Canberra’s corporate press pass

It’s not just journalists who hang around the National Press Club. A plethora of political lobbyists, industry bodies, weapons makers, the Big Four accounting firms, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, alcohol and gambling interests—groups overwhelmingly foreign-controlled—all gain accreditation to the Club.

2 December 2021 | Marcus Reubenstein

Industry bodies and lobbyists aside, of the 62 sponsors and corporate members of the National Press Club (NPC) less than one in five are wholly Australian-owned companies that produce goods and services.

Those dozen Australian-owned businesses are mostly directly, or indirectly, engaged in business with the Australian government. In the past year eight of those companies collected more than $920 million from federal government contracts.

Of the remainder, three are businesses directly impacted by government policies while the fourth, Transurban, collects $2.2 billion from Australian motorists running toll roads in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.  

Corporate supporters and advertisers have traditionally been the bane of journalists and editors, there used to be nothing more infuriating than getting a call from management telling you to back off from a story for fear of upsetting an advertiser or one of your media proprietor’s mates at the big end of town.

Now Australia’s mainstream media has become so tame it is hardly imaginable any hack would go off on their own in search of an actual piece of news.

Today news drops in the laps of journalists and, for the Canberra Press Gallery, the “drop” usually comes from spin merchants in government, landing in every hack’s inbox.

The once mighty fourth estate has been well and truly tamed by the spin merchants in government, now it appears the big end of town, so adept at taming politicians, is now going to work directly on the journalists charged with the responsibility of holding politicians to account.

A seat at the table

From the perspective of the Canberra bubble, the NPC is hardly conducting itself differently than most other representative groups and associations in the nation’s capital. Canberra is a town of influence peddling and of lobbyists. But how healthy is this influence peddling for our nation’s democracy?

Corporations, industry groups and lobbyists set up shop in the national capital to advance their interests. Journalists are supposed to question whether those interests align with the public interest.

That some of these groups should find themselves rubbing shoulders with senior correspondents from mainstream media outlets is not, in and of itself, cause for alarm. However, should the NPC be facilitating those shoulder rubbing events?

The National Press Club’s board membership is hardly representative of Australia’s cultural diversity

Says, Chief Executive of the NPC, Maurice Reilly, “Each of those industries are highly regulated and are subject to the laws of Australia. We can’t and don’t assist with their representations to the Federal or state Governments or the media.”

However, Reilly’s assertion seems to be at odds with the NPC’s own website. The member benefits page states corporates are given, “A literal seat at the tables of influence, with tickets to our esteemed National Press Club Addresses throughout the year, plus table signage.” Included in member benefits is participation in “the annual Corporate Gold Day alongside key political figures and senior journalists from the Canberra Press Gallery.”

Whilst the NPC is hardly operating as a lobbying firm, the fact remains, dozens of organisations with a clear vested interest in both shaping government policy and promoting their positive public image, have weekly access to a room full of influential journalists. And they pay the NPC for the right to be in that room.

As journalists used to say about politicians, who do nothing wrong but still attend events financially supported by industries they regulate, ‘the optics are not good’.

According to the NPC website:

“You [corporate members] will enjoy unique access to the media and political spheres complementing your particular policy and advocacy priorities.”

National Press Club Website

It goes on, “Aligning your brand with the National Press Club is an opportunity for unparalleled engagement in the Australian political debate and announces that your organisation is part of the business culture in Canberra.”

It is alarming to say the least that the NPC would promote itself as a key player in the sphere of business—aren’t journalists supposed to be in the business of accountability?

Ethics not a corporate member obligation

A handful of NPC sponsors are engaged in business activities most reasonable people would consider ethically problematic.

Sportsbet, owned by Irish gaming giant Flutter Entertainment plc, is a corporate member. Australians lose a staggering $25 billion per year gambling, the social problems caused by gambling are massive, with research suggesting up to 400 gambling-linked suicides in Australia each year and that as many as three-quarters of regular gamblers have drinking problems.

The alcohol industry gets a seat at the NPC table, with, Japanese owned, Lion Group (whose brands include XXXX, Toohey’s, James Squire, Hahn and James Boag) a listed member. So too are industry representatives the National Wine Show and Spirits and Cocktails Australia.   

The innocuously named Imperial Brands is also a corporate supporter, one of the biggest of the big tobacco companies, worldwide it produces more than 300 billion cigarettes per year.

Death merchants on board

While Imperial Brands kill slowly, other NPC sponsors prefer a quick death. Foreign weapons makers BAE Systems (UK), Saab (Sweden), Lockheed Martin (US) and Thales (France) all get a seat at the table.

Last week when defence minister Peter Dutton was beating the drums of war at the press club, the BAE Systems table was conveniently located behind the microphone journalists step up to when asking questions.

In the past twelve months, Dutton’s department has paid BAE Systems almost $1.8 billion for its weapons systems and BAE just happens to be in the running for Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton’s promised nuclear submarines.

Whether deliberate or accidental, the BAE Systems logo appeared on screen across the ABC, on a dozen occasions, which is notionally in contravention of the ABC Charter in relation to the identification of commercial brands.

ABC’s defence correspondent Andrew Greene questions Peter Dutton at National Press Club Address (26 Nov 2021) with weapon’s maker BAE Systems’ logo in clear view

Agents of Influence

More than one in three NPC sponsors are entities owned by foreign corporations or foreign governments—that’s twice as many foreign controlled members as Australian-owned companies (excluding industry groups and lobbyists).

Apparently sitting all alone is Chinese-owned tech giant Huawei. The mainstream media has been a more than enthusiastic supporter of the ban on Huawei supplying 5G infrastructure in Australia. It seems, as long as they pay their fees, they can still get a table at the weekly National Press Club Address.     

The Big Four accounting firms—PWC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG—who pick up hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts, whilst advising multinationals on how to minimize their tax obligations to the Australian government, are all corporate members.

Canberra lobbyists are well represented with no fewer than seven firms, Barton Deakin, Bush Consulting, CMAX Advisory, CT Group (formerly Crosby Textor), Newgate, Nexus, Precision Public Affairs, enjoying member benefits.

Pharmaceutical company MSD (Merck Sharp & Dohm) is another member, according to the company it is on track to post $69 billion in sales this year. Pharmaceutical companies in the United States spend more money on political lobbying than any other industry. Two months ago the prime minister announced the Australian government has signed a deal with the US drug company for the supply of its Covid19 treatment drug Molnupiravir, subject to TGA approval.

Ten members are peak industry groups, representing the interests of members with billions of dollars in annual revenue. The Pharmacy Guild of Australia is an NPC member yet a simple Google search reveals virtually no mainstream media outlet reported that it collected JobKeeper payments, at a time when the industry was reporting “staggering” sales revenue throughout the pandemic.

It’s almost as if the best way of avoiding Canberra media scrutiny is to show up in a room full of journalists.