Politics Analysis

Lack of scrutiny helped Morrison scandal go unnoticed

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Revelations about Scott Morrison’s power-grab of five secret ministries raise serious questions about the health of Australian media and in turn, the media’s commitment to contribute to a strong democracy.

The core function of political media is to hold power to account. The fact that former Prime Minister Scott Morrison was able to secretly sign himself in as co-minister in the portfolios of health, finance, resources, treasury and home affairs, in collusion with the Governor-General, speaks volumes of journalists’ unwillingness to scrutinise the powerful.

It is not as if journalists don’t know how to hold politicians to account. They have shown since the scandal broke that they have plenty of ability to dig into the facts of what happened. The public has a right to know how Morrison used his power while in government and journalists seem rabidly determined to find out.

Journalists also showed excellent watchdog instincts when they refused to let Morrison bulldoze over their questions in a fiery press conference which had the former Prime Minister uncharacteristically on the defensive and, many times, floundering to respond.

While I watched the press conference, I couldn’t help but notice that this was a scene I had never seen before. As Prime Minister, Scott Morrison was adept at managing the media and staying in control of his narrative. When we needed the press gallery to be holding Morrison accountable, too often they instead became extensions of his rolling public relations campaign, following him around the country while he did meaningless stunts and publicising his fake “Daggy Dad” persona.

Finally, in this press conference, backbencher Morrison was on the back foot, struggling to defend the indefensible. It was refreshing to see Morrison challenged to explain himself.

But where was this quality media accountability when the country needed it — when Morrison was head of the Government? Journalists have shown us that they do indeed know how to scrutinise Morrison. So why didn’t they do it when he was Prime Minister?

During Scott Morrison’s prime ministerial term, there was nowhere near enough scrutiny of his character, his behaviour and his actions. There was not enough scrutiny of his power. Proper scrutiny means looking past the media narrative produced by Morrison and his gigantic media team and investigating what is going on behind the scenes of government.

This type of journalism requires a deep network of contacts, curiosity and the drive to spend time and effort searching for evidence of wrongdoing and misuse of power. It means journalists have to assume there is something happening that the prime minister doesn’t want them to know about and to bravely prod and probe every crevice of the darkness to find it.

It wasn’t just Morrison and the Governor-General, David Hurley, who knew of the secret ministries. Yet, the secret never leaked to a journalist and the public remained none the wiser until well after Morrison was no longer Prime Minister.

As others have pointed out, there has always been ample evidence that Scott Morrison has problematic character flaws, all of which make the secret ministries not that surprising. Morrison was quite open about the fact he believed God chose him as Prime Minister. His long record of deceit, members of his own party calling him a bully and even the way he “won” preselection in Cook should have sent journalists’ watchdog instincts buzzing.

But, throughout Morrison’s term as Prime Minister, he was so taken for granted as a legitimate leader by the press pack that the dots were never joined. This left an incredibly powerful Prime Minister, who also secretly held five ministerial portfolios, to get away with whatever he wanted.

In fact, two journalists did know about Morrison’s secret ministries. The Australian’s Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers knew but kept it to themselves so they could include it in their book which, conveniently, wasn’t published until after the Election.

It is worth taking a moment to think about how Benson and Chambers found out about the secret ministries because this also speaks volumes about what is broken in the Australian media. Benson and Chambers didn’t do any investigative work to uncover Morrison’s secrets. They weren’t recipients of a leak from within Morrison’s office. The Governor-General didn’t turn whistleblower over the breach of protocol. Quite simply, Benson found out Morrison secretly took the ministries when Morrison told him. And Morrison told him because Morrison is his friend.

The cozy relationship between Liberal and National Party politicians and their “friends” in the media raises serious questions about the willingness of journalists to scrutinise and criticise their mates. When a journalist like Benson, boyfriend to Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie and personal friend of Scott Morrison, is in possession of insider mate-provided information that should be released in the public interest and chooses not to release it, hiding it away until such time he can personally profit from it, it begs the question — what else are Benson and co hiding?

What else do they know about their mates in power, which they’ve chosen – for strategic reasons – to keep from the public?

It goes without saying that journalists should never be friends with a prime minister. This unhealthy situation feels like the tip of a large and dangerous media iceberg. Journalists have shown us they can be watchdogs when they want to be, yet did not have the instincts to scrutinise Morrison when the public needed them to or were so friendly with Morrison, they had the information to scrutinise him and chose not to use it.

The Morrison scandal is also a media scandal. There had to be many broken parts to ensure that not only did Morrison feel safe to act in total secret, but he felt protected that he could do so without the public finding out. When prime ministers assume they can act in secret without consequences, the loser is the public.

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

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