The first time I was offered the industrial round, in 1986, I turned it down. I preferred to stay on general news, and aimed to be a science reporter.
Why is it then, some 30 years later, that I look back on my time as a journalist and see industrial relations as the dominant feature — three extended stints on the industrial round, two with Australian Associated Press (AAP) and one with The Australian, terms spent on the journalist union’s state executive in Victoria and Western Australia and 13 years as the media advisor to the national industrial tribunal?
I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but an industrial reporter in 1998 told me that the industrial round was like the Hotel California — you can check out, but you can never leave.
Shaun Carney, who covered the round for the Melbourne Herald from 1980 to 1985, was also a reluctant recruit.
“Nobody ever has an interest in the industrial round until they’re told they have to do it,” he said when I was doing my Masters research project on journalism history from 1975 to 2015.
“And then they become very, very interested, because it’s the entire field of activity in this community … It’s changing lives, households, workplaces, businesses, lifestyles. Absolutely fascinating.”
Industrial reporting is serious journalism. It stands at the junction of politics, economics, finance, business and the legal system, spans both state and federal legislation and affects almost everyone in Australian society. It can be gladiatorial in its drama, and is rarely simple.
In 1986, when I reluctantly started on the industrial round in Melbourne for AAP, the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 was 168 pages and the associated regulations filled 102 pages. Today, the principal legislation, the Fair Work Act 2009 and its associated regulations, comprises two volumes that total more than 1000 pages.
The pace and extent of change in the Australian industrial relations landscape in recent decades has been extraordinary. Not only has the original 1904 Act been completely rewritten three times since 1988, but significant changes have restricted the ability of employees and employers to take industrial action and made it easier for the national industrial tribunal to intervene in disputes. Individual statutory agreements have come and gone and an unfair dismissal jurisdiction added to the federal sphere. In addition, the Victorian Government handed over its industrial powers to the Commonwealth in 1996 in what many hoped would be the first step towards a unitary system.
In 2011, the then president of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission Justice Geoffrey Giudice said changes over the previous 20 years, compared to those over the previous nine decades, had been “the most important and fundamental and in a real sense … revolutionary rather than evolutionary”.
At the same time, however, the number of dedicated industrial reporters has dwindled, from a high in the decades spanning the 1970s to the early 1990s, to a handful today.
The reasons for this reduction are varied and not limited to Australia. They include declining rates of unionisation and industrial action, a conservative political push against the perceived power of unions, the growth of entertainment-based news and a reduction in specialist reporting as print newsrooms, in particular, have contracted.
While all specialist rounds have suffered with the contraction in journalist numbers, the industrial round has been particularly hard-hit.
In 1992 when I left the industrial round in Melbourne, the ABC had four dedicated industrial reporters — all based at Trades Hall — one working for ABC Television and three with ABC Radio, including one dedicated to current affairs. The Age had two reporters and the Herald Sun (the result of the 1990 merger of the Sun News Pictorial and the Melbourne Herald) had three or four. There was also a vibrant industrial round in Sydney.
When I returned to Melbourne in 1998 after five years in Western Australia, the decline was already under way. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission had closed its media room at Nauru House due to lack of use.
Since that time, I have witnessed a further dramatic drop in industrial reporters in the mainstream media, but also a rise in those employed by specialist industrial relations publications such as the online newsletters Workforce and Workplace Express.
With the diminishing influence of unions, the round has morphed into the broader field of workplace change and human resources practice, overlapping business reporting. The number of specialist reporters, however, remains low with no more than one for any mainstream publication or news outlet.
From a journalist’s point of view this decline is concerning. My research with nine one-time industrial reporters found that the round provided a unique range of experiences that were invaluable for a developing reporter.
Radio broadcaster Neil Mitchell, who worked on the round from 1978 to 1980, said it taught him a lot about dealing with different types of people.
“The way you talk to Norm Gallagher is quite different from the way you talk to the head of the employers’ association,” he said.
“I think it taught me a lot about dealing with people and how to adjust my approach with people.”
Former Age industrial reporter and now University of Melbourne academic Andrea Carson highlighted how mentors had been particularly important.
She contrasted her positive experience working under Paul Robinson at The Age in the early 1990s to her first days on the round, when the senior reporter assigned to her suddenly left the newspaper.
“So it was just me for about five or six weeks I think and it was horrible because I had no idea about who was who,” she said.
“I had people ringing me up in secret tones telling me this was the best story and they were handing it to me because I was the industrial relations reporter at The Age. I had no idea what people’s motives were. I didn’t know how they fitted into things.”
Industrial relations stories have always been a hard sell for reporters.
While Shaun Carney very much enjoyed his time on the round in the 1980s, he described it as “pretty thankless in a lot of ways”.
“You had to fight to get yourself in (the newspaper). You had to explain it and explain it and explain it again to the news desk, who you then hoped would go to bat for you.”
Today a reporter covering industrial relations is expected to magically know the complex relationships between industrial combatants and make the story sexy for a readership that is used to reading a few paragraphs at a time on Facebook.
For the few experienced industrial reporters such as Ewin Hannan and Ben Schneiders, the world is their oyster — their specialisation makes them more employable.
But when the experienced industrial reporters have gone, what will become of a round that requires knowledge, talent and people skills? The options include encouraging young reporters to make industrial relations their own and inviting skilled industrial reporters on niche publications to make a foray into the mainstream.
Very little has been written about the industrial round and its significance to Australian journalism.
In recent years two former industrial reporters, Andrew Casey and Mark Phillips, both onetime ACTU media advisors, have written about the lack of specialist industrial reporting, the potential for inaccurate and incomplete coverage of industrial issues and the implications for an informed democracy.
I would add that there is also a loss to the profession of journalism, as Australian journalists face dramatically changing work conditions due to technology and increasing casualisation.
Many, although certainly not all, industrial reporters have become active in their own union. It is unclear to what extent the industrial round heightens journalists’ awareness of their own role as employees and encourages union activism. There is evidence, however, that industrial reporters’ knowledge is frequently sought by their colleagues in times of industrial unrest or challenge.
I would not suggest, although others have done so at times, that the industrial round is a breeding ground for left-wing activists. Like any round, and like journalism in general, industrial reporting attracts individuals from a variety of political perspectives.
In the past it has certainly attracted some of the best, brightest and most successful journalists. They include those who have gone on to be editors, such as Bruce Guthrie, Michael Stutchbury, Neil Mitchell and Gerard Noonan; those who have authored books, including Pamela Williams, Brad Norington, Shaun Carney and Helen Trinca; and some high-profile columnists, such as Michael Gordon, Andrew Bolt and Susie O’Brien.
To encourage high-calibre industrial reporting, the Walkley Foundation this year introduced a new category for excellence in industrial reporting. As a judge of this new category, I expected to see seasoned industrial reporters enter — and they did — but the surprise was in the diversity of the entrants from print to radio, television and online media, capital city-based and regional, with a range of experience levels.
Perhaps the industrial round is not dead after all.
This article appeared in Issue 89 (August 2017) of the print Walkley Magazine.