Waleed Aly is a left-of-centre kind of guy. A Monash University lecturer in politics, he co-presents The Project on the Ten Network along with The Minefield on ABC Radio National and writes a column for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. By his left-wing associations, you will know him.
Needless to say, Aly is not a supporter of Scott Morrison. All of which makes his assessment of the Prime Minister’s address to the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday of particular interest.
Appearing on The Project on Tuesday, Aly assessed the performance of some of the journalists who asked questions of Morrison. First up, Aly referred to what he perceived to be “almost this consensus across the press gallery that they were just going to go for it”.
Asked what the behaviour of the journalists meant, Aly replied: “I just think that doesn’t happen unless a prime minister is in real trouble. Like I think that maybe this was the day the press gallery called the election and just said, ‘You’re not going to win this, we think you’re gone.’ ”
He added that the same journalists probably thought that as well in 2019 when Morrison led the Coalition to victory.
Aly’s comments reminded me of an article I had written in 1987, in the wake of Bob Hawke’s victory over John Howard in the May 1987 election. Titled The Rat Pack, it was an analysis of the behaviour of the Canberra press gallery – along with some journalists based in Sydney and Melbourne.
I interviewed a number of Australia’s political journalists for the essay. Most were very sensitive to criticism but nearly all gave frank answers. My thesis was that political fashion prevailed and that members of the gallery agreed with each other on most issues.
In late 1987, Hawke was a very popular prime minister and Paul Keating, his treasurer, was something of a hero among journalists reporting Australian national politics. This, I maintained, affected reporting of the 1987 election to the detriment of the Coalition in general and Howard in particular. The journalists to whom I spoke essentially agreed that the gallery consisted of predominantly Labor voters.
One put support for Labor at 70 per cent, another at 80 per cent. An ABC journalist disputed this but could name only one Liberal Party supporter in the gallery.
A quarter of a century later, nothing much has changed – with one important exception. These days support for positions of the green left – embodied in the Greens and the Labor Party’s Socialist Left faction – has increased substantially. This manifests itself in the increasing crossover between the left-wing Guardian Australia and the ABC on various programs on the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.
Not everyone in the gallery is hostile to Morrison but many are. Some disagree strongly with his position on climate change and asylum-seekers, along with his social conservatism on a range of issues. And a few, it should be said, are contemptuous of the fact Australia’s Prime Minister is a Pentecostal Christian.
It is a joke among Coalition politicians that some media events are – in football parlance – something of an “away” rather than a “home” game. Certainly that’s how Morrison described his experience at the National Press Club in an interview with Sky News’ Paul Murray on Wednesday.
For starters, ABC 7.30 political correspondent Laura Tingle should have recused herself from chairing the function. Sure, Tingle is the NPC’s president. However, she is also the author of a recent tweet that accused the Morrison government of engaging in “ideological bastardry”. In short, she has a problem with what lawyers term apprehended bias when it comes to the Prime Minister.
As it turned out, Tingle provided the only occasion of (unintentional) amusement. Tingle took the first question and read out a list of political grievances concerning which she demanded that the Prime Minister “apologise” and “say sorry”.
Morrison’s response, “Well, thanks for the question”, ignited spontaneous laughter in the room, which was anything but stacked with Coalition supporters. This clip was not shown when Tingle reported the event for 7.30. Quelle surprise!
Then there were the “gotcha” questions. Sky News’ Andrew Clennell suggested that the Prime Minister would be “out of touch” if he didn’t know “the price of a loaf of bread”. When no cost was cited, Clennell thought he had scored a point. Clennell himself is apparently so out of touch that he does not know that a loaf of bread at Woolworths can range from around $2 to $7.
The Ten Network’s Peter van Onselen threw the switch to anonymous sources when he cited former NSW Coalition premier Gladys Berejiklian as saying that Morrison was “horrible”. It turned out that this came from a text that was sent two years ago to a person van Onselen will not name.
To be fair, some journalists asked questions directed at important policy issues – including Chris Uhlmann (Nine News), Clare Armstrong (The Daily Telegraph), Mark Riley (Seven Network), Phil Coorey (Australian Financial Review) and Greg Brown (The Australian).
But it was, in Aly’s term, the ones who went for it who received the most coverage. Namely, Tingle, Clennell, Andrew Probyn (ABC), van Onselen, Katharine Murphy (Guardian) and David Crowe (The Age, Sydney Morning Herald).
It should be noted that Tingle, Probyn, van Onselen, Murphy and Crowe got the result of the 2019 election wrong – for which Tingle has not apologised. What’s more, Tingle, Crowe, Murphy and Probyn all asked Anthony Albanese soft questions when he spoke at the NPC on January 25. Probyn’s free kick was “Who is Anthony Albanese?”. Guess what? The Opposition Leader loved the question.
Tuesday was not the Prime Minister’s best day. Yet the Coalition won in 2019 despite not being loved by the journalists who perform at NPC luncheons and get talked about on The Project. What’s more, in time Howard led the Coalition to victory in four elections. Sometimes in the face of media scorn.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.