The past week we saw Senator Simon Birmingham, the minister for finance and a frequent spokesperson on television for the government, have a crack at the media for what he saw as pressure being placed on the French president Emmanuel Macron to respond to questions about the submarine deal and whether he thought he was lied to by prime minister Scott Morrison.
There was a remark from Birmingham that appeared to suggest that journalists should ask themselves whether what they pursue is in the national interest.
Birmingham’s words were widely reported and justifiably so, because they echoed remarks about media coverage that Australians have seen peppered throughout American political campaigning for much of the past decade.
The media is categorised as being a bad actor seeking sensational news regardless of any harm that might be caused.
There are several issues worth drawing out in this discourse, each related to questions directed at the French president.
Journalists are tasked with the job of covering news, and in politics that is about chasing down every conceivable angle they can on stories of major significance.
The shredding of a contract with the French on submarines and the entry into a technology-sharing partnership with the UK and the US is and will always be a major story.
No questions will ever be out of bounds, and the mere suggestion that questions asked of the French president about whether he trusted the Australian prime minister should not have been entertained is piffle of the highest order.
The very fact that the remarks questioning the media’s commitment to our national interest are made after the event proves the propriety of asking those questions rather than providing evidence that the inquisitiveness of the media was out of order.
Such observations are also an invitation for people to look more closely and over a longer period rather than a deterrent. This should be apparent to any politician in the middle of the rhetorical firefight over Macron’s five-word response to journalists that set the ball rolling for a week of coverage.
There is another profound question about the appropriateness of asking questions of foreign leaders at a global event. If asking questions is inappropriate at meetings where global leaders gather, then when else are questions inappropriate?
Is it inappropriate to ask the Coalition’s opponents or detractors questions because making the government look inadequate or to publicise criticisms of government activity might not be in the national interest?
Are interviews with the minor parties or independents out of bounds because they will tend to have questions of the government of the day that will at times be difficult?
Riffing on a theme of national interest in the context of media asking questions is actually a dangerous hobby for politicians and other public figures because it suggests self-censorship in certain circumstances.
It is a suggestion about which every person and not just those reporting on government activity should be wary.
The other thing that is somewhat laughable about the notion of journalists placing Macron under pressure is that it does not credit the French president with having his own agency, ability, and political acumen to respond in a manner that he believes appropriate.
Macron was elected the president of his country and he appears to be quite capable of fielding and answering questions from the global press.
Journalists are free to ask questions but the person being questioned is ultimately responsible for the answer and the form of words in which their response is delivered.
Macron could have chosen to sidestep the question, pretend he didn’t hear it, respond with a different form of words or tried to calm the farm over the shredding of the submarine contract.
What Macron did was he chose to answer the question directly rather than fudge it. He made no secret that he felt he was lied to by the prime minister and Morrison responded accordingly across several media conferences.
The coverage of the five words he uttered — “I don’t think, I know” — demonstrated that this was clearly a news story that merited a prominent run and the fact that the coverage made things a wee bit challenging for the government during a rather busy week is not something journalists should worry about.
Representatives from media organisations have a responsibility to get at the truth and not worry about whether they make life difficult for governments irrespective of whether they are local shires, a state government or the national government resident in Canberra.
Anybody in government questioning why journalists are asking particular questions may as well be shooting a flare in the sky – it just encourages journos to go that little bit harder.