The mainstream media’s cover-up of corruption and scandal underscores the importance of independent journalism more than ever, writes Paul Begley.
PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison’s somewhat crude rhetoric to Australian voters is that in times of uncertainty it would be foolish to risk adding to the existing uncertainty by changing governments, regardless of the position of the government leadership. and performance under his direction.
This speech includes pardoning the basic quality of his past and present ministers, many of whom are either blatantly incompetent, corrupt, or both.
Two of them, Christian Porter and Alan Tudge, are sidelined without portfolio responsibilities due to behavioral transgressions for which they are otherwise not held accountable. Porter dropped his libel suite dedicated to establishing his unblemished innocence, but the Prime Minister declared him innocent anyway before stripping him of his ministry.
Tudge is still Education Minister in name but is not authorized to speak or be seen publicly until May 22, although he is still expected to occupy his seat one way or another. Senators Richard Colbeck and Linda Reynolds are nowhere to be found because anything they say could be held against them on elder care and Brittany Higgins respectively.
Deputy Minister Tim Wilson showed up at a town hall in glorious Goldstein and yelled at his audience for not realizing he was a very important person. Other ministers decline invitations to appear at town hall meetings and, in doing so, invite mischievous rival candidates to lay their nameplates on empty chairs.
Morrison’s narrative of certainty is to be expected from a government on the ropes and would generally not be accepted at face value. But in the 2022 election campaign, it’s a narrative that obliging mainstream media has widely accepted as a safe default premise that many journalists return to when press conferences are held, interviews are conducted, or copies are archived.
Compounding this unease is the non-airing of media stories that challenge Morrison’s narrative, as well as the amplification of stories that support the idea that an alternative government of any stripe is problematic and that its suitors must be placed under a microscopic torch from which Morrison and his ministers are spared.
The transparency of media partisanship leads some independent commentators to consider the surrender of Australia’s political media to be the main story of the campaign. This view is further compounded by one of the central election issues being the integrity of government, prompted by calls for Morrison to honor his 2019 promise to create a federal anti-corruption commission, a promise which he is naturally reluctant to hold.
Mr Morrison protests that an NSW ICAC model would amount to a kangaroo court kicking out good leaders like popular Gladys Berejiklian. He stubbornly sticks to this view despite the fact that when she learned she was under investigation, the former NSW Premier decided to resign without being forced out of office by anybody.
Morrison’s talking points on the matter are dutifully recited and aired by the media largely without context. It’s not like context is hard to find and might include a point raised in a 2018 Sydney Morning Herald story by legal affairs writer Michaela Whitbourn. She quoted NSW ICAC leader David Ipp QC, who argued that corrupt politicians like Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald would be free men under the soft anti-corruption model proposed by Morrison.
Either reporters from major print and broadcast media are unaware of any context that would challenge Morrison’s premise, or they are instructed by editors and producers to limit their reporting to events that are happening, without editorializing to their subject or look in the mirrors.
They should only act as stenographers reporting what the Prime Minister says, regardless of his documented history here and abroad as a compulsive and serial liar.
The electoral campaign was in unofficial operational mode for many months before the announcement of the date of the elections. During this time, a standard media practice has become established and it is one in which negative stories about Labor are amplified while negative stories about the Morrison government get minimal coverage or are not reported at all.
A recent example of the latter was a bizarre incident in which the Prime Minister responded to a reporter’s question by calling her “Mister President” three times. A small mistake? A major cerebral fainting? A loss of plot or a loss of landmarks? We will never know. It was reported by Yahoo News, the Daily Mail and The Guardianbut for voters relying on mainstream media, that didn’t happen.
The ABC aired the Prime Minister’s response, but took pains to remove the “Mister President” jackets. If that points to a sanity question mark hanging over the man who ostensibly leads the country, voters are left in the dark.
Other examples include failure to report a Four corners is counting on the rampant incompetence and corruption involved in awarding $1.1 billion in contracts to Aspen Medical, an L-NP donor company. Aspen was neither qualified to apply nor able to competently fulfill the terms of the contracts she had signed and for which she was being generously compensated.
Lives have been lost and allegations of corruption linked to the company include large-scale money laundering. The scandalous story aired on the Monday of the third week of the campaign, but was not picked up by any of the main mastheads. As the “Mister President” bloops, he disappeared into a void. This does not happen.
Besides self-censorship, it is about the media uncritically accepting a controversial government premise. Towards the end of the third week of campaigning, another L-NP corporate donor, Lark Distillery, was visited by the Prime Minister who announced that it had received a $4.5 million taxpayer grant for him enable the construction of another distillery.
Lark is a very profitable publicly traded company that produces whisky. The campaign press kit witnessed this announcement and widely reported it as good news demonstrating the Morrison government’s admirable support for business development.
No reporters questioned why the company didn’t raise the money through more common business means, like negotiating a bank loan, or why it deserved to benefit from taxpayer largesse, which would be the way of which such a story would be handled by a media pack trained to exercise the journalist’s basic skills of objectivity and skepticism. With a company like Lark, the unstated narrative obediently accepted by the media seemed to be “if you get a try, you get a try” to the tune of $4.5 million.
It was also perhaps another example of the Prime Minister ‘not being part of the politics of envy’, an excuse he used when L-NP donor Harvey Norman was not asked to repay $22 million in taxpayer work grants, he had been gifted but had not won. Why waste money on the undeserving poor who aren’t fully covered by fire or flood insurance, when it can be used to bolster donor support?
Perhaps the most egregious instance of self-censorship followed the recent revelation by Jordan Shanks on his YouTube channel FriendlyJordies of a leaked report into the Prime Minister’s investigation into the issues surrounding the ‘office wanker’ episode in Parliament’s Prayer Hall, as Channel 10 reported in March 2021.
The PM clearly wanted to bury the incident and was determined to keep the report secret once the investigation was carried out. But someone leaked it to Shanks.
Perhaps an oversimplified explanation for the media silence is that the press kit consists of many young journalists covering the election who have only known a coalition government and are uncomfortable seeing changes that might not work out to their advantage, especially since Morrison’s public relations people have been courting ambitious, starry-eyed young journalists seeking a seat of power.
They receive much sought-after invitations to have a drink with the PM and even a fun night out at a bowling alley, all at taxpayer expense.
In the end, what is known is that the mainstream media have abdicated their role of holding government to account. It is also known that as confidence in the Fourth Estate to perform its role as a messenger of good faith is further diminished, confidence in Australia’s traditional institutions suffers another blow.
In the meantime, the use of independent media and social media as reliable sources of information is increasing. The concomitant abandonment of the main parties by voters in favor of independent candidates with strong traditional credentials may ironically be the result of the same media that unsuccessfully tries to discredit them.
As it is, the mainstream media will continue to buttress the Morrison re-election narrative that supports a strategy that can be roughly summed up in these few words: the certainty of a Morrison government that has been patently indifferent , incompetent and corrupt for the last three years, is better than the uncertainty of his alternative.
Whether that narrative will prevail on May 21 remains to be seen.
Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, most recently as Managing Director of Government and Media Relations at the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.
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