(Image: Private Media)

The following is an extract from Bernard Keane’s new book Lies and Falsehoods: The Morrison Government and the New Culture of Deceit.

Fox News is the most successful outlet in the long history of far-right media in the US, succeeding right-wing radio, which emerged in the 1980s. Previous radical turns by the Republicans had occurred without its support: the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, after all, was two years before Fox News commenced. But there is solid evidence that Fox News drives viewers further to the right.

A 2017 study in the American Economic Review by Gregory J Martin and Ali Yurukoglu examining the impact of Fox News from 2000 to 2008 found a clear link between its viewership and increases in support for Republicans; an earlier University of California, Berkeley study from 2006 by Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan showed a significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in presidential elections between 1996 and 2000.

Fox News had long relied on similar themes and rhetorical techniques to those that would eventually characterise Donald Trump, and which were also prevalent in the UK Brexit debate. Fox has always been unapologetically anti-intellectual and anti-expert. Right-wing pundit Glenn Beck’s phrase “when will we start listening to our own guts, and to common sense?” is a foundational concept for the network, which celebrates the taste and wisdom of ordinary Americans, and their intellectual capacity as well.

In contrast, other claims to wisdom or knowledge — from experts, academics or other forms of elites — are regarded with scepticism or even as an illegitimate bid for power. At the heart of the Fox News perspective on the world is a commitment to its audience — representing the ‘real America’ — against a malignant elite, no matter what facts or evidence the latter can marshal.

In Australia, News Corp’s Sky News — which, amazingly, was even more extreme than Fox News in its coverage of the 2020 US election — continues to expand its reach through regional broadcasting and online distribution, and has provided extensive support for conspiracy theorists and anti-lockdown activists over the course of the pandemic, often echoing the Trump outpourings about the “hoax” and overstated nature of the pandemic.

While Scott Morrison hasn’t come anywhere near Trump’s level of lying, the Australian media did not perform well in challenging his falsehoods and lies in the first two years of his prime ministership. This improved in 2021 as more journalists — including some working for the Coalition-aligned News Corp — have expressed scepticism and even criticism during media conferences, especially on gender issues. As the vaccine rollout fell apart, Morrison’s claims faced greater scrutiny and his tendency to respond to policy problems by delivering PR announcements drew more coverage.

There are, to be fair, some impediments to journalists more actively holding Morrison to account. The standard press conference format is not conducive to challenging lies. That’s because it is a contest between journalists competing for questions, journalists rarely following up other journalists’ questions, and politicians picking and choosing what they answer and when they end it.

And to label the prime minister a liar, for many journalists and editors, is to risk their access to the government. Confidential access to senior ministers and staff is a resource that political parties use judiciously to maximise political benefit, sometimes to the benefit of the party, but often to the benefit of the individual providing it. A journalist who is perceived to have stepped out of line can be punished by not having calls returned, by getting the silent treatment, by falling off media distribution lists, by not getting invited to the kind of events where information is exchanged.

That’s part of the reason why too much of the journalism from the Canberra press gallery is characterised by a bland centrism that refuses to criticise one side without carefully calibrating criticism of the other. Call out one side too much, even if it’s justified, and your access will be revoked. It’s also why so few outlets have been willing to talk openly about Scott Morrison’s regular lying.

However, many parliamentary journalists don’t seem to believe that exposing political lies and deceit is a core part of their job. For them, what the PM says is important because of its political tactics, not because of its truth. When Scott Morrison asserts that Labor doesn’t support another round of extensions to surveillance laws, this is of interest to the mainstream media because it shows Morrison cannily “wedging” Labor on national security by portraying it as “soft on terror”. Not because it’s a blatant lie uttered by the leader of the nation. That is a subject seemingly beyond the remit of political journalists.

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