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Journalists' union condemns the Liberal Party's proposed prepackaged news stories for television.

MONICA ATTARD: The journalists' union, the MEAA, is condemning the Liberal Party's latest promotional scheme, prepackaged news stories to be sent out to regional television stations. The Liberal Party is offering the stations four stories a week on issues like health, unemployment and housing, to be reported by members of the Coalition Media Unit. The stories will be fully packaged, complete with introductions, voice-overs, and interview grabs, and, according to the publicity brochure, they can be topped off with specific station sign-offs, if requested. Well, the MEAA says the proposed packages contravene the journalists' code of ethics and take cynical advantage of poorly resourced regional newsrooms. But the Liberal Party says they're simply offering electronic press releases. From Canberra, Catherine Job reports.

CATHERINE JOB: 'Russ Street is back', the flier proclaims, 'producing news reports for distribution to regional television stations.' 'But this time,' says the blurb, 'free of charge.' Well, you'd hope so. To be asked to pay for the privilege of airing a Liberal Party political broadcast would be even more outrageous than expecting TV bulletins to carry them as news items. Russ Street and his Coalition Media Unit colleague, Jennifer Eddy, may well be experienced TV reporters, but while they're on the Liberal Party payroll and, in the case of Street, employed as a media adviser to John Howard himself, any so-called 'story' they produce would have to be seen as party political material, not a dispassionate news item. And, according to Federal Director of the Liberal Party, Andrew Robb, that's exactly what they are, electronic press releases, to be chopped up, added to or used in any way the regional news directors see fit.

ANDREW ROBB: Well, it's a montage and the stations can take what they like.

CATHERINE JOB: But a press release isn't a fully packaged news story that can be just put straight in the paper.

ANDREW ROBB: Well, for some it is. Well, I can show you hundreds of examples, hundreds of examples, of press releases. It's all right for, you know, well-funded ABCs, I might say, but if you're a small outfit - there are lots of small suburban newspapers - would use press releases by ourselves or the Labor Party or other interest groups, almost in toto.

CATHERINE JOB: So you'd expect small, under-funded regional TV and radio stations, they could use one of these in toto?

ANDREW ROBB: No. Look, I don't know how they will use the final product, but what we're doing is providing them with the wherewithal to put together a story, and the principal objective, the principal objective, is to provide the views of our Members, our Senators and our candidates in a form that can be used on important local issues.

CATHERINE JOB: If they do use one of your packages in toto, how would it be distinguishable by a viewer from another news item?

ANDREW ROBB: Our people will be in the story. It's quite clear from viewing of any of these stories because that's our objective, to get ....

CATHERINE JOB: But will the reporter be identified as a Liberal Party employee?

ANDREW ROBB: That is up to the station to provide that information.

CATHERINE JOB: Well, would you be happy to see regional radio stations running whole, entire packaged news stories done by Labor Party employees?

ANDREW ROBB: Well, what we are doing is providing an electronic press release. It is identical in form, identical in form to what has been put out for decades and decades on paper into news outlets.

CATHERINE JOB: The question Andrew Robb wouldn't answer today was: Why does the brochure offer a specific station sign-off, suggesting the reporter works for the TV station, not the Liberal Party? Well, this afternoon, the party secretariat was backing well away from that offer, saying the line in the brochure was an oversight and that if a sign-off is requested, it will read: Russ Street, for the Liberal Party, Canberra. The Labor Party say the news items, which begin production this month, could contravene both the electoral and the broadcasting Acts, which require any party political material to carry a party authorisation. National Secretary, Gary Gray, says the ALP will be lodging a protest once the first stories are circulated, but can't do it until there's something concrete to protest against. He's labelled the scheme 'another campaign technique imported direct from the US', like the push polling that caused the Coalition, and Andrew Robb in particular, such embarrassment during the Canberra by-election earlier this year.

In Auckland, the Prime Minister agreed, saying it's classical American right-wing stuff.

PAUL KEATING: I think it would be a very bad development in our politics if we went this way. This is all classic American right-wing stuff and, by and large, the Australian electorate has always rejected these sorts of things. If they are stories which are either wrong or bend the news, then they're highly unethical and no news organisation worth its salt would take them or republish them or retelecast them.

CATHERINE JOB: Andrew Robb says the Liberal Party has already had seven or eight responses from regional stations keen to take the package, though he added that no one has yet taken up the offer of a station-specific sign-off.

MONICA ATTARD: Catherine Job reporting there. Well, the Federal Secretary of the MEAA, Chris Warren, says the union has already ruled out this sort of thing when, back in 1983, the Labor Party wanted to send out pre-taped interviews with Labor politicians for inclusion in television and radio reports. Labor says they were only sending out the raw material, not fully packaged stories, and, in any case, the party dropped its plans when the union and the Canberra press gallery objected. Chris Warren is on the line now from the MEAA, and to speak with him, here's Catherine Job in Canberra.

CATHERINE JOB: Chris Warren, Andrew Robb says these stories are just electronic press releases to be used in part or in whole as the newsroom journalists see fit. What's wrong with that?

CHRIS WARREN: There's two things wrong with it: first, there is a clear difference between a packaged news program designed to be slotted in on air, and a press release. These sorts of electronic packages are simply not open to the sort of journalistic scrutiny and interrogation that a press release is. But the second reason that they're different is that this program seeks to take advantage of the scarce resources that regional television and radio stations have, to take advantage of scarce resources to promote a particular political framework disguised as news and current affairs, prepared by independent journalism.

CATHERINE JOB: But news releases are written like news stories. Journalists take those .. they often take quotes out of them, for instance, to use in both print and electronic news stories. Why can't that be done in an electronic way, using an electronic quote?

CHRIS WARREN: Because it's much more difficult. There's not the same mechanism to interrogate an electronic package as there is with a press release. It can be re-written, it can be put in indirect speech, it can be changed around. You know, in electronic format, the electronic packages are in a clear form that really can't be cut around and changed around to the same degree. And secondly, these are being targeted specifically at those areas that don't have the resources to cover Federal politics for themselves and it's deliberately designed to be picked up in toto by those networks, and to suggest that either just providing some information to these networks or these regional operations is, I think, a bit of sophistry.

CATHERINE JOB: But surely the responsibility lies with the regional newsrooms. After all, the Liberal Party points out these stories will have to go through those regional newsrooms and it will be the journalists there who make the final decision on how they're used.

CHRIS WARREN: In newsrooms throughout regional areas, in newspapers, in radio and in television, there are continual conflicts of this nature, not necessarily just of politics, but also involving corporations and advertising. Journalists are regularly in conflict with their employers, where employers are seeking to use material that they received for nothing or receive an advertisement to go with it as part of the package. The conflict that journalists always find themselves under is that they lack the resources, they're not given the resources to provide these sorts of materials for themselves in an independent way, so that their communities can get that sort of fair access to news and current affairs like their metropolitan counterparts.

CATHERINE JOB: Well, what would you say, what would the MEAA say to the two journalists employed by the Liberal Party who are preparing these, and indeed to the seven or eight regional stations that the Liberal Party says has already responded favourably?

CHRIS WARREN: Well, we say to the journalists preparing the material, as we said to the journalists who were involved in 1983, that this is not an appropriate way to do your job, and we say to the journalists in those newsrooms, 'Don't touch it,' that journalistic ethics is too important, particularly in the context of an election time, to be compromised by this misuse of scarce resources.

CATHERINE JOB: Chris Warren, thanks for your time.

MONICA ATTARD: And that was Chris Warren from the journalists' union. Well, at least one regional television news director is dubious about the Coalition's proposals to provide it with prepackaged news stories. The Golden West Network is Western Australia's only commercial regional television service, and its news director says it initially rejected the offer of stories from the Coalition's media service. Paul Tranter says journalists would have to look at the ethics of the offer very seriously before becoming involved.

PAUL TRANTER: Well, clearly, it raises serious concerns about editorial control, and if you just look at the first code of ethic of the MEAA - 'to report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts, do not suppress relevant available facts, nor give distorting emphasis'. It would seem to me, without openly questioning the ethics of any individuals involved in this, that my perception is that if any news service is funded by a political party, then you would have to, at least, question very closely the ability to fulfil the requirements or the objectives of that first code of ethic.

JOHN MCNAMARA: How different, though, is what the Coalition's intending to do to the other sort of audio-visual material, that I understand newsrooms receive a lot of, from other organisations - prepackaged, just about ready to go to air?

PAUL TRANTER: Well, that's a fairly recent advent as well and we haven't used any of that material. Look, I just have a concern over anything that we do not have editorial control of and therefore would just question anything that is supplied on that basis. I think it comes down to whether the material is put together by someone who is reporting and can be seen to be reporting without fear or favour, and will always ask and persist with the important or difficult question. And I think if you're being paid by any particular group, whether it's politics or whatever, you have to question those things.

JOHN MCNAMARA: When you questioned the originators of this idea about how objective, how balanced the material would be, what sort of responses did you get?

PAUL TRANTER: I've only had a very brief discussion on that matter, and, well, they were just going to some pains to indicate that they would not compromise their journalistic ethics, but at the same time, when I questioned them further, it was made very clear that, for instance, in the RTNA (?) service, you will never see a government spokesperson popping up, simply because they're working for the Coalition. I think that speaks for itself.

JOHN MCNAMARA: Have you been lobbied on behalf of this service by any politicians to try and get you to take the service?

PAUL TRANTER: No, I've had no contact with any politician at all.

JOHN MCNAMARA: Andrew Robb from the Liberal Party is saying that this is just like an electronic press release, that a journalist would receive it, pick the eyes out of it, use what they like from it, go to other sources to compile their story. Would that make you any more interested in receiving this material.

PAUL TRANTER: Well, clearly it opens up more of an opportunity to wrest back the editorial control. But off-the-cuff, no, it wouldn't change my mind because this material is being supplied through an organisation that is funded by a political party. Now, you've got to then ask yourself, as I said a while ago, no matter how independent and fair the reporter might be trying to be, if they are being paid by the persons to whom they are talking, then how can you be assured that they are reporting without fear or favour and that they are going to persist, ask in the first place, and persist with the important and difficult questions by putting the talent on the spot on important issues of public interest. If you're being paid by the person you're talking to, surely that raises questions.

MONICA ATTARD: Golden West Network News Director, Paul Tranter, speaking there on P.M. to John McNamara.