Inside Story

Muting the messenger

The media is entering challenging new territory. Let’s hope the reporters don’t get in the way of the story

Margaret Simons 12 March 2021 1244 words

Uncertain boundaries: attorney-general Christian Porter arriving for his press conference last week. Richard Wainwright/AAP Image

The past year has been a great time to see journalists performing — and I don’t mean that only in a complimentary sense.

In Victoria, we had the Daily Dan — premier Dan Andrews’s marathon 120 days of answer-all-questions media conferences, some of them lasting more than two hours. No matter how aggressively journalists asked their questions, Andrews never lost control. Their aim was to rattle the premier’s cage and provoke a grab for the television news, but they were mostly props in the Dan Andrews show. His power was undisturbed.

Meanwhile in Canberra, prime minister Scott Morrison stuck to normal methods of media management, holding his press conferences in front of an open door so he could leave at a moment of his choosing. He wasn’t held to account either — among other things, for the failures in aged care that led to so many Covid-19 deaths.

If you care about the role of a free media in a democracy, it was all very dispiriting.

But then something else started going on. Since November last year, when Four Corners’s “Inside the Canberra Bubble” went to air, we’ve seen a different kind of journalistic work being done. It is uncertain and uncomfortable because it is part of a paradigm shift in society and in journalistic practice.

We can see the change in the difference between the treatment of rape allegations against attorney-general Christian Porter and the coverage of allegations against Labor leader Bill Shorten a decade ago. The two cases aren’t directly comparable, of course: Shorten was being investigated by police at the time, and most of the media let that process play out. The police decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

If those allegations were made today, journalists would undoubtedly call for Shorten to stand aside until the investigation was complete. Porter faces no such investigation, which is one reason why the media won’t let it go.

We are watching a new field of journalism opening up within the media’s traditional endeavour of exploring alleged abuse of power. Almost everything about it is uncomfortable and unpredictable, with complicated and uncertain ethical boundaries. These dilemmas are being worked out through practice, and in interactions largely out of the public eye.

Meanwhile, an examination of recent journalistic history tells us a lot about the challenges of journalism — in particular, the impact of defamation law on what the public gets to hear and the responses politicians get away with. With this in mind, we can see the hole in the middle of last November’s Four Corners report. Louise Milligan knew about the rape allegations against Christian Porter but was unable to air them for legal reasons.

As a result, the program felt thin. It revealed a consensual affair involving human services minister Alan Tudge and staffer Rachelle Miller. Porter was accused of a longstanding pattern of misogynistic behaviour, and of having canoodled with a young female staffer in a public bar. These seemed like slim pickings, and prime minister Scott Morrison responded by suggesting that the Australian public understood “human failings.”

With the benefit of hindsight, that program takes on new meaning. Milligan referred to women who appear to have been unwilling to speak publicly. She referred to Porter’s time as a part-time lecturer at the University of Western Australia, with former students describing “incidents of inappropriate behaviour” including “sexualised comments about female students and a gratuitous focus on violent and sexually graphic material in the legal cases he taught.”

And then there was the strange, almost strangled, exchange with senator Sarah Hanson-Young about her dealings with a “pretty distressed young woman” who was talking about Christian Porter. “She told me that she’d found herself in somewhat of a relationship,” said Hanson-Young. “And that, clearly, [she] had found herself in a position that, at some point, she didn’t want to be there. I’m not going to speculate why or how… [S]he started crying. And it was quite clear to me that there was a lot more going on than she felt she could say.”

Last Monday, Australia’s political class was waiting for Four Corners’s follow-up episode. Did Milligan have new material on Porter that would change the government’s political calculations?

She did not. Rather, the program gave a detailed account of the allegations already on the public record, together with commentary and the testimony from friends of Porter’s accuser, “Kate.” The only new revelation — vigorously promoted by the ABC throughout Monday — was that Kate had detailed her allegations to a sexual assault counsellor eight years ago.

What is significant here is that this point was mainly aimed at other journalists — specifically Crikey’s David Hardaker, Sky News’s Andrew Bolt and others who were suggesting Kate’s allegations were unreliable because they were based on memories “recovered” through repressed-memory counselling in 2019. The new Four Corners material made it clear that was unlikely to be true.

Here we have one of the most dispiriting aspects of contemporary journalism: media outlets defining themselves in opposition to each other, and their political positions seemingly determining which “facts” they credit and report.

This is happening on all sides. Ever since breaking the story about Kate’s allegations, Milligan has used her social media to promote and advocate for her story. She has amplified lawyers’ calls for an inquiry and defended herself against allegations from News Corp papers. And so, even as the attorney-general faces such grave allegations, even as the government is weakened by two of its ministers being on stress leave, the journalists risk becoming the story.

Clearly, some of the attacks on Milligan’s work have been wildly inaccurate. It is unrealistic to expect her not to defend herself. Yet she, too, has gone beyond the reported facts. She tweeted last week that she had been asked by NSW police if she knew of other allegations against Porter. “Not in your jurisdiction,” she claims to have replied. Her Twitter followers drew the obvious conclusion.

Choose your outlet; choose which “facts” get prominence. We’ve seen where this can lead. In the United States, the rise of Fox News caused other outlets — notably CNN — to define themselves in opposition to its partisanship. Those two networks became mirror images, giving every appearance of caring more about discrediting each other than serving the public.

So far, prime minister Scott Morrison and his ministers have held fast to their refusal to hold an inquiry, claiming that doing so would undermine the rule of law — a view disputed by some of the country’s best legal minds. In the face of flat denials, political scandals are hard to maintain without new disclosures and developments. If there is nothing new to say, then the story fades from the headlines. Will that be the case here? Can Morrison and the government tough out the calls for an inquiry?

The journalism on Four Corners is far more than a performance. It is the hard, admirable stuff, running against the tide of legal and government pressure, taking courage and institutional backing. But there is always the risk that the performance of journalism will obscure the importance of what’s being reported, and that this will dissipate the pressure on government for an independent inquiry. If so, we will all be the poorer. •

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.