happens at the drinks party, stays at the drinks party'. Things don't get reported. Open secrets about relationships which never get reported."
"The best stories are never going to be found having a drink with someone on the road on this campaign. Solid reporting is more likely to be something on policy or track record, discussing those bigger issues. But no-one will say, we will stop going. It is about buying favours and relationships.
"But I don't think it compromises journalists. What is the industry that doesn't have that kind of hospitality as a matter of course?"
Co-author of Who Needs the ABC and professor of journalism at Deakin, Matthew Ricketson, says:
"Journalists have drinks with all sorts of people including 'colourful racing identities'. It is part of how you find things out. From the outside it looks very inside baseball and it looks like you potentially can be corrupted. We know sometimes that does happen. Deals are done and stories don't get written. No doubt that happens. But there aren't too many journalists who think if there is a genuine prospect of a story they wouldn't drink with a contact.
"Why the drinks with the PM looks bad is the perception of cosiness. Privileged people who have a drink with the PM and will only write or broadcast what the politician wants.
"But really, 'partygate' is unimportant compared to real issues that affect journalism like the urgent need to improve the freedom of information laws."
The University of Melbourne's Andrew Dodd of the Centre for Advancing Journalism says that drinking with politicians is inherently problematic - politicians ingratiating themselves with the media.
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"For them, it is about building relationships and getting their message across. For journalists, it's about getting close to the action, journalists think they have to be on the inside and in the know. So that's a potent mix. All sorts of boundaries are being blurred and inevitably people become compromised. It's a deal most of us do as journalists, to get close to the information but we have to do so without becoming compromised. It takes a lot of skill to navigate that, and sometimes people get it wrong.
"Yes, journalists try to get close to their sources but in the process some also become unwitting agents of those politicians. Having the right skills to navigate this is what matters, rather than just saying no to those opportunities.
"Sometime journalists have to stray behind enemy lines and embed themselves in all sorts of complex environments. But you have to have maturity and a sense of ethics when you do it.
"There's a danger that you can overcompensate to demonstrate you are independent and therefore end up being more critical than you need to be. You have to have the capacity to maintain your independence and your rigour.
"The advantage of getting close to your subject is that you able to make better assessments about their character, you get to reach deeper layers of information.
"To say you wouldn't go to a drinks on principle is a little unrealistic. It's not about journos getting a free drink. It's about doing your job well enough to serve the audience. And sometimes those drinks are as boring as batshit."
Thing is, sometimes it's how it looks to everyone else. And right now, according to the polls, drinking with Morrison looks to be on the nose. And as former head of journalism at UTS, Wendy Bacon, tweeted: "As a journalist you will find that potential sources are constantly 'lobbying' you to do their story. Your job is to make a judgement about if it's a story for your outlet or if you are a freelancer, for you."
It's all about making the judgement.
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