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A.C.T. Parliament welcomes media scrutiny, unlike Federal Parliament

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TIme to break the mainstream monopoly (Image via Wikimedia Commons - edited)

With strict rules prohibiting reporting by independent media, there seems to be a bias towards the mainstream media from Parliament House, writes Chris Mordd Richards.

WHEN IT COMES TO the two parliaments in Canberra, the A.C.T. Legislative Assembly and the Parliament of Australia (Federal Parliament), there is a world of difference when it comes to media accessibility and rules about what type of media can or cannot be captured.

Whilst the A.C.T. Parliament is virtually begging for independent media to capture photos or video of the Legislative Assembly or committees in action, the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery is a fiercely guarded club, where only the sanctified few are allowed entry into its ranks.

Even once granted entry to the Press Gallery, the rules around who can take photos of Federal Parliament in action are even more restrictive and reserved only for a small group of specially authorised photographers.

Otherwise, some scurrilous member of the broader Press Gallery might take a photo of something they aren’t meant to or, heaven forbid, use a phone instead of a professional camera worth thousands of dollars.

As for recording video of Federal Parliament in action, forget it.

The only video recording allowed is done by Parliamentary staff with their own special cameras and accessed by mainstream media organisations in the Press Gallery through feeds to their studios, as well as streamed on the Parliament website for viewing by the public.

Meanwhile, in the A.C.T. Legislative Assembly, video recording is allowed as long as certain quite reasonable guidelines are followed — for example, not zooming in on paper or devices they are using, or what camera angle is allowed during a division.

Photography is just as freely allowed for any approved journalists, mainstream or independent, again as long as a few specific reasonable guidelines are followed.

Is the A.C.T. Parliament comparable to Federal Parliament? They do provide an interesting contrast between two different parliaments in Canberra. Why shouldn't Federal Parliament's decisions that affect the nation be just as accessible as the A.C.T. Assembly, so long as security considerations taken into account?

In the halls of the U.S. Congress, members of the public mingle freely with journalists, Senators and members of Congress — there is nothing like the restrictions placed on media or the general public here in Parliament House.

Compare how one gains access to the Legislative Assembly as a journalist compared to the Press Gallery. Last year, I applied for permission for just one particular day to take photos in the A.C.T. Legislative Assembly, which required filling out a form and getting approval from the Speaker, which was granted.

Early this year, I received a phone call from a very friendly Legislative Assembly staffer (who prefers to remain anonymous).

He noted that I had been granted access once last year to take photos in the Assembly and wanted to know if I would like to apply for permanent access for all of 2019 to take photos or video at any time, without needing to apply in advance each time.

Surprised to be hearing from the Assembly like this, I asked if they would grant someone like me access, considering I don’t work for any large or even small media outlet and I am entirely freelance.

I also noted that, if granted, I wouldn’t use the access anywhere near as frequently as, say, the Canberra Times or ABC. He said he would consult with some other staffers and get back to me on that.

Two weeks later, he called back to say the Assembly would more than welcome for me to apply for permanent access for 2019 and be happy to approve me as independent media to have the same access as any of the mainstream media.

Long story short, I am now approved to represent myself and Independent Australia from the completely unofficial A.C.T. Legislative Assembly Press Gallery for photo and video recording.

As for how one goes about gaining access to the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, well, that is a different story entirely. If you are an independent journalist with less than 15 years professional experience minimum, you can pretty much forget it.

In fact, unless you can get three existing members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery to vouch for you, you can’t get in at all.

Employment at one of the major TV networks or mainstream media outlets makes this easy, but for any smaller player like Independent Australia, it is an almost insurmountable barrier to access.

IA applied to the Parliamentary Press Gallery multiple times trying to gain access to its “hallowed halls”. Most recently, on 21 March 2016, having initially applied three years prior to that and having been denied on the basis that IA was ‘opinion-based rather than a news website’.

Having received IA’s application, the Press Gallery then changed its own rules in 2016 retrospectively to prevent IA from being able to gain access as a professional media organisation, without needing the precious three endorsements from existing members.

This was followed by IA’s admittance to the Australian Press Council in 2016, but still, IA could not get access to the Press Gallery. Finally, in 2017, Dr Martin Hirst managed to get approval on behalf of IA, with the required three endorsements from members.

However, shortly after Martin had to take leave for a period, managing editor David Donovan arranged, with a degree of difficulty, to temporarily take Martin’s place. Near the end of last year, journalist and academic John Passant was also granted Press Gallery access on behalf of IA.

While successful in the end, it took IA six years and multiple attempts to gain access to the Press Gallery and, even now, they still cannot take their own photos of Parliament in action or committee hearings for that matter.

IA is an established, professional mainstream – albeit independently mainstream – media outlet, with multiple decades of professional media experience between the editors and senior staff. Only just recently have they been allowed access to the “hallowed halls” of reporting directly on Federal Parliament.

Meanwhile, myself as a journalism student and freelancer can now walk into the A.C.T. Legislative Assembly at any time this year, identify myself to the attendant and snap away on my phone and take video to my heart's content, within the basic sensible guidelines.

The A.C.T. Government might only govern for a little over 400,000 people, but it welcomes as much media scrutiny of its proceedings as anyone can throw at it by all appearances, going so far as to chase down non-mainstream journalists like myself to ask me to apply for permanent access.

Why should the Parliament of Australia, governing over 24.6 million people, be more restrictive regarding media scrutiny than security concerns dictate they need to be. Would it really harm Parliament if a BuzzFeed or IA journalist took a photo of the chamber on their phone?

Would it harm Parliament if the Press Gallery members were allowed to take their own video, professional equipment? It is hard to see how it would.

Would democracy in any way be endangered by allowing more independent freelancers and smaller media outlets into the Parliamentary Press Gallery? No.

It is time to break the mainstream monopoly that has a death-grip over the Press Gallery and open up access to any professional who meets basic security and experience requirements — allow anyone to take photos, allow the press to take their own videos.

What is the worst that could possibly happen? More people might pay more attention to what really goes on. Is that what they are all afraid of?

Or that people might visit mainstream media less and independent media more. Afraid they will lose money once people realise you don’t have to be a TV network, or work for Murdoch or Fairfax to be able to report well on the Australian Parliament and politics?

The way the Parliamentary Press Gallery is run is a con on the Australian people and has been for a long time. It uses a thin veneer of mainstream monopolisation to convince the public that the Australian Parliament is being watched and accurately reported on.

It’s time this façade of press access came to end. It’s time to open up the Federal Press Gallery.

You can follow Chris Mordd Richards on Twitter @Mordd_IndyMedia.

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