A screenshot from a video that shows Tim Stewart with Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: Supplied)

For close to 18 months the prime minister has done his level best to keep his relationship with a QAnon family friend out of the public domain. Now, courtesy of an ABC decision to halt a Four Corners investigation from airing on Monday night, the news is everywhere. It was even on Seven’s Sunrise this morning.

Crikey has been reporting in detail on the relationship between Scott Morrison’s wife, Jenny, and her best friend Lynelle Stewart, whose husband, Tim, became at one point Australia’s most prominent QAnon adherent, as measured by Twitter followers.

The Morrisons and the Stewarts are long-term family friends going back to when the two couples were married almost 30 years ago, but Morrison is no longer an ordinary suburban bloke and Sharks fan. And Lynelle has been paid by the taxpayer as a government-employed helper for Jenny, working at Kirribilli House. So the relationship is fair game for public scrutiny — although it is one that most of the mainstream media has dodged for close to two years.

The key issue is the potential security threat and what, if any, actions Australia’s security services have taken. On that we have precious little information.

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Stewart family expressed concern

Earlier this year Tim Stewart’s sister, Karen Stewart, told Crikey that the Stewart family was so worried that it had reported its concerns to “the authorities”. The concern was driven by a series of tweets supporting the violent storming of Capitol Hill in January after Donald Trump lost the presidency.

The Stewarts believed Tim had tweeted under the since-deleted Twitter account Spies Like Us (@RealStealthSpy). Crikey also published evidence of Tim and his 22-year-old son, Jesse, in discussion with US QAnon figures during the height of the Trump-induced madness. The 90-minute discussion was via a QAnon online channel, the Patriot Voice, with the Stewarts given special billing as Australian guests under their Twitter names Burn Notice and Negan_HQ, respectively.

Yet despite the family’s evident anxiety about how far Tim Stewart had gone down the rabbit hole, the prime minister’s office had no comment.

Last year parliamentary hearings also confirmed that Lynelle Stewart was employed through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC). Under questioning from ALP Senator Penny Wong, the PMC’s deputy secretary, Stephanie Foster, told the hearing that all appropriate checks were undertaken, “including the relevant police checks”.

Another official said all three staff employed at the prime minister’s Sydney residence had security clearances. Disconcertingly though, the PMC also claimed at the same October 2020 hearings to have no knowledge that Tim Stewart’s Twitter account had been suspended by Twitter or the reasons for it.

Does Tim Stewart wield any influence directly or indirectly on the prime minister? He certainly claimed that he did when it came to Morrison’s 2018 parliamentary apology to survivors of institutional sex abuse. As we reported, Morrison’s speech included a reference to “ritual” sex abuse, when referring to institutional sex abuse. The “ritual” tag was in line with the driving QAnon belief that the world has been overtaken by Satan-worshipping pedophiles.

Again, Morrison’s office refused to answer that question.

The Four Corners investigation has been carrying on for several weeks. The program was reportedly deferred a month ago pending further work. Pressure? What pressure?

The decision at the most senior levels of the ABC to block its planned airing on Monday will raise issues of the broadcaster’s editorial independence and whether it has pre-emptively buckled to head off further anger from the Coalition government, already seething over Four Corners’ coverage of Christian Porter.

The question is pointed because the program was reportedly cleared by the ABC’s legal department and approved by senior editorial executive in charge of investigations, John Lyons. It was halted after the ABC’s head of news declined to give it his backing and referred the story upstairs.

Consider the timing: at the beginning of the week the ABC emerged from a protracted and bitter court action over whether or not Four Corners alleged the former attorney-general was a brutal rapist.

Yesterday senior Liberal figure Michael Kroger savaged the ABC’s chair, Ita Buttrose. She was “a hopeless failure”. Appointing her was a massive mistake. Programs like Four Corners were “political acid in the face of the Liberal Party”. There were people in the cabinet who “regretted” her appointment. She had lost control and should be sacked. Close observers of how power works in Australia will note this was all given a generous run in The Australian.

The Australian also reported that the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, was prepared to apologise personally to Porter for two tweets sent out by Four Corners’ staffers — an abject, cap-in-hand moment for the boss of the independent broadcaster.

The day before that, LNP backbencher George Christensen let rip on the alleged bias of the ABC and called on his colleagues to “strike while the iron was hot” against the broadcaster.

All roads lead to Porter

All these, of course, have one thing in common: conservatives’ anger at Four Corners’ coverage of Porter.

In one interpretation, the ABC dodged a bullet at the beginning of the week when Porter withdrew his defamation action. Porter claimed the ABC had been forced to make humiliating concessions as part of the settlement — in truth the humiliation appeared to be all his.

Yet amid the claim and counterclaim of who “won” there was a sober truth for the ABC. The ABC’s government enemies will never forgive it for the manner in which it pursued Porter.

And then, within days of the settlement, along comes Four Corners again. Reporter Louise Milligan. Again.

At the same time Buttrose finds herself surrounded by fresh government appointments, dropped into the highest reaches of the ABC and privy to its operational secrets. In a press club address she raised her concerns about being excluded from the board selection process which appears to have at least in part favoured mates over merit.

And on Monday Anderson is due to return to Canberra for a further grilling on the ABC’s Porter settlement.