Monday, September 23, 2019

Today by Elle Hardy

Access Trumps truth
The PM’s visit to the US highlights a flaw in much Australian political coverage

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and US President Donald Trump. Source: Twitter

Over the weekend, Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor wrote a piece about the challenges of covering a press conference held by US President Donald Trump during Scott Morrison’s tour of America – and it went viral among American reporters.

“Watching a full presidential Trump press conference … I realised how much the reporting of Trump necessarily edits and parses his words, to force it into sequential paragraphs or impose meaning where it is difficult to detect,” Taylor wrote.

While her commendable piece struck a note with media in Washington D.C., this trip has also highlighted a major systemic failing in much of the Australian media’s political coverage.

Today, Taylor appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources, a program that analyses news media, to elaborate on her experience.

“As reporters and editors, our job usually means making sense of and editing down and crystallising what people are saying – that’s what we do,” she told CNN’s Brian Stelter.

Taylor made the point that in covering Trump, the American press must routinely “mask and normalise” his rambling speeches and press conferences so that he sounds like a coherent politician, when he is anything but.

Meanwhile, on the tour, Sky News Australia presenter Paul Murray was given the lone exclusive Australian press interview with President Trump.

Would he ask about the Saudi oil attack? Trump’s threats against Iran? The trade war with China? Concentration camps for Uighurs? Catastrophic climate change, and the millions-strong march around the world demanding action on it?

Of course not. “Have you had a good day with your Aussie mates?” was Murray’s opening question, and the cringe-heavy interview failed to improve from there.

The fact that Murray seemed more interested in getting a thumbs-up photo with the president for his pool room shouldn’t come as a shock. But what ought to jolt the press gallery into action is the fact that this is the consequence of an ongoing problem with the rules of engagement between news outlets and politicians.

We were even given a rare insight into how interactions between political offices and journalists work ahead of the trip, when Network Ten political editor and The Australian contributing editor Peter van Onselen tweeted screenshots of texts he received from the prime minister’s media team. “Also, you know you don’t have to come, right? No one is forcing you to go. It’s not like you’ll be given any access or anything,” they read.

Fellow Network Ten reporter Hugh Riminton also tweeted about the favourable access given to Paul Murray: “To get an interview with the US President (I know, I’ve tried) the White House media team clears you with the Australian ambassador in DC, who in turn clears it with the Prime Minister’s office. This is what the PMO put forward. It is not journalism. Simply reward.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Over the last few years, Coalition governments have doubled down on giving selected outlets and journalists overtly preferential treatment.

The press gallery needs to reconsider what it is giving up in order to be in line for such “rewards”. Journalists who participate in the game become players. Just look at the example of The New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who in 2003 gave repeated anonymity to one source, the then vice president’s adviser Lewis “Scooter” Libby, in several articles about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and plans for nuclear weaponry. Miller’s articles contributed to the paper’s support of America’s disastrous invasion of Iraq later that year. The paper has since changed its rules for reporters using unnamed sources.

Closer to home, we can look back on the ugliness of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years – when the same people who anonymously tipped off the media about internal leadership tensions publicly denied these actions.

Taylor was able to give the Washington press a unique perspective on the dilemma it faces and the real consequences of papering over the cracks of presidential incoherence. We can only hope that an outsider will similarly cut through to help Australian media understand that its duty is to the public, not to political sources.

Failing that, perhaps this hit to the self-interest of self-respecting journalists will be a catalyst for change.

“There just isn’t political space for a new far-right force to really flourish in Australia. Australia’s conservatives already offer enough of what the most reactionary social currents might want.”

Australian journalist Jason Wilson, who covers the far right in the United States, suggests that the Coalition government already takes up the space of right-wing populism.

“We strongly recommend a focus on coal exports to Vietnam as part of the prime minister’s planned visit.”

In an email to the prime minister (obtained under freedom of information laws) ahead of his official visit to Vietnam last month, bureaucrats advise him to push hard for Australian coal.

Inside the Tanya Day inquest
Tanya Day died after being arrested for public drunkenness. A coroner is now asking whether systemic racism contributed to her death.


The amount by which a United in Science report says that countries need to increase their emissions targets in order to avoid “catastrophic” global temperature rise, as the climate is changing faster than forecast. The report coincides with the UN Climate Action Summit.

Scott Morrison backed Donald Trump’s fight with China on trade, particularly with regard to intellectual-property theft, and says that he is prepared to adjust the budget to help the economy ride out any protracted dispute.

The list

“Let joy be unconfined. The budget is back in balance. Except that it isn’t – we’re still about $700 million short. But near enough is good enough – certainly good enough to let an ebullient Josh Frydenberg predict more or less credibly that in nine months’ time, the sacred surplus can finally be delivered. And if it can’t – if the iron ore price really tanks, or the windfall tax revenue is not sustained – then we can always top up the figures by short-changing welfare, just as we did last year.”

“Australian Rules football is the nation’s biggest spectator sport, and its broadcast appeal depends on the players’ athleticism and the contact nature of the game. While the players are taller, heavier, faster and fitter than they were a few decades ago, the AFL also has an obligation to make the game safer.”

“Don’t kid yourself that money doesn’t buy access,” Sam Dastyari says. “If I walk in, prepared to make a large donation of, say, $50,000 or $100,000 or $150,000 to a political organisation, that will get me dinner – either through an auction or even a direct party program. That will give me access to the senior leadership. And even in its most innocent interpretation, you have to ask, ‘Is it the best outcome for a system that those with money can buy a seat at the table?’”

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is an Australian journalist based in the United States. She can be found at



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