Festival Muse: Women of the Press Gallery
Muse 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
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.
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.