Journalism should be about pursuing the truth. If we do that, sometimes we ask questions that make people uncomfortable. Journalists should expect a truthful answer if we ask genuine questions, not political party talking points. But we should ask those questions courteously.
Sometimes, the person we ask questions to responds with an unpleasant or even angry tone. Journalists should be prepared for that.
This week, considerable controversy arose because a Sky News journalist asked an "absurd" question, and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus gave a somewhat terse response. Many journalists lept to the reporter's defence; I am not one of them.
I'll always back my staff because I tell them we should always be courteous. "We can ask hard questions, but don't be nasty about it," is something every journalist in The Examiner newsroom has heard. I reckon all of The Examiner's journalists are courteous and respectful. The Sky journalist was not.
The question was absurd because the government can't overrule the High Court. That's an absolute fact; the opposition's continued bleating is disingenuous, and they know it. Most of the media reporting their stance gives an easily proven lie legitimacy.
Yes, There are legitimate questions journalists should ask Labor politicians about how prepared their government was for this outcome. The government was caught flat-footed, and we should ask why and get truthful answers. But what the Coalition is asking for, and the Sky journalist, was that the government directly disobey a High Court judgement. That is preposterous, against the law and dishonest. Asking the government to apologise for obeying a High Court ruling is absurd, and Mark Dreyfus was right to say so. His answer was perfectly reasonable, but the Sky journalist interrupted because it was not the answer she or her bosses wanted. That's when the trouble started.
Yes, it is frustrating when politicians give long word-salad answers and don't answer the questions; I have been in those situations, and if you are assertive enough in the press pack, you tell the politician they didn't answer the question and ask them to answer again. If they don't, you report that they didn't or wouldn't answer the question. You don't sook; you write what happened. Believe me, when that is published, the phone rings quickly with claims that they did answer and the reporting was unfair. Still, at least you have established you won't accept non-answers, and it does focus the politician, so next time you ask them a question, they are more likely to give a quotable answer. It doesn't always work, but it has worked more often than not in my career.
Journalism is not for the faint-hearted. We give as good as we get, and that's a fair exchange for pursuing the truth. Sometimes, politicians do cross the line and get abusive; that's not right and should be called out. Mark Dreyfus was not abusive, and all the pearl-clutching from journalists since that press conference does our profession no favours. The media, thanks to some who barrack for a political side rather than report, already has a somewhat tainted reputation. I'd say this week's events didn't cover journalism in glory.
If journalists and politicians could be courteous, respectful and truthful as a starting point, political discourse in Australia would be much better than it is. Isn't that something worth trying for?
Craig Thomson is the editor of The Examiner