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Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer has written that “Politicians provide news for the media: the media provide exposure for the politicians to the public. The journalists carry the messages and fashion the images. It will always be a tense relationship, lacking in mutual trust”.
Palmer’s insight to the work of the parliamentary press gallery underlines why it holds a special fascination for journalists. The media, as he says, are a centre of power in the political system.
In an earlier generation, the prime function of the press gallery was to represent the public interest by keeping the public informed. The journalists in the press gallery were expected to report objectively on the events in government, parliament and the public service, making the affairs of Parliament more accessible to the public.
New Zealand's Press Gallery dates back to the earliest Parliaments. It is older even than the official Hansard reports – the first Hansard volumes were compiled from newspaper reports. The role of the parliamentary reporter has changed as rapidly as society. As NZ First leader Winston Peters noted in a speech this year: “There have been incredible advances in the delivery of information in recent years: the quality has improved and so has the quantity”.
Peters may differ from Palmer on that point, but certainly the instantaneous transmission of news by electronic means has transformed how the press gallery operates. Newspapers have moved more deeply into analysis, background and commentary.
So political journalists have to be highly qualified in the specialist fields in which they choose to perform. They may be superb writers like Jane Clifton, who writes a weekly political column for the Listener and a daily sketch of Parliament for the Dominion Post, or extrovert personalities like Barry Soper of Newstalk ZB.
For television news, it is necessary to be able to talk to camera using simple, direct language in the manner of TVNZ's Mark Sainsbury. News agency work, as for the Press Association, appeals to journalists who like to process news stories fast and efficiently. Radio New Zealand, like New Zealand Press Association, maintains one of the larger teams in the press gallery to cover such diverse journalistic tasks as carrying breaking news, interviewing ministers, and providing analysis. The country’s biggest newspaper, the New Zealand Herald, maintains a team of four in the Press Gallery, and others represented include The Australian, Reuters, and business papers like The Independent and National Business Review.
Where 50 years ago only male journalists were in the press gallery, women are now in the majority. Māori broadcasters, too, have made an appearance, and new information technologies such as the internet have led to representation by journalists from organisations like Newsroom and Scoop.
Political newsletters have also become a channel of communication not only for the parties but also for independents, such as Trans-Tasman, a publication which has been appearing for 35 years.
As Winston Peters puts it: “Freedom of information and democracy
go hand in hand and they are equally precious in a society like ours”.
© Photography by Woolf