Don’t answer questions, attack the media’s integrity and divert attack towards others: this is the Trump playbook. And, since Scott Morrison has come back from his US tour full of Trump talking points on China, climate and national sovereignty, it’s something to be increasingly wary of.
Here’s Australia thrust into Trump’s reality politics; adapting to Trumpian media practices, with US policies pushing their way into our own world. This apparent shift forces the Australian media to follow their US colleagues in asking: how do we deal with this?
Morrison has long echoed Trumpian semiotics — the two-thumbs up, the jaw-jutting certainty to reinforce declaratory statements etc. For journalists it’s been too easy to put it all in Morrison’s bag of suburban dad schtick.
Now the apprentice has learned a few more tricks. Journalists are struggling to adapt Morrison’s developing repertoire of deflections. He’s referencing “the Canberra bubble”, he’s brought back “gossip”, shot down questions deemed “not helpful” and employed the outright “not going to answer that”.
He’s flirting with “fake news!” using a distinction without a difference. Reporting on Australian climate change inaction wasn’t just fake news, it was “completely false and completely misleading”. In his extensive interview with Sky’s David Speers, he again criticised the media for its use of sources to report on Hillsong leader Brian Houston’s possible invitation to the White House.
Earlier this year, while in the UK, he welcomed the AFP media raids with a smug sub-textual: “it never troubles me that our laws are being upheld”.
But it’s been the intrusion of nationalist ideology into Australian policy-making with Morrison’s speech to the Lowy Institute that has set off alarm bells in the media. The PM’s “negative globalism” and “ill-defined, borderless global community” was too close to Trump’s “the future belongs to patriots, not globalists”, and too distant from the bi-partisan multilateralism that has been constant in the Australian foreign policy establishment.
Unlike Trump, Morrison seems to have taken to heart the advice quoted by US philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his work On Bullshit: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through”. For Australian journalists, fact-checking bullshit is a lot harder than checking the sort of outright lies that US journalists have to face because, as Frankfurt writes, “although it is produced without concern for the truth, it need not be false”.
Australian journalists also struggle far more than their US counterparts with calling out the racism and sexism intrinsic to the right-wing populist project. When Trump told a group of members of Congress back in July to “go back [to] the totally broken and crime-infested places they came from”, some corners of the media called it as they saw it. The reluctance to call out racism in Australian discourse (and media) partly reflects Australia’s defamation laws, partly the overwhelming whiteness of Australian media, and partly the plausible deniability with which the Australian right talk about race.
Morrison also has the advantage of the elephant in the newsroom. The big takeaway in the age of Trump is that News Corp has just about stopped pretending that it’s a normal news organisation, as The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote earlier this year. And, by and large, the rest of the media has stopped treating it as one.
That recognition has come slowly to Australia’s smaller media world, where News Corp carries more relative weight, particularly in regions where it has a commercial news monopoly. That weight means its takes on news are often followed up by other media and its representatives are welcomed on ABC panels for the “balance” they bring.
It’s not an unalloyed benefit. As with Fox and the Republicans (and as Malcolm Turnbull found just 12 months ago), it can be hard to tell whether it’s the government or the right-wing media calling the shots.
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