It’s reputation that matters when spin doctors go back to the newsroom

ABC Insiders host Barrie Cassidy was once press secretary to former prime minister Bob Hawke. ABC

When a journalist moves from press secretary to press gallery reporter, it raises tricky ethical questions for news editors in the face of possible concerns about the former political staff member’s independence and partisanship.

For some editors, the risk of the returning journalist being perceived as politically biased would be too great, and they wouldn’t be employed. For others, the benefit of fresh inside knowledge and connections outweighs the risk.

I interviewed ten Australian news editors and nine politicians in 2015-16 about managing the shift from press secretary to political reporter. The responses boiled down to questions of professionalism and reputation.

Editors made a distinction between press secretaries they perceived to be actively engaged party members – or “spear chuckers” as the former editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, described them – and those who were more detached communications professionals.

The Australian Financial Review’s editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury, described the difference as being between “warriors” who “treat it a bit like political warfare” and “others who go in there and do a professional job”.

Choices to make on disclosure

Depending on how much Kool-Aid the press secretary was perceived to have consumed, they would either be put back in the newsroom or be employed as a commentator.

Because commentary positions are not bound by the journalistic norms of objectivity and impartiality, having a strong partisan perspective was seen as an advantage. Chris Kenny, who is upfront about his former affiliations, is an example of someone who was a journalist prior to working as an adviser and running for the Liberal Party, and who is now a columnist and political commentator.

Those who returned to political reporting were likely to take one of two routes.

  • The first was straight back to reporting without a cooling off period.

  • The second is variously described as “laundering”, “cleansing”, “purging” and “weaning”, in which the former staffer is employed in a non-political reporting role for a period to reduce conflicts of interest and perceptions of bias.

This “laundering” method was the preferred approach of eight of the ten editors. It was not seen as mandatory, but the majority said some form of temporary buffer between the two roles might be useful. Ultimately they all felt it should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Once back in the newsroom, issues emerged about whether to reveal the reporter’s previous political employment. Despite journalism being in the disclosure business, the editors were divided over whether the journalist should include their time as a press secretary on their CV or at the bottom of their stories.

Some, such as Channel Seven’s former network news director, Rob Raschke, thought openness was the best policy:

Let the audience make their mind up on that. Don’t make it up for them; declare it and they’ll make their mind up.

Others considered a declaration to be unnecessary because a quick internet search would reveal all. There were also questions about how much information should be disclosed and for how long. As one editor put it:

Look, I mean, it’s almost like a criminal record. Do you drag that around with you for ten years? You don’t get 15 years for murder!

There was also debate about how and where to make this type of disclosure: on the journalist’s CV, in a central database or at the end of a story? Sky News political editor David Speers agreed that “disclosure is important”, but there were issues in the medium of television.

On-air disclosures are tricky. I mean, if someone appears on air every hour, you can’t exactly finish every appearance with: ‘By the way, I used to work for …’. But somehow you do need to disclose these things.

Judging on work performance

While there was disagreement about how to implement the methods of disclosure, the editors all shared the view that ultimately a reporter should be judged on their professionalism and not their CV.

“We want to judge them on the fairness, the balance, impartiality that they bring to the craft … by the work that they do, not who they once worked for,” said the former ABC managing director, Mark Scott.

The emphasis on professionalism and reputation was echoed by politicians when it came to hiring a journalist as a press secretary. All nine interviewed said they gave preference to strong media and communication skills and professional reputation as a reporter over party membership.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd said the critical question was to “have a person who is professionally respected by the media”. And former federal Labor minister Gary Gray explained that Canberra is a small place:

I mean, everybody knows everybody else certainly in the federal press gallery … and I think people have a very clear idea how professional they have been in either their previous roles as a journalist or as a media adviser. You make your decision based on that.

Some politicians said they had employed press secretaries from other parties because it was important not to be surrounded by “yes” men. Others felt that, at the very least, the press secretary needed to share the party’s world view.

Whether they did or not, there was a perception among the Labor politicians that once the press secretary returned to political reporting there was a tendency to “overcompensate the other way”. Former South Australian premier Mike Rann said this happened to “demonstrate to their editors and chiefs of staff that they’re not Labor”.

Despite this risk and difficulties in managing the career shift, each of the politicians and editors felt time as a press secretary for a political reporter was really valuable. It gave the reporter greater understanding of the political process, which was welcomed by editors and politicians.

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