The Value Of Secrets To Pollies And Journos

In 1870, the editor of the Chicago Times got his job description down nicely: “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news, and raise hell.”

So it is hard to sympathise with Peter Costello’s claims that his now famous dinner was off the record. After all, the demand for salacious gossip about senior politicians is almost infinite. And for journalists, the market for information is highly competitive.

When these combine, it must be tough for journalists to resist disclosing juicy political confessions. The potential personal benefit for the reporter and commercial benefit for their employer is enormous. And nobody wants to be the one who sat on a big story while their competitor makes their reputations disclosing it.

Such briefings with seemingly sympathetic journalists are common enough when tilling the ground for political change. By going public with the details of the dinner, some may claim that damage has been done to the sacred reporter-politician relationship. And the journalists involved will struggle to get invited to dinner with the next aspirational treasurer.

However, whatever country club mentality remains in the relationship between these two opposed professions is bound to erode away over the course of the next few years.

The news media has been highly competitive since the invention of the daily newspaper nearly three hundred years ago. But the even greater competition brought about from recent technological change has exponentially increased the value of a scoop.

Outlets like Crikey explicitly market themselves as purveyors of inside gossip and rumours – when Crikey readers are offered “the inside track”, it is in contrast to what is seen as an overly conservative traditional press corp.

In the United States, bloggers who self-identify as online journalists are routinely granted the legitimacy of press passes and interviews. With none of the institutional and reputational support that comes with a masthead, these writers can only sell themselves on original content. For this reason, some US bloggers are becoming formidably competitive at sourcing news, often shining their dead-tree counterparts.

If on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, then in the real world, nobody knows you’re on the internet. In the era of widespread social-networking, people don’t even need a blog to break news. We shouldn’t be surprised if in the coming years some stories are broken in the status updates of Facebook profiles.

Politicians can hardly expect secrets to be kept when there is so much value from disclosure.