Chris Wallace
The press gallery’s leadership thrills and spills

The standard leadership challenge has two leads and a large supporting cast. There is the protagonist, antagonist and the Greek chorus of journalists who summarise the struggle to help the audience understand what is happening, channelling the secret thoughts and desires the contenders cannot say out loud. It is symbiotic. The contenders need the chorus and the chorus needs the contenders. You can’t have a proper Greek tragedy without both.

The threat of political death animates the building. Parliament House becomes the site of roiling excitement as journalists and politicians – and staffers and security guards and Commonwealth car drivers and anyone else in the vicinity who may have seen, heard or smelt something potentially affecting the outcome – pulse with information and pass it on to one another like electricity. For every sly call from fat-carpeted offices where the ticking of the clock is the next loudest sound to fingers punching numbers on the telephone console, there is a combustible reporter relaying its contents to colleagues hungry for the latest twist. Normally mute backbenchers suddenly become bubblers of leadership opinion – some, like Luke Simpkins this month, marching into the spotlight and bringing the contest on. (Had you even heard of Simpkins before this? Will you ever hear of him again?)

And the journalists shell out formulaic fig leaves – “It is understood that …”, “Sources close to X say …”, “I have it on the highest authority that …” – as fast as they take in the texts, emails and phonebank messages fuelling the frenzy. For there may be a political death, a new leader replacing the old, a new hierarchy erected beneath them of ministers to intrigue and amuse journalists jaded and bored with the existing one. Exhilaration like that in Parliament House only comes with leadership fights. Nothing but election night itself comes close.

There are rare exceptions, where the journalistic chorus gets no role. The silent execution of John Howard in 1989 by the Peacock plotters is one. Peacock lieutenant Peter Shack worked the corridors for months with a single sheet of A4 paper containing the names of party colleagues in two columns, one for Howard and one for Peacock. It was folded in three, length-ways, and kept in the inside pocket of Shack’s suit jacket. As Howard supporters were won over, he moved them from one column to the other, until the Peacock list was so long Howard couldn’t survive. A deputation delivered the “we’ve got the numbers” fait accompli to Howard in private without any prior media build-up. Except for the other plotters gleefully going on Four Corners afterwards and boasting about it, souring Peacock’s restored leadership in the process, it could have been a smooth, new model for leadership insurgency.

Recent Australian politics has been, by contrast, a gorefest, peaking with the journalistically aided and abetted terrorism of Kevin Rudd and the Rudd Rats against Julia Gillard. The media have been similarly excited by Abbott’s brush with political death this year – a mere skirmish by comparison, but it is early days yet. The excitement in press ranks is palpable. But why do journalists enjoy it so much? And is it a new phenomenon?

Politicians and journalists need each other and always have. Read what Doris Kearns Goodwin has to say about the amount of time and care Abraham Lincoln spent cultivating journalists and editors back in the day, for example, and for the same reasons. Media favour allows a politician to advance both their agenda and career, at no time more than when seeking the summit of power. If journalists are trashing you, your colleagues are just that much less likely to support you for the top job. If they’re lauding you, the glow translates into more votes for you and fewer for your rival.

From the journalist’s side of the transaction, getting close to a leader, leadership contender, or rising leadership prospect, can lead to inside stories and an edge over your colleagues, thrilling your boss back at head office. The politician gets the benefit of a “good run” in the media outlet and the journalist gets a coveted “exclusive”. This can tempt journalists from professional distance into the personally partisan backing of one politician over another when it comes to leadership contest time. Follow the media closely and it is not hard to identify those who cross the line from journalist to polemicist in exchange for being put, as Paul Keating used to call it, on the story “drip”. They don’t have to cross the line – most retain their professionalism and therefore peer respect – but a surprising number do.

Journalists can play a long game, identifying and grooming possible future leadership prospects for journalistic advantage years, sometimes decades, ahead of them being in a position to run. But politicians do this to journalists, too, with a view to strategically placed and timed stories not just during their rise but, most importantly, to intensify the contest and tilt it their way should a leadership run ever become possible. And they all, almost without exception, entertain that prospect, however unrealistic it might be for most.

Rudd used to clean Laurie Oakes’s toilet when he was an ANU undergraduate in Canberra in the late 1970s – something he would tell anyone who listened when he came back to Canberra as an MP. Oakes was already a gallery titan. Thirty years after wielding scrubbing brushes for a living, Rudd was prime minister. On the way up to the Labor leadership, both times, and on his way down and out of the leadership, both times, the long-lived relationship cannot but have been useful to them both. It was Oakes who got the killer leaks during the 2010 election campaign, which destroyed Gillard’s early lead over the Abbott opposition and reduced her to forming a minority government in victory. Of course, he has never disclosed their source. Yet there is broad agreement that but for those leaks she would have won a comfortable majority.

Oakes is not one to compromise his professionalism. In this, he distinguishes himself from predecessors who similarly dominated the Canberra Press Gallery, such as Alan “the Red Fox” Reid. As with Warren Denning before him, Reid was as much a political player as a journalist. Oakes’s talent lies in achieving Reid’s degree of influence without himself becoming a player. Politicians of all persuasions know Oakes goes where the story takes him, however it affects friend or foe.

Compare and contrast with The Sydney Morning Herald’s Canberra correspondent in the early 1940s, Ross Gollan, who systematically built up the reputation of Country Party leader Arthur Fadden during Bob Menzies’ first brief prime ministership, by implication disparaging Menzies. In his company history of the Herald, Gavin Souter quotes Reid concerning “the quite major influence Gollan exercised upon other members of the gallery”, suggesting he “probably quite subtly influenced other fellows in the gallery into looking upon [Fadden] as a … successor for Menzies”. Reid said bluntly that Gollan “set out to make Fadden prime minister. He succeeded.” This put Gollan in a unique position as a journalist, according to Reid, becoming the prime minister’s “Grey Eminence, privy to decisions, consulted on tactics, kept posted on developments, and with constant and seemingly unlimited access to the Fadden presence”. However, this lasted only as long as Fadden’s short-lived prime ministership, “for 40 days and 40 nights [as] Ben Chifley, with a chuckle, used to describe the duration of the Fadden regime”.

At a Canberra summer school of journalism in the mid-1960s, Reid offered some deeply revealing reflections on the nature of journalism that may partly explain why brief moments of historical relevance – being on the stage, even as chorus, in leadership challenges, for example – may be so important to reporters. It is despondence flowing from the realisation of the absence of authority and achievement on their own account, beyond writing piles of fish-and-chip wrapper.

“I would be the last to wish to denigrate the role of the journalist, but you have to try and look at things as they are, not as you might wish them to be,” Reid said. “[The] journalist is a private soldier. A private soldier does not determine how any army is run. Nor does he decide where, when, how or why battles are fought.”

The private soldier can do their duty to the best of their ability, fight courageously and live up to their concept of what should be the standards of their profession, Reid said. They can ask, and keep on asking even at the risk of being charged with insubordination, for wider discretion from their officers, pointing out why it would be in both sides’ interests. “But it is the officers and the high command who make the ultimate decision on whether he is to be accorded that discretion. In fact the journalist’s role when described in realistic and not romantic terms has a resemblance to that attributed by Tennyson to those British horse soldiers who on October 25, 1854, galloped towards the Russian guns. ‘Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do or die.’ ”

Reid had an even less appealing metaphor to make the same point – the journalist as a supplier of bricks. “He can and does have a say in the quality of the brick or bricks he supplies,” Reid said. “But he does not build the structure for the construction of which his bricks are supplied and the management has the right to reject any or all of the bricks he supplies or to lay them as it chooses.”

This rather depressing fact could well be an element in journalists’ preoccupation with, and ecstasy during, leadership fights. On these occasions they may be in the theatre of battle with only small parts, but each one feels their small part could be the one that is decisive – that could perhaps seal the fate of the leadership contest, and therefore change history. And sometimes they are right. How human it is to feel more important on such days than on the long listless ones that stretch out endlessly between elections.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 14, 2015 as "Drip, drip, drip, spill".

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Chris Wallace is associate professor at the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, Faculty of Business Government and Law, University of Canberra.