scott morrison stands behind a podium facing members of the press
Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses the media (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

In recent years a new genre of commentary has emerged which, for want of a better title, might be called “someone was horrible to a journalist”. It consists of pieces by or about mainstream media figures who are subjected to abuse on social media.

Sometimes the “abuse” is rational criticism that thin-skinned journalists can’t take. But often it is enraged and disgusting; for female journalists, it is frequently misogynist and even threatening, filled with rape and death threats. The pieces lament the abuse and see it as evidence of the generally bad, divisive, fictitious and hyperpartisan nature of social media.

The genre also involves counter-pieces from not-so-mainstream figures critiquing those pieces from journalists, making reasonable points about consumer engagement and suggesting the employees of an industry in its death throes might be a little more receptive to audience suggestions.

Somewhere along the way, centrism will be invoked by journalists falling back on the tired claim that if they’re abused by both sides they must be doing the right job.

(An interesting exception to that rule today is The Australian’s Bloviator-At-Large, Paul Kelly, who admitted, in a column forming part of News Corp’s campaign to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from big tech companies, that his paper was fundamentally biased and claimed that bias was “foundational” to the media.

“This is merely the working rule of established media. Centre-right newspapers back centre-right parties,” Kelly said — thus confirming that The Australian isn’t merely conservative, but actively partisan and working in the interests of the Liberal and National parties — a statement of the obvious, but one that has rarely been acknowledged by News Corp figures.)

For all the flaws of journalists, media critics also tend to politely overlook just how profoundly stupid many people on social media can be.

It’s normal, for instance, for Twitter users to react vehemently to a journalist’s tweet about an article without bothering to read the article (“paywalled!” they complain, if asked if they’ve read it). Combine this with subjects that particularly inflame Twitter users, like any questioning of the sainthood of Daniel Andrews, and it’s a recipe for particularly idiotic exchanges.

And many don’t understand how journalism works — how it is perfectly normal that a politician might text a journalist, or that journalists might know information about politicians that they don’t regard as being appropriate to publish because it’s not in the public interest. Or if it is in the public interest, not meeting the legal standards that media outlets rightly require to avoid falling foul of Australia’s absurd defamation laws.

And it’s certainly true that any journalism that is less than flattering to one party will draw criticism from ardent partisans — even if the same journalist had, the previous day, discomfited the opposite side to the cheers of those now hurling abuse at them.

But one area of persistent criticism of journalists is when they report what a politician has said without providing analysis or assessment, or — as at least half of their social media critics would like — calling it a lie.

From a journalist’s perspective, such criticism is unfathomable — they are merely doing their job of reporting the views expressed by a politician, even if those views have no basis in reality.

But from the consumer’s point of view, this may look like enabling lying, by repeating it without calling it out. The result is frustration that the media is giving a platform to, and thus legitimising, lying — at least, lies from the point of view of a partisan spectator.

This debate came into sharp focus in the US when the media had to cover a congenital liar in the form of Donald Trump. After a time, many outlets, even centrist outlets, took to pointing out constantly that Trump’s statements were false and running whole fact-checking areas to vet his lies in real time.

By the end of his presidency, even Fox News was calling bullshit on the mad king — and joining other networks in cutting off Trump administration media events on the basis that they were making claims that could not be substantiated.

Why, some wondered, would Australian media outlets not do the same when Australian politicians lie?

When it comes to politics, one person’s lie is of course another person’s home truth.

But in the case of Scott Morrison, this is not a hypothetical question. Morrison lies consistently and regularly far more than previous prime ministers, and can objectively be shown to have done so.

From the sports rorts affair, to Australia’s emissions trajectory, to statements about last summer’s bushfires, to calling Sam Dastyari “Shanghai Sam”, to lying about Labor’s costings during the last election campaign and the COVIDSafe app working like “sunscreen” and rejecting responsibility for aged care institutions in Victoria, Morrison has a record of egregious lying not merely about major issues but minor matters.

He’s no Trump, who appears to be incapable of saying something that isn’t either a blatant lie or a wild exaggeration, but the prime minister has a well-established track record of attempting to mislead Australians with his public statements in a way that is significantly at odds even with the normal low standards of our political discourse.

The record of lies is long enough for media consumers to be genuinely concerned that journalists, in merely repeating what Morrison says without analysing it, are party to the misleading of citizens. Media outlets that carry his media conferences run a similar risk. So the question about why our own media outlets aren’t actively considering how to avoid misleading audiences when they cover media conferences, or engage in verbatim reporting, is a real one.

When it comes to social media criticism of the mainstream media, all that glitters is not dross: consumers are right to wonder when the media will exercise some judgement about the extent to which it enables a politician who lies so often.