The Rise of the Fifth Estate

Greg Jericho


For as long as the media have had any say in how the news is to be provided to the public, journalists within its warm and self-protecting bosom have adopted the role of gatekeepers.

This is never more the case than when it comes to the Canberra press gallery. Imagine what it is like to be one of those few — well, actually, the not-so-few. The email list of the federal parliamentary press gallery runs to 11 pages, and contains over three hundred names. (The Australian has 19 by itself, and the ABC’s names run for over two pages.) But when you get down to it, the number of them who get by-lines, whose faces appear on television, and whose voices broadcast the news of the day are few and privileged.

Oh, to be one of those few. Imagine the power to be able to decide what to write — the angle, the slant, the lead. To be able to head off for dinner in Kingston or Manuka with some minister — either government or shadow — for a little off-the-record briefing (because we can safely assume that not all of those un-named ‘government sources’ are made up). Imagine being one of those who sit in the parliamentary gallery, overlooking the elected and deciding their fates. Oh, mighty Fourth Estate! Gatekeepers of the news; provider of opinions for us all!

And should you disagree with a particular opinion or with the presentation of the news, send an email, or get hold of pen and paper, and write a letter to the editor — and see the wonders of free speech and freedom of the press combined (ignoring the fact that the media are the gatekeepers of even the public’s views of the media).

Back in 2007, in the run-up to the November election, the world of political blogs in Australia was beginning to disrupt this nice, century-old tradition. The ‘old media’ — The Australian, most particularly — didn’t take it particularly well. This was odd, not only because it was strange that a paper that held itself up as the leading newspaper of the country should care what a few ‘amateurs’ might think, but also because at the time The Australian had one of its best journalists doing great work as a blogger.

The late Matt Price would have been perfect for the Twittersphere. A love of politics and sport, and the ability to mesh both with popular-culture references — such as when he compared the voting public’s declining attraction to John Howard with Price’s own inexplicable indifference to the band REM — along with an ability to see both sides of a debate, and also to find humour in all things, would have seen Price as assuredly the dominant Australian political journalist on Twitter.

In 2007, Price’s output on The Australian was also the only kind of writing that deserved the name of a ‘blog’ being posted on a mainstream-media website by a journalist. Sure, by this time, Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt had blogs running on The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun websites, but Price’s blog was secondary to his work as a journalist. On, Tim Dunlop was showing everybody how it should be done, as he spent long hours responding to comments, guiding the debate, providing updates and links, and moderating the comments. Dunlop, however, was a blogger from way back, and was an anomaly among the authors of new-fangled ‘blogs’ that News Limited websites were trying to fashion. While the newspapers would occasionally fire shots at the blogosphere, and journalists would obviously read the blogs — especially when their own name was mentioned — the interaction between the public and the gatekeepers remained as it ever had been.

This was a state of media stasis that, a mere five years later, seems quaint. A look back over recent years shows the great changes that have occurred in the way that political events are reported.

On 11 September 2007, news came through from Canberra of a possible leadership spill within the Liberal Party. In the morning, Sky News ran a story that Malcolm Turnbull and Alexander Downer were withdrawing their support for John Howard. Both Tim Dunlop and Andrew Bolt were onto the story quickly on their respective blogs. Bolt ran with ‘Downer, Turnbull give up on Howard’; Dunlop, with ‘The last days of chez Howard?’ But the best place for readers to find answers to their questions was from Matt Price, who was also covering the story on his blog with the tantalising opening stanza of ‘Something is on in Parliament House’.

What we saw this day would not be the end of the Howard prime ministership, but it was the start of social media breaking down the gate-kept world of Australian politics. Throughout the day, Price provided updates of events taking place:

On the way out of questions, Downer walked past a bunch of journalists and dismissed all this as much ado about nothing, declared nothign [sic] would happen with the leadership, and predicted we’d all get sick of idle speculation over the next six weeks or so.

Yes, even the odd typo would get through — something that bloggers and Twitter users know happens, and that only the most miserable of pedants worry about. The social-media space is fast and messy, and is not the environment for as perfect a news article as one that has passed under the watch of a vigilant sub- editor (back when sub-editors were employed directly and were valued).

However, Price was doing more than just providing updates; he was also responding to comments and questions from his readers. During the day he responded 14 times to readers’ comments.

Some of these involved his calming down the hopes of lefty readers:

LukeH Tue 11 Sep 07 (10.45am) looks and smells like D-Day has arrived for the PM. baseball bats ready?! present arms!

Matt Price Tue 11 Sep 07 (12.18pm) Not so sure, Luke. Howard will need to be blasted out.

Or the delusions of the right:

deadcato Tue 11 Sep 07 (11.35am) Matt, a hypothetical: Costello’s unelectable, Howard’s gone, Turnbull hasn’t had much cut-through despite being fairly high-profile: what are the chances of a genuinely fresh face being vaulted in? I’m thinking Julie Bishop- two months to tart her up, election in January?

Matt Price Tue 11 Sep 07 (12.29pm) You’re dreaming, Deadcato.

He also gave insights into how the system works, and how journalists are never passive agents during a leadership spill:

Jane Tue 11 Sep 07 (11.42am) Is this a case of the Canberra press gallery getting too excited or is it going to be one of those historic days in Federal politics?? I guess we’ll just have to stay online (with Sky news on in the background) to see what happens ...

Matt Price Tue 11 Sep 07 (12.33pm) Let’s be clear about this, Jane. When leadership battles are on, MPs use the media to pressurise rivals and send messages to colleagues. I don’t believe David Speers is inventing his story on Sky — clearly, senior Libs are attempting to force JWH to quit.

And then a final summing-up:

nomad3 Tue 11 Sep 07 (01.23pm) Matt, someone asked you a question earlier ... please respond ... have you ever seen anything like this this close to an election ... whats your take ? you think today is the day?

Matt Price Tue 11 Sep 07 (01.31pm) We’re in new territory, Nomad. Right now it seems Howard will hang in, but who one earth knows?

The Rise of the Fifth Estate Greg Jericho