One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

MediaMarch 4, 2024

Brownlee bars student journalists from parliament press gallery

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Speaker of the house Gerry Brownlee revoked the press pass for the Aotearoa Student Press Association last week, leaving affected journalists baffled as to why. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports.

Student journalists will be missing from parliament’s press gallery for the foreseeable future, owing to a decision by speaker of the house Gerry Brownlee. 

For the past two decades, student journalists under the umbrella of the Aotearoa Student Press Association have had accredited entry to the press gallery – parliament’s office of political journalists – allowing them direct access to government and opposition MPs. 

The Aotearoa Student Press Association (ASPA) represents eight student newspapers from around the country, including Craccum (University of Auckland), Critic Te Ārohi (University of Otago) and Salient (Victoria University of Wellington). 

But on Tuesday last week, the group was informed its parliamentary access had been cancelled.

Salient editor Phoebe Robertson said the decision by the speaker was made after ASPA asked for the name of the journalist holding the ASPA press pass to be updated to that of a new staff member. 

It should have been a “really standard process”, said Robertson, but ultimately resulted in the accreditation being cancelled. 

“We don’t know why they’ve done it, they haven’t given us any information,” she said. “We messaged… about a month ago to change the name on the pass, we hadn’t heard back so we followed up on Tuesday and were told it had been denied by the speaker’s office.”

Robertson said the decision was outrageous. “Salient holds the only press pass on behalf of all the student journals, so the revoking of this press pass has basically cut all of the student media off from parliament,” she told The Spinoff.

“The thing about student media is it has such a different voice and such a different tone from all of the other media that’s going out because we put students at our forefronts. Student media doesn’t mean students are producing the media, it means media produced for students which I think is something people get wrong quite a bit.”

In emails seen by The Spinoff, senior leaders from within the press gallery also appeared confused by the move, telling Salient they were “pushing back” on the decision. “In the meantime, if you’re coming into parliament you’ll have to sign in at reception I’m afraid,” said one.

National minister and leader of the house Chris Bishop confirmed to The Spinoff that he was also seeking information from the speaker’s office about what had happened after being approached by Salient. 

Gerry Brownlee (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

The speaker’s office did not respond to The Spinoff’s request for comment, but Brownlee told NZME that student journalists don’t come to parliament often enough to warrant bypassing security measures by using a swipe card.

He said he was currently working through a review of who had swipe-card access to parliament, and hadn’t said a “blanket no” to ASPA, just that at the moment he wasn’t issuing any access cards.

In an effort to have the decision overturned, all ASPA media outlets, and the presidents of several university student associations, have co-signed an open letter to Brownlee. It has also been backed by Victoria University of Wellington.

In it, the speaker was urged to reconsider his decision to revoke the press pass and provide “formal justification” as to why the decision was made in the first place. “We are deeply troubled by the implications this decision has for all student media,” the letter, seen by The Spinoff, reads.

“The ASPA press pass has been held by Salient (on behalf of ASPA) for almost 20 years, allowing us to cover important political events and have access to government officials. The pass has been an invaluable tool for us as student journalists, providing us with the opportunity to participate in political discussions and decisions that directly affect our generation.”

Brownlee was told that the “lack of reasoning” for the decision was both “concerning and disrespectful” to the student media outlets.

“Revoking this press pass not only undermines Salient as a magazine, but also all student magazines across the country. It is a direct attack on our ability to engage in meaningful journalism and provide students with information that is relevant and accessible to them,” the letter continued. 

“The timing … coincides with the news that Newshub is shutting down, greatly reducing the number of journalists permitted in parliament. This endangers democracy as there will be fewer reporters available to hold politicians accountable.”

The debating chamber at parliament. Photo:

Brownlee was told that he was “silencing” student reporters by denying them entry to parliament and the ability to “fulfil our role as watchdogs of democracy”.

Green MP and leadership hopeful Chlöe Swarbrick is a former student journalist herself, having spent several years at Auckland University’s radio station 95bFM. She told The Spinoff the decision by the speaker concerned her.

“I think we all know in light of the news [last] week that our public media landscape is in quite a challenging time and that means now more than ever independent, ardent and critical voices are… all the more important,” Swarbrick said.

“Do we want a functional and diverse and independent public media? If the answer is yes, we need to ensure we have as much representation… and that requires access to the people in power.” 

Swarbrick said the speaker may have valid concerns around the number of accredited journalists in the gallery, but the correct approach shouldn’t be to simply revoke access to reporters. 

“I think it really calls into light that there is a need for a far more transparent and accountable process for that accreditation,” she said. “Because in lieu of that it’s incredibly opaque and you therefore end up with some concerns… if it’s the speaker of the house and therefore the institution of parliament making those decisions, as opposed to the chair and deputy chair of the press gallery.”

Robertson said the purpose of student media was to fill a gap left empty by mainstream outlets. If this decision wasn’t overturned, important stories impacting young people may be overlooked. “We’re picking up articles that maybe the mainstream news wouldn’t… and we’re also in a really unique position where we cover Christchurch, Dunedin, Auckland, Waikato,” she said. 

“We have a really large breadth of area which means if there are issues going on up north that Salient wouldn’t be covering, a different student organisation would be. It’s not just taking away our access here in Wellington, it’s taking away all of the student media’s access.”

Swarbrick agreed, noting difficulties she faced during the Covid-19 pandemic when she tried to raise concerns around student accommodation. The only “meaningful interest” she received on the subject from the media was from student journalists, she said. 

At the time the open letter was sent, Salient had not received any direct communication from Brownlee. The letter concluded by asking for a “timely response” from his office regarding the press pass.  

Keep going!