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'Here's to another 150' - Jessica Mutch McKay on the Parliamentary Press Gallery anniversary

Opinion: The Press Gallery has been going for 150 years and this weekend we’re celebrating that anniversary. In the spirit of accuracy it’s actually 151 years. We had to delay the event because of Covid.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Press Gallery with Speaker Trevor Mallard - 2020. Source: Supplied

The Press Gallery is a place, an entity and a lifestyle. Being a Press Gallery reporter is something to be proud of. It comes with history and tradition. It is a group of offices side-by-side representing the main media players. The gallery has its own energy and rhythm and you can feel when big things are going on here.

It can fill journalists with excitement and press secretaries (the people who work for MPs) with dread. Over the years the Press Gallery Offices have been in different spots around the precinct. Right now we’re in Parliament building and TVNZ is positioned between Stuff and Newshub and across the corridor from Newsroom.

New Zealand's Parliament buildings. Source: istock.com

There was a time when press secretaries would drop off press releases rather than email them, so there was a strategic advantage being closer to the entrance of the Press Gallery. You got a two minute head start on opponents. Even now you know if an MP has been kicked out of the debating chamber because a journalist will be running down the corridor towards the House.

I describe this place as being like a church. There are a lot of unwritten rules about how things work, where you can stand and what you can do.

Jessica Mutch McKay Source: 1 NEWS

My first day in the Press Gallery was at the beginning of 2006. I remember my editor Barry Soper coming to meet me the front entrance and I remember feeling so lucky that I was going to work in this beautiful building. I was also a little star struck. I still feel privileged to work here. I moved to TVNZ in 2008 and was in an office with Guyon Espiner (who is now doing investigations with RNZ), Francesca Mold (who is now working for the UN) and Kris Faafoi (who is now a Minister).

I got to learn up close from the best in the business. When I started it was male-dominated but now the pendulum has swung the other way. There are women political editors at The Herald, RNZ, Newshub, Newsroom and TVNZ. There is always competition to get into the Press Gallery because you are guaranteed to be at the centre of the big stories.

We also take that Press Gallery mentality on the road with us. In what seems now like a distant memory in the Covid era, some of my best work memories (and stories) have been from overseas trips. You work hard in the gallery but the pay off is getting to go on several overseas trips each year with the Prime Minister of the day. One reporter from each office gets to travel on the Defence Force 757 with the Prime Minister and business leaders. It’s also exciting relocating to Auckland for the election campaigns and being on the road with the leaders through the ups and downs.

This year in the Press Gallery has been unique. I did start to get heart palpitations when I got after hours calls from Andrew Campbell, the Prime Minister’s Chief Press Secretary, knowing his call was probably bringing more bad news about another lockdown.

I was in Auckland for our poll coverage when Auckland went into lockdown the second time. It was my first night away from my baby so I’d settled into the hotel for an early night, taken off my make-up and had enjoyed some Uber Eats. Andrew Campbell called about 8.30pm with news of a 9pm press conference. I rushed back into work to help with the live coverage with 1 NEWS Tonight presenter Jenny Suo. We ended up talking to each other for 10 minutes live on air waiting for the Prime Minister to arrive and speak.

Other calls came as I was leaving Te Papa on a Sunday with my daughter and another when I pulled up to a restaurant on a Saturday night. I rushed in – all glammed up for a nice dinner out and instead was reporting live from Parliament.

Jessica Mutch McKay during the 2020 election. Source: 1 NEWS

This place becomes the central hub for big stories. When it is really big the Prime Minister will return to Wellington to get the latest information from officials.

A lot has changed in the years I have been here but the purpose has stayed the same – holding those in power to account. Here’s to another 150 years.