From his temporary base in New York City, Malcolm Turnbull appears not to have accepted the legitimacy of the process by which Scott Morrison replaced him as prime minister on August 24. This is understandable. Defeat in political office invariably results in grief, accompanied on occasions by anger and denial.
Andrew Probyn, the ABC’s political editor, reported on Tuesday that Turnbull said everyone knew what was happening in the lead-up to the leadership change but “no one” wanted it. This is simply incorrect. The 45 Liberal Party members and senators (out of 85) who voted to spill the leadership wished to change the prime ministership. And they did.
What’s different about this leadership change is that some prominent journalists have embraced the former prime minister’s denial, most notably Probyn, who has used the considerable facilities of the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster to query the correctness of the Liberal Party’s decision to replace Turnbull with Morrison.
On Tuesday morning, The Australian Financial Review’s Rear Window column reported that Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp (the publisher of this newspaper), had spoken to Seven West Media proprietor Kerry Stokes in the lead-up to the Liberal Party meeting about the leadership. The story did not appear to be sourced from Murdoch or Stokes.
On Tuesday evening, Probyn fronted ABC television news with a more upbeat story, enhanced by graphics and what Darren Davidson described in The Australian as “mocked-up text messages”. This time the allegation was that Murdoch and Stokes both undermined Turnbull through the outlets of News Corp (The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, Sky News) and Seven West (the Seven Network, The West Australian).
Probyn also filed a 2000-word article on the ABC website headlined with the leading question: “What did Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes have to do with the Liberal leadership spill?” His answer was: plenty.
Probyn referred to a discussion between Turnbull and Stokes before the leadership change. In this conversation, Turnbull is quoted as having told Stokes that there was a campaign against him led by The Australian and The Daily Telegraph, egged on by Alan Jones and Ray Hadley on 2GB (owned by Fairfax Media) and Sky News programs such as Credlin, Jones & Co, The Bolt Report and Paul Murray Live.
Mark Kenny, Fairfax Media’s national affairs editor, ran a similar line on the eve of the leadership change. He told the viewers of ABC TV’s Insiders on August 19: “It’s pretty clear that News Corp has made its decision about this prime minister and is part of a general destabilisation that’s going on.” He added that News Corp was “being used” by Turnbull’s opponents.
The problem was that Kenny did not provide any evidence to support his view before the leadership change, and Turnbull has not done so after his defeat.
It’s true that News Corp journalists and presenters include Turnbull critics such as Andrew Bolt, Tim Blair, Peta Credlin, Jones and Murray. But it’s also true that some of Turnbull’s strongest supporters were in the News Corp team: namely Miranda Devine, Niki Savva and Peter van Onselen. The Australian did not editorialise in support of a leadership change and its influential editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, was not in the Turnbull-must-go movement.
Sharri Markson, The Daily Telegraph’s national political editor, was criticised by some for fomenting a leadership challenge by Peter Dutton. However, all she did was to break an important news story. That’s good journalism, not part of a News Corp conspiracy.
Probyn also has accused Stokes of supporting Morrison to replace Turnbull and of using his influence on The West Australian to this effect. The ABC’s political editor has no evidence to support his claim and Stokes has emphatically denied it.
The refutations do not end there. Stokes has said that he has never received a text from Murdoch on any matter. So, what about the purported text that ABC TV aired on Tuesday? Well, it seems Probyn and his colleagues just got this wrong. That’s one of the problems with re-enactments of events that are contested.
It is not as if anyone is lying on this occasion. It’s just that some journalists have a habit of believing what people tell them because they want to or because it makes for a good story. The ABC has told The Australian the alleged comments by Murdoch to Stokes that Turnbull had to go were relayed to the broadcaster by Turnbull. In short, it’s hearsay — in that Turnbull told Probyn what Stokes allegedly told Turnbull about what Murdoch allegedly said.
Some people have bad memories. Others interpret conversations in different ways. Others make unintentional mistakes. In any event, it’s poor journalism to accept any person’s report of a conversation without considerable checking. Yet Probyn’s report was embraced on Twitter by the Nine Network’s Chris Uhlmann, Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy, The Australian Financial Review’s Phil Coorey and ABC TV Media Watch presenter Paul Barry.
On ABC Radio Melbourne on Wednesday, Jon Faine made the following assertion: “Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes, two of the nation’s billionaire media proprietors, were exchanging detailed information, texts and messages with each other about the need for Turnbull to be removed — and then directed their various media outlets accordingly. We’ve got Scott Morrison as Prime Minister because Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes decided.” Faine’s evidence? Zip.
Many journalists have little or no experience of how politics really works. The idea that politicians — Coalition or Labor — would remove a prime minister because a Murdoch or a Stokes told them to do so is completely naive. Like most of us, politicians are driven, in part at least, by self-interest.
Turnbull lost the prime ministership because a majority of Liberal parliamentarians formed the view that they, their party and their nation would be better served by someone else. It’s understandable why Turnbull in New York might come to believe that no one wanted him removed. However, the likes of Probyn should understand the reality.