Speech by Maxwell Newton, Communication — Key to Good Government: Fourth Summer School of Professional Journalism (Canberra: The Summer School of Professional Journalism, 1968), pp. 67-70.
In the few minutes I have to speak to you, I want to try to put to you a few thoughts about three matters relating to the role of the working journalist in public administration today.
The first matter is: Why the role of the working journalist in government is so very important at this time.
The second is: How the working journalist needs to go about his task.
The third is: What the working journalist can expect to happen to him.
The role of the working journalist in government is terribly important today. It is important because this is the era of big government. It is also the era of big corporate business. Big government and big corporations, along with big unions in many cases, are getting closer and closer together. As government, business and even the unions find they have more and more business to do with each other, they are less and less willing to discuss their business in the open. This is one reason for the decline of Parliament as a forum where the meat of business is discussed. The other reason is the rise of executive power and enormous expansion of the influence of the civil service. As paid officials take over the main direction of planning and administration, up to the last level of authority, in government, in business and in the unions, there is a drawing together and a need at most times for the business conducted between officials of these three great sources of financial and political power to be conducted in secret.
Thus, any journalist who believes he will discover more than the mere froth of government activity by listening to debates in Parliament or even by making a few sketchy contacts with Ministers is, in my view, deeply misunderstanding the nature of the work of government today and the connections that work has with business and with the unions. A well informed journalist, injected into the smooth pattern of relations between officials within the government machine and between those officials and officials managing businesses and the unions, must eventually be dangerous.
For a well informed journalist will not be completely vulnerable to the mass of doctored information which is the normal stuff voluntarily released by governments, businesses and unions today. The art of the public relations man and the propagandist is to confuse and muddy public discussion. My own experiences from time to time looking from the other side of the fence suggest that it is depressingly easy for the propagandist to win this little battle.
The particular value and importance of the role of the working journalist in this environment of modern government and business is that he is in a position to penetrate into the workings of government and business administration and to reveal what is happening.
This is why he is dangerous. He is something of an aberration in the organised world of paid official administrators who have taken over the main fabric of control in our society today. The great danger about the working journalist is also his weakness — he is a single individual with innate iconoclastic tendencies. It is just possible — although it rarely happens — that this journalist may succeed in penetrating the machinery of government to reveal some of the real meat of what is happening.
I turn to the second matter — how the working journalist needs to go about his task. Of critical importance is the degree to which the working journalist works to make himself well informed. He is not going to do it by listening to Parliamentary debates. He is going to do it by trying to penetrate the official machinery of government, even to the point of trying to make himself a part of that machinery, studying and assessing the great range of matter coming before officials for attention and trying to understand how they will be tackling the various problems which are coming forward.
Ministers will be able to help with some last, perhaps vital, piece of information needed to piece together a fabric of understanding of some policy story being studied by the potentially successful working journalist in government. But most of the information needed will have to come from study and from penetration of the civil service.
In this task, the working journalist will have one important ally. It is the increasingly active policy role being taken by civil servants today, whether in government, in business or in the unions. As civil servants feel their growing power, they will and do want increasingly to use propaganda as an instrument of policy. Thus increasingly officials will want to enlist the help of public media to further their own policy lines. The conscientious working journalist will thus be assisted in his task of penetration by making himself familiar with the details of the various dialogues, often bitter ones, which go into the formulation of policies by the officials in government and business. To a degree, the growing power of officials forces them to want to express their views on policy matters. The conscientious journalist will quickly benefit from this unexpected bonus.
I turn now the third matter I wanted to raise — what the working journalist can expect to happen to him.
I begin by saying that in today’s world of officialdom in business and government, the power of information gleaned about the working of government to embarrass and anger elements in the government (and indeed the same goes for journalists writing about business or about business and government) is not proportional to the circulation of the medium in which it is published but rather proportional to the accuracy of the information contained in the relevant article. Officials in government, and business, will be angered and concerned about accurate information. This anger and concern will transmit itself to Ministers and Boards of Directors. It is accuracy and true perception which really worries people in Government. They are not anywhere as seriously worried about circulation statistics.
A journalist who really knows what is going on may be writing in some medium of only tiny circulation. Yet his writings will have a strange power to infuriate officials and Ministers who may then be driven to the most extraordinary acts to prevent publication of accurate information of the kind.
The conscientious working journalist in government, who is truly seeking to penetrate the civil service or the administration, must eventually find it very difficult indeed to work for newspapers and other public media operating in Australia today. This is because those media are themselves often deeply dependent on government for favours which will have a bearing on the whole future of the relevant concerns. I think of the problems encountered by newspapers in dealing with the government over television station licences and of the problem currently being experienced by the newspapers in their attempts to ward off a higher tariff on imported magazine and other printing papers.
The higher administration of newspapers and television stations, particularly in a country as dominated by four press groups as in Australia, must form a working relationship with government, and this relationship must eventually stand in the way of successful work by the conscientious journalist in government. What is more, as great representatives of the corporation at work, they must eventually resent criticism of corporations, fearing it will eventually be turned on themselves.
Another difficulty is the existence of the government police. The Official Secrets Act is used today as a background effect of a psychological kind, and may be used by officials at their discretion to protect themselves from probing journalists (although happily their desire for power and influence in the prosecution of their cherished policies increasingly loosens their tongues).
Yet another difficulty in the way of truly successful work by journalists in government is the weakness of the individual journalists in most cases in relations to his proprietors. The existence of non-poaching agreements, the relatively low standard of salaries in journalism, and the triviality of such much of publishing today does mean that there is really little room for manoeuvre for the journalist who is trying to penetrate government. It is not surprising that this should be so, and it is not surprising that so little work of merit has in fact been published by journalists writing about the work of government in this country. A successful journalist in this area represents a considerable danger to the stability of the system which has been erected.
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