Commentary: How government media advisers muzzle the media

There’s an elephant in the room of Queensland governance.

It’s the stranglehold unelected government employees have on government information.

Information about policy decisions, new government programs, progress on taxpayer-funded research, business development programs, new legislation and all manner of things of public interest.

Every day the Queensland Government sends dozens of media releases directly to media outlets so they can convey information to citizens.

Each media statement contains a phone number for “further information”.

They do this because they recognise the media is the conduit to communicate from government to citizens.

But more often than not, their barrage of media statements lack detail – the statements often raise more questions than they answer.

So it’s the job of professional journalists to seek answers to the questions and to fill in the gaps the media statements create.

Put simply, government media statements are often a one-sided view of the topic. Claims, sometimes outrageous or illogical, are made and balancing information is missing.

But what the public does not see or hear is the tooth-pulling efforts some journalists are compelled to use to get taxpayer-funded “media advisers” to provide access to the missing bits.

There’s a covert hierarchy of journalism worthiness that has nothing to do with competence or professionalism.
It has everything to do with the big players with the big audiences. Naturally, they’re at the top of the pile.

And journalism students, no matter how competent they are, lie pinned to the bottom of the heap, begging for scraps.

I’ve been a journalism educator for 15 years – at the University of Queensland, Griffith University, the University of the Sunshine Coast and private journalism college Jschool – and it has always been thus.

Journalism students, some of whom are more proficient than graded journalists, are routinely sent away with a flea in their ear or worse, calls are not returned, emails go unanswered and interview appointments denied.

My colleagues and I advise journalism students to be mindful that the army of government “media advisers” are busy people.

Busy pushing out even more media statements, handholding Ministers of the Crown, providing answers to questions asked in Parliament and other vital chores.

Students, we say, should always do their own research before contacting a government media adviser, they should limit the number of questions, questions should be focused and not fishing trips and they should always be polite and patient.

This humble approach works sometimes but not often.

One recent example perfectly demonstrates the depth of the transparency and accountability myths journalism students and journalism educator’s face.

The Queensland Premier’s office put out a media statement on 5 August 2010 about the introduction of a breastfeeding workplace policy for government workers.

In it Premier Anna Bligh said:
“Under this new policy, our government commits to fostering a supporting work environment for employees who choose to breastfeed by providing private and clean and hygienic spaces that are signed and able to be locked and where mums can either feed their children or express milk.” … Media: 3224 4500.

So the babies are in the workplace?

A journalism student who wanted to clarify the new policy phoned the number and was put through to an Owen Wareham who answered some of the student’s questions.

As instructed, the student says he told Mr Wareham at the beginning of his conversation that he was preparing a news story to be published on an online newspaper.

At the end of the interview, Mr Wareham said the student could not publish the information or use Mr Wareham’s name because, Mr Wareham said, he had provided the information as “background”.

As the student’s supervisor I found this, well, strange, and a waste of the student’s and Mr Wareham’s time.

I rang the Premier’s Office Media unit on the number provided on the media statement to see if I could find out why Mr Wareham had declined to have the information published.

The phone was answered by “Chrissie” or “Christy”.

I identified myself, my organisation and my position.

She asked why I wanted to speak to Mr Wareham. I very briefly explained but then she told me I couldn’t speak directly to Mr Wareham.

Because, “we don’t talk to people we don’t know”.

There followed a series of brusquely put questions from “Chrissie” and increasingly brusque answers from me.

Mr Wareham, “Chrissie” said, was a policy adviser and not a media adviser so I couldn’t speak to him.

I asked if I could speak to a media adviser.

“No, I’ve given you the answer and anyway questions from the media have to be put in writing,” she barked.

I asked for her full name.

“We don’t give out our names because that’s private,” she said.

“Are you seriously telling me all media questions have to be submitted in writing?” I gasped because I know this to be a falsehood.

She said she didn’t like my tone and hung up.

When unelected, invisible and anonymous public servants deny access to information and government employees who are paid to provide information to journalists, government transparency and openness become farce.

It’s not good enough.

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