Media Analysis

Morrison’s Robodebt RC grilling: Nothing to see here at 'The Australian'

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We can see everything we need to know about the Murdoch media in The Australian's recent coverage of the Robobdebt RC, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

FORMER PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison’s grilling at the Robodebt Royal Commission should be big news. Morrison was Minister for Human Services when the scandalous and unlawful scheme was rolled out.

His “train-wreck” evidence at the Royal Commission implied he was an innocent bystander who wasn’t in a position to know or discover if his department was doing something accurate, reasonable or legal. He blustered his way through the hearing like a bulldozing gaslighter, giving a master class in evasion.

You would think mainstream political journalists would be all over this dramatic scene, particularly at the national newspapers. The Robodebt scandal extorted money from thousands of vulnerable people. Over 2,000 people who received debt notices died, many from suicide, after being hounded for money they didn’t even owe. The development and implementation of the scheme is a public administration failure on a huge scale. Robodebt is a national shame and the public want accountability.

But, as former Labor Senator Doug Cameron pointed out, at Murdoch’s Australian, you would barely know Morrison appeared at the Robodebt Royal Commission.

I agree with Cameron that The Australian’s lack of interest in the former PM’s appearance at the Royal Commission deserved further scrutiny. I took up his suggestion to compare their treatment of Morrison at the Royal Commission with then Labor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten appearing at former PM Tony Abbott’s politicised union witch-hunt: the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.

The graph below compares the number of newspaper articles (online and printed) in The Australian and major newspapers or news websites in total. The timespan is the three days after Morrison appeared at the Robodebt Royal Commission (15-17 December 2022) and three days of coverage of Shorten’s appearance at the Union Royal Commission (9-11 July 2015).

As the graph shows, Cameron is right that Shorten’s appearance at the Royal Commission received much more media attention than Morrison’s in major newspapers (which are mostly Murdoch-owned) and particularly, in The Australian.

The Australian published only two pieces in the three days preceding Morrison’s appearance at the Robodebt RC, compared to 40 when Shorten took the stand. It’s worth pointing out that Shorten was ultimately cleared of any unlawful conduct and exonerated by the Commissioner.

You would think a former prime minister’s evidence in a scheme that caused the scale of damage of Robodebt might warrant more than a couple of mentions. This is yet another reminder that the Murdoch media continues to be a politicised protection racket for Liberal and National Party politicians.

The two pieces that The Australian published also warrant further comment. One is a fairly stock standard collection of quotes, mostly emphasising Morrison defending himself and his decisions. The last quarter of the piece gives NDIS Minister Bill Shorten an opportunity to comment that the evidence Morrison provided was a “train wreck”.

The second, by Gerard Henderson, could have been written by Morrison himself, or perhaps by Morrison’s public relations consultant, a position Henderson sub-consciously fills. This piece is laughingly titled ‘As a former PM, Morrison should be shown respect’.

Rather than take the opportunity to scrutinise Morrison’s evidence, Henderson criticises ABC’s Patricia Karvelas and The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy for being too hard on poor Morrison in their coverage of his evidence.

He then goes on to say that Morrison has already paid for his part in Robodebt by being voted out. Henderson argues that Commissioner Catherine Holmes and counsel assisting Justin Greggery KC should not be ‘talking down to Morrison’.

In an incredible example of The Australian’s failure to even pretend to hold Morrison to account, Henderson’s key point is that the Robodebt Royal Commission wasn’t even needed and was just Labor’s revenge for the Liberals' Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program.

Henderson writes:

'In short, the Coalition Government admitted its error three years ago. Subsequently, the debts were written off or repaid.'

In Henderson’s mind, that should be the end of it. In Murdoch World, Morrison has done nothing wrong and should not be held to account by an inquiry to determine why an unlawful government program was allowed to wreak havoc on the lives of the most vulnerable Australians, many of whom will never see justice because they are no longer alive.

In this characteristic piece of drivel, Henderson showed what we all know to be true about Murdoch media. They exist to conduct public relations for the Liberal and National parties. Indeed, their key commentators and political journalists seem more interested in bashing media competitors who do quality journalism at the ABC and The Guardian, than holding the former Prime Minister and Human Services Minister to account for the damage done to the Australian public.

When it comes to The Australian’s coverage of Morrison at the Robodebt Royal Commission, we see everything we need to know about Murdoch media. They exist to promote and protect their political friends and are completely uninterested in the public interest, fairness, balance or independence. It is no wonder the Morrison Government thought they could get away with Robodebt. If it was up to their mates in the media, they would have.

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

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