On AUKUS, gallery journalists defend the line

Mar 18, 2023
Laura Tingle and Paul Keating - National Press Club

In the Canberra press gallery, policy analysis takes second place to ephemeral politics, as highlighted by the response to Paul Keating’s criticisms of the AUKUS submarine deal.

The former PM’s blistering National Press Club attack on AUKUS – and on journalists for the quality of their questions – provoked a curious Twitter response from Anna Henderson, the SBS chief political correspondent.

Journalists went to the press club today to hold an influential public figure and former prime minister to account,” she tweeted. “They should hold their heads high. Personal attacks on reporters don’t address the highly consequential questions our nation is facing.

Her defence of her colleagues is understandable, especially as those subjected to Keating’s ire included young women journalists.

But the tweet is odd in two ways.

One is the notion that journalists thought it was their job to hold to account a person who has no public position and no role in policy development, implementation or management. The idea is meaningless. Worse, it is an inversion of the press gallery’s prime role of holding the government to account.

The second is the implication that Keating did not discuss highly consequential questions.

Keating distributed a 3,000-word statement about AUKUS and the Government’s foreign policy. Among other subjects, he talked about Labor’s historic foreign policy record; the lack of serious debate about the threat facing Australia and whether AUKUS was the best response; the influence of Canberra’s national security elite; the wisdom of the policy of containing China.

In a discussion with NPC president Laura Tingle he spoke about the policy differences between forward defence, as represented by AUKUS, and the defence of Australia.

It is a critical, dare I say consequential, distinction. Australia’s last big forward defence engagement in tandem with America was Vietnam, also supposedly to thwart the downward thrust of communism. The Whitlam government changed the policy emphasis to the direct defence of Australia – the central tenet of defence strategy until the Morrison government decided it could exploit the rise of China as a world power.

The questions that followed Keating’s presentation in the main were not directed at AUKUS and foreign policy. They were directed at Keating – at defending the government’s policy.

On display was the gallery’s lack of interest in policy analysis and dissection. Gallery reporting is a disservice to readers and the electorate at large as it concentrates on ephemeral politics much more than lasting policy. (Although when it comes to AUKUS and China, there is a willingness to parrot, and even to magnify, the views of the national security establishment).

Keating was right when he said there had been little critical analysis and public discussion of the value of AUKUS. Another gallery failing.

The lack of interest in policy analysis was also on display during last year’s election campaign – from The Australian’s pro-Morrison cheer squad to the obsession with testing politicians’ memories and Anthony Albanese’s inconsequential lapses.

Henderson was not the only senior journalist to tweet after Keating’s NPC appearance.
Two elder statesmen of political reporting, Geoff Kitney and Mark Kenny, expressed their concerns.

Kenny tweeted: “It is a telling sign of a fourth estate in decline that a plain spoken – even colourful – critic of a major gov policy shift is almost universally attacked for being too contrary, too newsworthy. When did it become journalists’ jobs to sell the policy and police the public debate?”

And Kitney tweeted: “Keating was all about the substance but the QandA afterwards was very superficial. It’s the substance that we need to be debating and, in that sense, Keating’s contribution was important. Now let’s have a deep and well informed debate on the substance.”

We can but hope.

On Thursday and Friday I read three relevant articles on smh.com.au. One was by Tony Abbott, arguing firmly that Keating was wrong in his assessment of AUKUS and in his view that Beijing was not a threat. Another was by Bob Carr, making the case that Australia should not get involved in any war over Taiwan.

The third was a commentary of Keating’s press club appearance by the Nine newspapers’ main gallery representative, chief political correspondent David Crowe.

Here is his assessment of Keating and his views: “Keating’s assessment is a doddering delusion. In his twilight years, at 79, the former leader sounds deranged.”

So much, then, for serious journalism. So much for informed debate.

How very sad.

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