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An insight into how the Parliamentary Press Gallery works, and assessment of what that means for the public 

An insight into how the Parliamentary Press Gallery works, and assessment of what that means for the public 
Parliamentary Press Gallery 2020. Photo by Mark Coote.

By Jenée Tibshraeny

Political journalists, past and present, celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Parliamentary Press Gallery at a black-tie event at Te Papa on Friday.

The function, held a year late due to COVID-19, was attended by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and five former prime ministers (other than Jenny Shipley), among politicians, press secretaries and business leaders. It was a celebration of the role journalism plays in our democracy, and a bit of a knees-up - a strength of the gallery!

But, all the live-streamed press conferences of the past year have put the spotlight on some of the gallery’s weaknesses.

So, I’ll give politicians and policymakers a momentary break from the criticism and provide a bit of a self-assessment (as a press gallery member).

The aim isn’t to navel-gaze. Rather it’s to provide an insight into the job, to hopefully enable people to consume media through a more perceptive lens.  

To begin with, the press gallery is a gaggle of journalists, accredited by the Speaker of the House. Organisations have their own offices (in most cases) in the parliament building.

While much is often made of live-streamed press conferences, they make up a fraction of our jobs. I spend more time sourcing written information, reading reports, analysing data, talking to contacts and doing phone interviews.

Nonetheless, routine events dictate what is reported and when - to some extent. The prime minister, for example, does a press conference most Mondays after Cabinet meetings.

During sitting weeks, journalists can ask politicians questions on their way to caucus meetings. Typically, the media only does “caucus runs” for Labour and National.

We again lob questions at politicians as they walk across what’s known as “the tiles” on their way to and from the House when it sits on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Question time can be a source of news, as can select committee meetings, which are dotted in between.

Politicians will call additional press conferences or stand-ups around other events and announcements.

While journalists have ample opportunity to ask politicians quick questions, the format of these encounters limits their usefulness.

Because there are usually a number of journalists with questions, politicians can avoid a grilling by switching journalists they take questions from.

However, the gallery can operate in a pack, and pile on if avoidance tactics become tiresome.

The problem of course arises when you’re chasing something the pack isn’t.

I will never forget being told I “derailed” a press conference at the height of COVID-19 to ask questions about monetary policy - an important topic, only a few of us in the gallery were interested in - until of course the housing market exploded.

That’s why doing one-on-one interviews is vital.  

What’s more, the routine set-ups can favour broadcasters who need to record audio and vison.

While their questions may sound dumb, they’re usually cleverly constructed to solicit a certain answer to tell a story. A TV journalist will want their subjects’ voices, not theirs, to tell the story. Meanwhile, print journalists use press conference and stand-ups almost solely to get new information.  

There’s a sort of symbiotic relationship between the media and politicians. We need them to keep us in the loop and give us information, and they need us to get their messages out.

Politicians will fish exclusive stories out to journalists they believe will give them the outcome they want. This may be a large audience, a specific type of audience, or favourable coverage.

The Government will occasionally exclusively give an organisation part of a big announcement. The organisation will run it to get the scoop, even though the less favourable part of the announcement is only later released.

Another tactic politicians use is sending journalists a press release under embargo, but not the supporting documentation. So journalists’ first take of a story - often the only one people read - won’t be as robust as an updated version, or a follow-up done later.  

While journalists will endeavour to be objective, complete objectivity is impossible. The very act of deciding what is news requires a value judgement, let alone the way the news is told. 

This is of course why diversity in the gallery is essential. While most of the offices are now led by women, age and racial diversity are lacking.

Ever wondered why we don’t hear more in the news about education? Hardly anyone in the gallery has school-aged children. The pace, hours, pay, and in some cases, travel required for the job aren't particularly family-friendly.

Another issue with the gallery is that politics often gazumps policy. Reporting on the politics of a situation is important insofar as it relates to an outcome that will affect the public.

For example, it’s in the public’s interest to know whether the conservatives or the progressives in National are wielding more power, as this might affect where the party lands on an issue like climate change.

But the gallery can get carried away with inconsequential petty politics at the expense of policy.

We need to spend more time out of the beltway to ensure we are in fact writing for the people we serve.

More resourcing across media outlets would help.

Journalists who work for mainstream print organisations will often be required to pump out four (sometimes more) stories a day to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle.

The passion, quick-thinking, resilience and perceptiveness are there. But we could do with having more hands on deck, particularly as we’re up against government organisations with increasingly large and skilled public relations teams, made up of former journalists.

Looking ahead, I believe we will see media organisations continue to carve out niches for themselves to maintain high-quality coverage. Already our major news outlets have differentiated themselves from each other, while smaller outlets are growing and attracting good talent.

People who make the most of the range of media offerings, instead relying on one source to give them all their news, will be best served.

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27 Comments

Well said

People who make the most of the range of media offerings, instead relying on one source to give them all their news, will be best-served.

A very interesting article, and I very much appreciate the insights it offers.

My own assessment, being completely independent of all/any journalism qualifications would be:

A TV journalist will want their subjects’ voices, not theirs, to tell the story.


Personally, I don't feel that it is effective method. Many years ago, the media were the sole way a story could be broken. In the age of internet/social media, the govt can now break, release, and control the stories by themselves. Allowing the "Subject" to control the narrative in a press conference serves to only reinforce the image the "Subject" is trying to paint. The whole point of having questions is to challenge the idea being put forward, or to gain better insight/new information. Too often it feels like Press Conferences are just Verbal press releases. Heavily scripted and where the journalist helpfully plays along.

There’s a sort of symbiotic relationship between the media and politicians. We need them to keep us in the loop and give us information, and they need us to get their messages out.


To an outside viewer, the relationship appears very one sided and unbalanced. I don't believe the media are much more than a tool of the MP now. "Scoops" are now due more to a carefully scripted "leak" rather than any real talent in investigative journalism. (Of course there are some exceptions). I would very much life to see evidence of where the relationships works to the benefit of the journalist (other than allowing them to have a "story" a day before the other journos.

This is of course why diversity in the gallery is essential. While most of the offices are now led by women, age and racial diversity are lacking.

Ever wondered why we don’t hear more in the news about education? Hardly anyone in the gallery has school-aged children. The pace, hours, pay, and in some cases, travel required for the job aren't particularly family-friendly.

This is a critical point, and one I don't think is appreciated enough by the audience. Journalists these days tend to be young and only recently qualified. While not intended as a critism (More just reality) They have limited life experience and as a result quite often miss the bigger picture. As an audience we are reliant on our journalists to be schooled in a range of subjects to interpret and challenge any ideas on our behalf. The journalists are the key to a correctly functioning democracy.

While I don't believe any nefarious intent/collusion. I do believe the combination of the above plays into the hands of the incumbent govt (whoever they may be) far more than the audience (i.e. the voters). Inexperienced journalists are lead to carefully scripted stories which they dutifully parrot off.

It would be nice to see the media work together to regain some power and in turn they may find that the audience are more willing to stump up with the resources we all know the journos are lacking.

Seemed to me the concept & nature of political journalism, reporting if you like, reset when Paul Holmes started to consider himself and his nightly show, the doyen and oracle. He wasn’t and it wasn’t. The main concern was publicity, ratings, ego and fame. That style, or lack of it, has imbued itself in too many of the participants today, their spot in the pecking order is too valuable to risk being thought provocative.Just one small example. The Minister of Health rejecting criticism over the departure of the senior executive team at Canterbury DHB stated the $80 mill budget shortfall, that was the catalyst, was not according to the advice he was getting. Why wasn’t he then simply asked the obvious question, if he had checked that said advice was correct. Because some weeks later the government coughed up the $80 mill.

Can't stand the guy but the Hosk at least has shown that he's not afraid to ask the tough questions.

I seem to recall some years ago that there were more PR spin doctors working across the Govt/Public sector organizations that there were journalists working throughout NZ.

Because thats their only *cough* "career path" to better pay & easier working lives.

Is this still true ?

I think that is generally true knowing people who have transitioned from journalism to public sector comms roles. I know one person who worked in Lord Key's team who went into a role with a global marketing / brand organization in S'pore and London. Probably would be better off working in a NZ public sector role the private sector role is not secure and demands are high.

25
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Jenee has my respect. 99.9% of the others across the whole media do not.

interest dot co team are superb on the whole.

10
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Tom Coughlan is another outstanding reporter who undertook the groundwork for the official information act that led to the revelation that the Govt had been warned a year in advance by both Treasury and the Reserve bank about the risks of unconventional monetary policy. The government did nothing. It was only after that heat was applied that we saw sudden action from the New Zealand government. It is quite amazing to see the number of articles that are produced by individual reporters on a daily basis which provide in-depth reporting on complex and nuanced issues. It was a shame to see Tom's article buried several pages back in the paper at the time of publication.

Also has done excellent work on the Light Rail process over the last few years as well - again, not given much attention and generally only he, Greater Auckland and Interest.co.nz have been prepared to talk about it. Quite staggering for a nationally significant infrastructure project that has been an abject failure of planning and delivery at every step.

Nobody published the papers by Ian Powell exposing the utterly stupid goings on and failures at the MoH. Had to rely on the academics at Victoria University. There was substantial information therein, vital to all of us and our wellbeing.

Where are the Brian Edwards, Simon Walkers, etc asking the politicians the hard questions?
Most seem very cosy - either woke/liberal/leftish asking easy questions, or reactive/superficial/rightish occasionally asking questions without digging.
Kim Hill, John Campbell & some have come close to digging for some truth but not many, if many.

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Ardern has not sat down for one single hard interview, not one. This could not happen without the meek acquiescence of our media. I keep getting offered all sorts of deals by a left wing rag: why on earth would I want to support a bought & paid for property industry advertorial posing as a serious newspaper? Bad enough that it gives that nutjob Simon Wilson a daily platform to sound off!

Ah yes, the classic "Here's 50 things we can do to improve Auckland" that ignores everything west of Pt Chev and east of the Ports; i.e. where the bulk of the city's residents live and work. The Herald has a very strange view of the city - but this is also reflected in our state broadcasters too. Unless you live in the Grey Lynn/Dominion Road/Ponsonby sphere then you might as well be living on another planet - the media shouldn't reflect your concerns and wants no part in them. South Auckland gets a look-in but only in a strangely paternalistic way - purely from a "cultural pat on the head" perspective, and not from the "hey, this rapidly growing region badly needs infrastructure to support the growth that's being foisted upon it", because then you might have to hold someone accountable for something.

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There aren't many questions of this Govt that need to be asked.
You promised houses,where are they?
Poverty was going to be ended,has it?
I know they have only been in power 3/4 years but the questions need to be asked continuously because answers aren't being given.

Why aren’t the media running daily stories on the thousands of people living in hotels? We should be hearing about the victims of this hopeless government / property Ponzi scheme, but that doesn’t suit the media’s ‘woke / bought by property industry’ agenda.
I guess if you say the word “kind” a lot and look frowny concerned you get a free pass!

The Dear Leader has also been using a 'stiff shoulders moving like a robot' body language of late. Helen Clark used to do this. Not sure what it means.

Who knows maybe just the cold weather brought about by global warming. If these Labour stiffs had been caught doing this these days they be accused offending those with physical disability.

https://youtu.be/e7_tdzKUyzI

Perhaps because that would require systems thinking and the uncovering of all the factors distorting housing including high immigration/high international students leading to immigration which is pushing the poor out of basic or govt housing into motel ghettos etc. This week the Minister of Housing started throwing WINZ under the bus as though they are landlords/social workers.

Now that we’ve actually taken the final fatal step and blithely decided to build our economy on top of a housing bubble, I think in the fullness of time all journalists and economists will be excoriated for their wilfull blindness and the clear conflicts of interest that have prevented them from sounding the alarm and high-lighting the clear and present danger posed by the enormously destructive monetary path we have gone down.

Nobody cares what legacy media has to say anymore. Lucky we now have independant content creators getting to the truth.

But let's de-platform these people instead and label it fake news.

Internationally that is probably true.. but do we really have 'independent content creators' in NZ? I certainly think it's where we are heading.

Like that picture, Barry is a standout.

Interesting article. I couldn’t help but laugh at this line though: “This is of course why diversity in the gallery is essential. While most of the offices are now led by women, age and racial diversity are lacking.” - indicating that having most of the offices led by women is a sign of diversity...surely there would be more gender diversity if approximately half of the offices were led by women?

Very interesting article. Thanks!

Speaker accredited? Hardly impartial then just beholden.

Seems to me we need to be clear about two differentiation's: news versus fact(s), and reporting versus journalism.

News is an assumption that there is an endless stream; it lulls many into the assumption that there will be a never-ending continuance. Fact says this way of life is incapable of continuance.

Reporting is parroting. He said, she said. But reporting doesn't ask who is right.

Journalism should be about getting to the bottom of the fact-pile, and assembling the truth - or as near as dammit possible to same - for consumption by others.

We have almost none of the latter in NZ - and in the big-picture-disseminating sense, none. Where it often falters, is in adopting assumptions (money being assumed to represent real wealth, is an obvious mis-assumption).

The other is an assumption that exponential growth is linear. It may be that this is a mass-cranial-wiring issue (otherwise nobody would have acquiesced to mortgages) but it is proving a fatal flaw for humankind. Pity journalism misses that one.