Morrison’s “stop asking questions from the Labor Party” diktat to the ABC has taken Australia one step closer to a political discourse dominated by Trumpian semiotics of “fake news” and “enemies of the people”.
Like Trump, Morrison’s aim was to undermine the media — and particularly the ABC — in the minds of that mythical creature, the Liberal Party base, and help out News Corp on the way through.
It came in the same week that Trump ramped-up his own war on journalists: revoking White House clearance from CNN’s Jim Acosta, dismissing another reporter’s “stupid questions” and calling a third a “loser”.
For a journalist, Morrison’s insult is greater. Trump’s name-calling is straight out of the primary school playground; Morrison’s crack goes to the heart of personal and craft integrity.
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When Trump talks about the fake news media, he’s not talking about all media. He’s talking about the media that are the commercial competitors of his pal and reported confidante, Rupert Murdoch: CNN, MSNBC and, his personal bête noire, “the failing New York Times”. Similarly, in Australia, the focus of Morrison (and the Liberal Party in general) is on the ABC, in part, because the ABC’s trust rating — including among Liberal voters — makes it difficult for conservatives to create the siloed media that Fox gifts the US right-wing.
The ABC remains, for the Liberals, “our enemies talking to our friends”. The long-term Liberal strategy is to chip, chip, chip away to convince their friends of the ABC’s profound and enduring enmity.
At the same time, the attacks are pay-back for News Corp. The constraints of today’s media business is that while content is infinite, our attention is limited. That makes a freely available, publicly funded ABC a real threat to an advertising and subscription funded private media. In Australia, read “News Corp”.
Still, it was no doubt a coincidence that Morrison’s attack on the ABC came the same week that former PM Malcolm Turnbull confirmed (on the ABC as it happened) the earlier reports of the Murdoch family connection to his dumping.
And in a far-off echo, a photo emerged on Twitter around the same time of Rupert dropping by the office of US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday in an otherwise largely deserted Senate. The next morning, the Wall Street Journal published a damaging report on Trump’s involvement in hush payments. (Another coincidence worth watching!)
The “journalist as enemy of the people” trope is perhaps the most institutionally damaging part of Trumpian semiotics adopted by Morrison. But it’s not the only one.
He seems to be aiming for the Trump look, too. There’s the now-ubiquitous base-ball cap, with Australian branding substituting “Make America Great Again”. There’s the single thumbs-up to say “we’re in this together” to go along with the trademark Trump two handed thumbs-up.
The social media of choice — multi-platform video snippets — similarly taunt with a “laugh-at-me or laugh-with-me, but notice me” Trump sensibility.
His prime ministerial speech patterns reflect both the Trumpian blather of his opening press statement (“a fair go for those who have a go”) interspersed with the cut-through insults: “Bill Shorten is union bred, union fed, union led.” Morrison’s insults do have somewhat more political content than the personalised “Lyin Ted”, and “Little Marco” that Trump pulled out during the 2016 election.
Policy commitments tend to be the same vague generalities (“we’re gonna fix this”) and he uses the same thought bubble technique (Jerusalem, anyone?) to focus the debate on him, for good or ill.
Meanwhile, Trump has shown he’s willing to learn from Australia, as he famously suggested in his “you’re worse than I am” compliment to Turnbull. The “migrant caravan” that dominated right-wing discourse in the lead-up to the US mid-terms would have chimed in Australian minds with the familiar sound: Tampa, Manus, Nauru.