Politics Opinion

A tale of two stories: Tame attacked while Colbeck off 'Scott-free'

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Richard Colbeck and Grace Tame's reception by the media couldn't be more different (image by Dan Jensen)

The constant attacks on Grace Tame and the indifferent shrug towards Minister Richard Colbeck's disgraceful conduct highlight media bias in this country, writes Paul Begley.

ON THE DAY before "Australia Day", two stories occupied some space and time in the Australian media.

One was about the Minister for Aged Care in the Morrison Government, Senator Richard Colbeck. Along with other interested parties, he was invited by the Committee chair, Senator Katy Gallagher, to attend the bipartisan Senate COVID Committee hearing on 14 January.

Senator Colbeck surely has bad memories of his experiences appearing before Senate oversight committees because they tend to want to know what is happening in his portfolio area and be furnished with facts that demonstrate the Government is doing its job in the national interest.

In August 2020, he was unable to give the Senate an estimate of the number of people in aged care who had died from COVID-19 and in May 2021 was unable to enlighten the Senate Committee on how many aged care workers had been vaccinated.

He was embarrassed by both episodes but retained the confidence of the Prime Minister and kept his job.

The situation with the outbreak of Omicron in the new year meant that oversight mattered, particularly in the area of aged care. By Australia Day, there were over one thousand active cases in aged care, approximately thousands of residents and staff were infected and many aged care facilities had no booster shots.

In addition, more than 200 residents had died in aged care during the month of January.

It’s fair to say that Senator Colbeck would not have relished the prospect of another grilling by the Senate Committee, especially if he had no credible answers to questions they were likely to ask.

He wrote to the Committee on 7 January saying he could not attend on the days requested because he was too busy with Omicron-related matters and attendance at the committee would result in "a diversion of resources” at a critical time.

He was supported in that approach by Deputy Secretary Stephanie Foster who gave the same reason for Prime Minister’s staff not being able to attend and the Acting Health Department Secretary Penny Shakespeare gave the same explanation.

In summary, everyone was "busy" so much so that there would be no appearances at the Senate hearing by Aged Care, Health Department or PMO senior staff, or relevant ministers.

However, his staff were not so frantic as to prevent them from keeping his register of pecuniary interests updated, and dutifully listed 'sponsored travel and hospitality' , referencing his attendance at the Hobart Ashes test, from 14-16 January, among his entries.

As a Senate no-show, he was sprung and most media outlets reported the story with an amused shrug. Here was the Aged Care Minister once again showing disdain for his portfolio and the lives of Australians for whom he was responsible.

But that’s what Minister Colbeck does and it’s somehow okay.  He’s done it before and nothing happened.

On the same day, media reported a morning tea at the Lodge in Canberra to meet the nominees for the 2022 Australian of the Year.

It was hosted by the Prime Minister and attended by numerous invitees including 2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame and her fiancé. Ms Tame would have regarded the event with some dread, because she had bad experiences with the host of the event, Scott Morrison, a man she found untrustworthy and who had given grief to a close friend, Brittany Higgins.

He had fudged an undertaking to investigate Ms Higgins' allegation of having been raped by a colleague down the corridor from his office in 2019. And both Tame and Higgins spoke at a March for Justice women’s event protesting rape, when the Prime Minister suggested that the thousands of women at the event were lucky not to be “met with bullets”.

Not surprisingly, Grace Tame had come to loath the man but she felt obliged to show up at the morning tea. She was well dressed, arrived on time and performed all her duties as set out in the schedule. She even shook his hand when he shouted at her to come over and do so.

But she committed a major offence: she did not fake a smile for him.

The same media that reported Senator Colbeck’s no-show to a Senate hearing with a shrug went into spasms of outrage about Tame withholding her smile when meeting the Prime Minister.

The mainstream media gave it significant coverage for three days, much of which ran with the angle that Ms Tame was childish and rude for not smiling during a photoshoot with the PM and his wife.

Columnists in the Murdoch media were given column inches, pulling in its "big hitters" to defend the Prime Minister’s hurt feelings and the rest of the mainstream media followed suit.

The striking contrast in media coverage of the two stories was a stark reminder of where the Australian media is at. Prime Minister Morrison is a well-known admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump and has adopted many of his political approaches during his time in Government.

One area in which he has not emulated Trump, however, has been in his undermining of mainstream media outlets. Morrison has not made any attempt to demonise the mainstream Australian media and there is a simple reason for that.

Whereas the media in the U.S. is somewhat diverse, in Australia it is dominated by News Corp's capital city tabloids, The Australian broadsheet and Sky News Australia, which dutifully recite Mr Morrison’s narratives. They tend increasingly to establish a default agenda that the remaining Australian media dutifully follow with few exceptions.

Nine Entertainment and the 7 Network fit that model and ABC News increasingly follows suit. Outlets like The Guardian, The New Daily and titles in the Schwartz stable are overwhelmed by the power of Murdoch, Nine, Seven and a cowed ABC.

Why would the Prime Minister undermine a mainstream media that operates overwhelmingly in his favour and which he increasingly controls?

Social media is more of an issue for him. Unlike the mainstream media, he cannot control social media users by extending access and favours or by generating threats and fear.

Many social media users simply refuse to recite the alternative reality projected by the Prime Minister’s fictional "ScoMo" persona, that of an ordinary knockabout fella from the suburbs who cooks curries. When Morrison, a snooty inner-city rugby union boy, becomes ScoMo a lifetime supporter of the Cronulla Sharks, a lowly rugby league club, the bullshit detector should be signalling high alert among sceptical journalists.

But instead, he continues to be projected by them as an authentic ordinary suburban bloke. 

What the mainstream media see is what we get. It’s hard to see them as other than conned, with few exceptions. For most of the rest, they have been sold a bridge by a proficient conman and are happy customers.  

On social media, however, the persona of ScoMo is regarded with much suspicion and scepticism. The platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on –  are predictably condemned by  Morrison as ungodly and evil, and he adopts the premise that legislation is needed to curb their malice in the national interest, an assumption meekly but largely accepted in mainstream media circles.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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