Mainstream media remains quiet on Scott Morrison's untimely holiday

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While the mainstream media remains quiet on our PM's absence, social media has revealed public criticism over the timing of his holiday, writes Professor John Quiggin.

ONE OF THE STANDARD tropes of current political commentary in recent years has been the adverse effects of social media and the “24-hour news cycle”. It is routinely claimed that the careful analysis and investigative journalism that used to prevail has been replaced by instant reactions to online news.

It’s interesting to see how this has played out in the case of Scott Morrison’s overseas holiday, taken in the middle of one of the worst crisis this country has ever seen. There was no announcement of his departure and his location remains undisclosed. A perfect case, one might think, for the press to prove its worth.

On Monday 16 December, Twitter began lighting up with rumours that Morrison had gone on holiday to Hawaii. While lacking the journalistic skills of the Press Gallery, the Twitterverse was able to establish the basics. It was quickly possible to determine that Michael McCormack had been appointed as acting Prime Minister, a fact that some might consider newsworthy in itself.

A search of the mass media revealed an anodyne story in the paywalled pages of the Australian Financial Review, informing the business community that the PM was on leave. Beyond that, there was nothing. The rest of the Murdoch press ignored the topic completely as did the broadsheets. The issue was covered in alternative outlets such as the New Daily and of course, in Independent Australia, but that was it.

24 hours later, very little had changed. The Australian put up a brief and positive story, which did not even reach the front page of its website, noting that this was Morrison’s first overseas holiday since a visit to Fiji in May and not mentioning any suggestion that such a long break might be inappropriate at a time of national disaster.

It’s not that the mainstream media has a consistent policy of leaving such matters alone. Back in 1974, Gough Whitlam was lambasted for the offence of being overseas when Cyclone Tracy struck and resuming his holidays after returning to visit the disaster area. A closer and more recent parallel is that of Christine Nixon, who copped a torrent of criticism for going out to a pub for dinner during the Victorian bushfire crisis, even though she had no operational rule.

Meanwhile, Twitter exploded with comments, nearly all of them hostile. At one point, four of the top five trending hashtags in Australia (#smoko, #wherethebloodyhellareyou, #morrisonfires and #NotMyPM) referred to the issue, which also dominated #auspol. Given the avidity with which many journalists follow Twitter, it is safe to assume that the entire Press Gallery was aware of the story, but nobody chose to break it.

What is going on here? First, Labor has chosen not to make an issue of it. There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that the boot will be on the other foot some time and MPs have a shared interest in not making trouble about the perks of office. A second is that, like the Government, Labor can’t speak honestly about climate change and therefore can’t say anything useful about the fires. Either way, the absence of a quotable Labor figure means that journalists have to raise the issue themselves, thereby compromising their much-loved “objectivity”.

Secondly, the story has been around Twitter too long. The true problem with the 24-hour news cycle is not that the mass public has an insatiable demand for instant information. It’s that journalists hate being scooped and are therefore reluctant to run a story that has already been published elsewhere. The flipside of this is the eagerness to run “exclusive” leaks, even when the price of this is reproducing the spin desired by the source.

Still, it’s hard to see the mainstream media keeping the lid on this long enough for Morrison to get home and pretend it never happened. Twitter may not be typical of the Australian public but this kind of thing fails the “pub test” beloved by the commentariat. People stumbling to work through choking smoke are unlikely to feel that the PM's work on the bushfire crisis is such as to justify what Josh Frydenberg has called a “well-earned break”.

Indeed, Morrison’s best defence was stated by former fire chief Greg Mullins who declined to criticise his departure, saying that the Federal Government wasn't doing anything anyway, so the PM might as well go on holiday. The same could be said of the Press Gallery.

You can read Professor John Quiggin's blog at johnquiggin.com and follow him on Twitter @johnquiggin.

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