Festival Muse: Women of the Press Gallery

Muse FestivalMuse is one of my favourite places in Canberra. It’s a cafe-restaurant-winebar plus bookshop plus arts event space – self-described as “a meeting place for those who enjoy a grenache with their Grenville, and their Winton with a good washed rind”. They have offered many short, mostly afternoon events, in the 18 months of their existence, but this is their first festival. Mr Gums and I went to the opening event, Women of the Press Gallery. How great that they chose to begin with a woman-focused event in a week that contained International Women’s Day.

The event took the form of a conversation-style panel but first, the Festival was opened by the doyenne of (women) political journalists, Michelle Grattan. I put “women” in parenthesis because the qualification is not necessary – she’s a doyenne, full stop – and yet it’s relevant to the context of this event, if you know what I mean. She talked about her early days as a journalist in 1970s Canberra – and the role played by restaurants in journalists’ lives. Muse, she said, has taken this role to a new level, by merging food, books, politics and talk in one place. She did say more, but I want to focus on the event, so will just say that she opened Festival Muse, and we got on with it!

Women of the Press Gallery

The panel comprised:

  • Katina Curtis, political journalist and Canberra chief of staff with newswire AAP
  • Karen Middleton, The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent
  • Katharine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia
  • Primrose Riordan, political journalist, focusing on foreign affairs, with The Australian

The political

After a quick welcome and introduction from co-Muse-owner Dan, Karen Middleton opened proceedings,  by saying that she loved being “participating chair” because she got to chair the panel and contribute ideas as well! She said the topics they’d cover would be media, politics, and chicks in media and politics.

To get the conversation going, Middleton asked the panel whether they “take sides” in their writing. The ensuing conversation also took in how the media is changing, and the impact of this on journalists’ work. Each had slightly different perspectives, partly due to their different roles.

Katina Curtis, for example, works for a newswire service so she needs to frame her stories to make them saleable to different news outlets. She can’t therefore pick a side.

Primrose Riordan commented that tailoring stories to particular audiences is problematic. It impacts the quality of the journalism and affects what stories are chased. She talked about the push for “hits”, the desire for “clickbait” – and how this drives journalists to write stories that focus on emotionalism.

Katharine Murphy, who conversed with Charlotte Wood in my last post, commented that the centre has gone, leaving us with two extremes that repel each other. This loss of the centre has massive implications. She also argued that media should have values, because all facts are not the same. (We all loved that, of course.) Guardian Australia, she said, has a distinctive, progressive voice.

Karen Middleton commented on the missing centre, suggesting that the people who are disengaging most from politics are probably the centrists.

Riordan agreed, noting that people aren’t dealing well with what they disagree with. But she – who clearly wanted to make some political points about what’s happening to journalism itself – commented that journalism is also hollowed out. By this she meant the large-scale departure of experienced journalists before retirement age was resulting in the loss of their teaching/knowledge to the next generation.

Moving to a different – and interesting to me – tack, Murphy, with her long experience, talked about changes to the journalistic process. In the old print days, she said, she would file stories once a day. This provided the opportunity for journalists and their editors to choose the important stories. Now, though, filing tends to be continuous, because this is what you (that is, we readers) want. (I felt a bit accused at this point!) In this scenario, the NEW is prioritised over the IMPORTANT. We are all part of a social experiment, she said. In the early days of the transition from the traditional print cycle to the new live cycle, the journalism tended to be shoddy. However, she believes, with experience, it is improving.

This point regarding the prioritising of the new over the important gave me one of those light-bulb moments. Ah, yes, makes sense, I thought. In the rush to produce news, and particularly to beat your competitor in this “live cycle” world, there’s no time to explore the nuances, and analyse what’s really important. Later, but I’ll pop it in here, Riordan made some points about the negative impact of “free” journalism with its high level of advertisements and clickbait-driven content. We should value journalism and pay for it, she said.

The personal (is the political)

Middleton asked the panel for their greatest challenges (and here, to break things up a bit, I’ll dot-point):

  • Curtis talked about the constant need to file stories. It’s hard to get/be given the mental space to write something that feels well-informed, she said. The story changes as it is being written; the deadline is always now!
  • Riordan reiterated this point about the importance of investigative work (and referenced the movie, Spotlight, longingly!) Then she added her main challenge: “reading” what’s happening. Politicians can talk all day, she said, but journalists have to work out what is really going on.
  • Middleton concurred with Riordan’s point regarding what’s happening on the surface versus what’s going on underneath. She said journalists need to “read” the chamber in terms of the little things – facial expressions, note-passing, etc.
  • Murphy said that time was the big thing!

Next up, Middleton got onto the gender issue, asking the panel for their comments on life as female political journalists.

Curtis said that a friend had told her, before she joined the press gallery, that the women read and research while the men socialise and get news from the bar. She laughed that she finds herself doing the reading, and would rather like to get more news from the bar!

Riordan, ever the political one regarding journalists and journalism, commented on the challenge for mothers. Motherhood impacts careers. Men can stay late, while women usually can’t. This is still somewhat a barrier – though Curtis said that she feels lucky that the generation of women before her had forged the way so that being a mother and a journalist was now a little more normal. She was a little irritated though that though she (a mother of less than 18 months) has been covering education and childcare for 6 years, her male colleagues now suggest that she’s interested in those topics because she’s a mother.

Riordan also noted that the management of news organisations is still heavily male-dominated.

Murphy shared that when Michelle Grattan came to Canberra in 1973, she was one of the few women here – and had to do social pages! She was an important trailblazer. Murphy also stated that for women to prosper, they need to be better than men. They have to be persistent, resilient, tough, fair, and safeguard their reputation. She believes that some of Australia’s best journalism at present is coming from women.

Middleton asked the panel about life outside work. Riordan said that journalists have to be prepared to miss family events and that for press gallery journalists, “sitting weeks are insane”. Curtis said that the work is potentially all-consuming, but that having grown up in Canberra she has friends outside the profession which helps her separate. Murphy commented that she’s either “fully in” or “fully out”. This means that when she’s on leave, she completely disconnects from social media – and engages in her other interests.

The end

We then moved into Q&A, and while there were several questions, I’m going to share just one, the one which referred back to the loss of the centre. How, the questioner asked, can the middle be made more worthy (more interesting, I suppose, too)? Murphy suggested that it can be achieved by looking for opportunities to find common ground, by finding politicians and others who are more nuanced in their views. She commented that for many people politics is like religion, meaning it’s about belief not facts. For these people, if the facts don’t concur with their belief, they don’t listen. Hmm … that made me stop and think a bit about my own practice! Do I do this? I like to think not, but will have to watch myself …

Anyhow, moving right along, Curtis added that journalists feel what’s important but their editors don’t always agree. And Riordan commented on the diversionary tactics used by politicians such as putting out “announceables”  – like a new policy – to distract journalists from something else!

All in all, it was a lively evening spent in the company of intelligent, engaged and committed journalists. I learnt a lot about the pressures of modern journalism – and was entertained at the same time. Thanks Muse.

NOTE: Check out the Muse link above for more Festival events.

20 thoughts on “Festival Muse: Women of the Press Gallery

    • Yes, it was, Dorothy. You should visit Muse next time you’re here because it’s great even at normal times. Actually, I think that’s where I’d planned to take you when you were here last year and it was closed for one of their Sunday afternoon events, so we went to Joe’s next door for our cuppa.

  1. I wonder if, given Grattan’s age, she started work in the days when that bar where the journos gathered was closed to women? (You remember, when women had to go to the ‘Ladies Lounge’ and were not allowed in the bar in case they heard some bad language). If that’s how it was, it would have impacted enormously on her work. Reading Anne Summers, this exclusion was a way of setting women up to fail in a ‘man’s world’.

    • Hi Lisa, good question. I have a feeling that it was open to women because she specifically mentioned the non-members bar in her brief intro. My memory – vague though – is that that might have been the 1960s, and she started 1973. Interestingly she said the non-members bar didn’t survive in new Parliament House. Not enough use apparently, so it’s now the (or a) child care centre! At least it’s been put to good use!

      • LOL How typical that the thought of having another bar before they thought of child care…
        But back to the Ladies Lounge… it may have been different in Canberra, but I am quite certain that in Victoria the ban on women in the public bar was in force in 1969. I remember it well because we once went to have a meal in a western suburbs pub while we waited for a film at the drive in to start at 9pm. (It was daylight savings time, so it would have been the summer of 1969-70 before the Ex was conscripted). We didn’t have enough cash for a meal in the Ladies Lounge, but we had enough for a meal in the bar. But I wasn’t allowed in.

        • Oh dear. I don’t recollect ever having that experience, luckily! But I do think Canberra was ahead of the rest of Australia in terms of overall liquor laws – certainly we had Sunday trading long before NSW, for example.

          And we are talking 1973 re Grattan – which is when Gough Whitlam was PM. I can’t imagine him tolerating such a law forbidding women journalists from drinking with men in Parliament House! (The famous Merle Thornton – Sigrid’s mother – chaining herself to a public bar in Queensland happening in 1965.)

  2. I love Muse and this event looked amazing. I am so glad we have these places in our city. Excellent food, great books and inspiring literary events! Thanks for this post! 🙂

    • Yes, I love Muse too Anita. It’s a special place isn’t it – those fellas work really hard and seem to have a happy team around them, which makes us customers feel good, doesn’t it?

      • I am very close friends with one of their best friends and she came down from Sydney to manage the door for them so we caught up and had a good chat about the Muse Festival…they are doing an amazing job! I am so glad things are going so well for them…:)

        • Oh, the woman with the shortish dark hair? I think it was the same door person then and today, when I went again. I didn’t think I’d seen her around before. She seems lovely. We had a little chat this arvo as we got there early.

          Yes, I’m glad things are going well too – for them and us. It was a great idea and they seem to be pulling it off – with a lot of work I’m sure.

  3. I’m often envious that there are so many literary events going on all the time in your country. Makes me feel like I’m living in hinterland, which I am.

    • There are values in living in hinterlands too though aren’t there Arti. We are lucky as we are sort of a hinterland, but happen to be the national capital. I have never regretted choosing it over a metropolis such as the one I left to come here as a young professional.

  4. A very interesting post, you must have been very busy taking notes. To take just one point – the ‘missing centre’ – from a journalsitic POV, I think it is very capably filled by the ABC (which is why they really annoy the right) and I think that ‘the people’ are basically centrist and were willing Malcolm to succeed, but he was too stupid or too gutless to take advantage of the huge groundswell of goodwill that greeted him. It’s the newspapers that have stopped being of the centre, not the people.

    • Haha, yes I was Bill. Good comment – I’ll have to think about that, though I think you’re right that people overall are more centrist and agree that voters of both persuasions were very willing to give Malcolm a go. I think the kerfuffle with Hanson’s party and the WA election preference deal says it all – politicians focus too much on getting elected or staying elected rather than on doing what they believe. They are so sure they’re right and can do the best for Australia, that they’ll make deals to get elected and to stay elected but end up spending so much energy on that they never get around to the real reason they wanted to be elected in the first place. If that makes sense!

    • Thanks Stefanie. Yes, I it’s a great place – the sort many of us love but don’t always work. I think the owners’ personalities together with their inspiration, I passion and good taste is making this work. At least it seems to be working from the outside. I hope they are making a fair living from I it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s