Within hours of the Christchurch shootings of 15 March, Waleed Aly delivered a monologue to camera on Ten’s The Project. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he began. “These won’t be my best words.” But he proceeded to evoke the setting of the massacre with his characteristic fluency: the quietness of a mosque at Friday prayers, the utter defencelessness of those present.
Although he was clearly upset, Aly remained pitch-perfect throughout the four-minute statement. As media “moments” go, this was right up there, and it almost immediately went viral. The clip attracted more than twelve million viewers worldwide and drew responses from two prime ministers. Jacinda Ardern contacted Aly to thank him and invite him to New Zealand. Scott Morrison’s office rang the program’s producers, cancelled a scheduled appearance, and threatened to sue.
Disasters do show what political leaders are made of. Living in Toowoomba at the time of the Queensland floods, I was deeply impressed by the role Anna Bligh played. There’s no faking a capacity to connect with the realities of a traumatic event.
Over the following days, Morrison and Ardern underwent trials by media in which The Project seized the opportunity to serve as an arbiter. Morrison was concerned to be seen doing the right things. He contacted Ardern to offer support, made appropriate statements, visited mosques and spoke of the need to “come together.” But he was also rankled by the damage to his reputation from Aly’s reference to a 2010 meeting of the shadow cabinet in which, as originally reported by Lenore Taylor in the Sydney Morning Herald, he had urged his colleagues to capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiment.
Last Wednesday, as Aly flew off to New Zealand for his meeting with Ardern, Morrison gave an interview with ABC News Breakfast in which he called the allegation “a disgraceful smear and an appalling lie.” That night on The Project, Aly’s co-presenter Hamish Macdonald responded with a terse address to camera in which he asserted that Taylor stood by her original report, and so did her sources.
With the manner and tone of an attorney summing up the case for the prosecution, Macdonald reissued the invitation to Morrison to come in and “have that conversation that is so desperately needed.” “If anything paints a clearer picture of the state of Australian politics today, it is this,” he concluded. “After Waleed made that genuine, thoughtful and reasoned contribution on Friday night, a plea for our community to come together, the prime minister of our country threatened to sue. In contrast, New Zealand’s prime minister invited Waleed to her country to sit down for an interview.”
Clearly, the program was seeking to make the most of its canter on the moral high ground. Up in the prime minister’s office, the penny seems to have dropped: The Project had made an offer he couldn’t refuse.
On the night, Morrison was in a sense set up. The studio was arranged for conversational ambience, with two easy chairs and a coffee table. Wearing a light jacket and no tie, he sat back with his legs crossed, prepared for a frank personal dialogue. He might have taken it as an early warning sign that Aly appeared in a dark suit and tie and sat sternly upright.
Morrison had come prepared for a conversation in a spirit of building bridges. Aly had an entirely different agenda: he was set on conducting an interview, and in an adversarial mood. If The Project were being disingenuous in apparently offering the prime minister an occasion to present himself as an honest-to-goodness guy with a big heart, it’s also true that Morrison was naive, and self-indulgently so, to think it was going to go like that.
Aly deliberately put Morrison off-guard with an opening invitation to “set the agenda.” “What do you want to say?” he asked. Morrison attempted to strike a personal note. “You’ve just got back from New Zealand,” he said, “and have a sense of what it’s like on the ground there… These events are tectonic.” He seemed sincere and serious as he talked about the need for communities to get together, “to keep hugging each other.”
But there was to be no empathy in the studio. Aly shifted to another register. “The community that has been framed for eighteen years in the public imagination as a perpetrator suddenly became the victim… Does Australia have an Islamophobia problem?” Morrison seemed to be doing his best to maintain the sincerity and the straight-talking as he acknowledged that all communities could be susceptible to forms of extremism. But Aly was making the case for the prosecution: “Does the Coalition have a problem with Islamophobia?”
From there he proceeded to an inquisition about the 2010 meeting and an interrogation of the Coalition’s intentions about preferencing One Nation. In the face of this, Morrison’s feel-good statements about “learning to disagree better” cut no ice.
Already, the twittersphere was lighting up and — from Morrison’s point of view — not in a good way. A poll conducted by Peter FitzSimons on which of the two emerged with most credibility clocked up some 15,000 votes, with 86 per cent in Aly’s favour. Images of train wrecks came through by the dozen. People made quips along the lines of “Oh look, a man with dignity, intelligence and gravitas… and the prime minister of Australia.”
Responses from the professional commentators were also predominantly negative. In the Guardian, Katharine Murphy pointed to how Morrison’s anxiety about being prejudged led him deeper into the quagmire. Fairfax’s Jack Waterford, observing the prime minister’s “ever-diminishing credibility,” referred to the cynical commentary on his body language on Twitter. Stills from the video began to circulate, showing a succession of awkward postures and expressions.
Aly’s conversation with Jacinda Ardern, which concluded Monday night’s episode of The Project, could not have been more different. Ardern didn’t talk about hugs; she asked for one, as soon as she entered the room. She thanked Aly for his statement. His burning question was “How are you?” She was nodding as he came out with it. It was what everyone asked.
Here, and in all her responses, Ardern had a way of talking about her own reactions and challenges as part of a larger situation, as if she herself were just one of the channels through which the trauma must flow. Where Morrison’s smiles came across as unconvincing attempts to show warmth, Ardern’s communicated stoic determination to be reassuring in the face of crippling human grief. The interview lasted only a few minutes, but it was enough to convey that Ardern is a leader of stature and substance, one who needs no PR machine and seems to have barely given a thought to the matter of her own public image.
The Murdoch era has taught us that it is not a good thing for powerful media figures to have the upper hand over our elected parliamentary representatives. Here Aly was in a very powerful position. He had recorded his conversation with Ardern the day before his interview with Morrison, and could manage the dialogue so that the display of her strengths would accentuate Morrison’s shortcomings. For the meeting with Ardern he was dressed informally, and his behaviour was spontaneous and warm. His expressions of personal concern, his obvious liking for her, encouraged a trusting candour on her part. Morrison may have arrived in the studio expecting at least an element of that trustful spontaneity, but the mode of questioning placed him constantly on the defensive.
That’s not to say Aly was doing anything unethical in playing up the antithesis, but we should be aware of these things before chalking up the public scorecard. The contrast between Morrison and Ardern that emerged from the two encounters is real and very revealing, not just about them as individuals but also about the political cultures of the two nations they represent. But this is also politics as television theatre — staged and stage-managed to achieve a determined effect. •