The Weekend Australian had the scoop of the year about Scott Morrison’s unprecedented grab for power. But the paper may have buried the lede, running five paragraphs off page one and splashing instead with a story about the teacher brain drain, while highlighting another about John Howard. Perhaps the broadsheet’s underplaying of the story is why the nation’s media largely ignored the bombshell for 48 hours.
The Australian had the first exclusive extract from Plagued, a new book by its political editor, Simon Benson, and chief political correspondent, Geoff Chambers, in the Inquirer section. The accompanying news story ran on page two.
Benson and Chambers, who had access to the PM and his inner circle for two years as the Coalition government managed Covid-19, revealed that Morrison “hatched a radical, and until now secret, plan in March 2020 with then-attorney general Christian Porter to swear himself in as health and finance minister alongside Greg Hunt and Mathias Cormann”.
Like Morrison, who was later to confirm he freely volunteered the information, the authors appeared to underestimate the fury this – and later revelations of additional secrecy and a total of five portfolios – would unleash.
The two journalists framed the story of Morrison’s extraordinary move not as an affront to democracy and the Westminster system of government but as “an elegant solution to the problem they were trying to solve”.
Benson, a friend of Morrison and a journalist known for getting “drops” from the former government, was granted access to the prime minister during the pandemic to chronicle his leadership through the Covid-19 crisis.
Morrison confirmed at his marathon press conference on Wednesday that the book “was written based on interviews that were conducted at the time, in the middle of the tempest”.
While Plagued revealed that Hunt was aware of the appointment of the PM to his portfolio, there was no mention of whether Cormann was in on the secret.
There was also no hint of the problematic nature of Morrison’s secret appointments or a prosecution of why he didn’t tell the public. As the Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, wrote two days later in the same newspaper: “The dilemma for Morrison is the secrecy. Secrecy is the curse in this fiasco.”
After Saturday, the Australian moved on from the story and it was not mentioned in Monday’s paper at all. The authors served up a separate story from the book, about China’s under-reporting of surging Covid-19 cases.
Plagued – the inside story of Australia’s 2 years of hell - is a forensic account of the pandemic, China, global competition and political fallout. Stoked to have worked on my first book with Simon Benson over the past 24-months. Pre-order your copy here https://t.co/fYr3EcKGVN pic.twitter.com/CULycXINwH
— Geoff Chambers (@Chambersgc) August 1, 2022
It was Samantha Maiden, political editor of news.com.au, who churned out a series of scoops. She revealed on Sunday night that the portfolios that Morrison secretly swore himself into also included the resources portfolio. Now there were three.
“In that case, however, it was unrelated to the pandemic,” Maiden wrote. “It did not occur at the same time as the 2020 changes in the health and finance portfolios.”
It was up to Maiden, and Andrew Clennell, the political editor of Sky News Australia, to reveal on Monday that Cormann in fact did not know about the secret portfolios, a crucial detail that was left out of the book.
On the same day on RN Breakfast Patricia Karvelas revealed the prime minister had asked for legal advice about Morrison swearing himself into multiple portfolios and Nationals leader David Littleproud told her what Morrison had done was “pretty ordinary”.
Maiden wrote on Tuesday that in a “stunning journalism fail it appeared that no outlet followed up the Oz scoop for nearly 48 hours” over the weekend.
— Kieran Gilbert (@Kieran_Gilbert) August 14, 2022
It wasn’t until Tuesday’s paper that the Oz grasped the enormity of what they’d been sitting on, although Chambers did follow the new developments online on Monday.
Now the Australian was conveying the gravity of Morrison’s actions: “The revelations – in a new book, Plagued, to be released on Tuesday – have shocked Mr Morrison’s most senior Coalition colleagues – including now Liberal leader Peter Dutton – who say they were blindsided by the former prime minister’s actions and opposition MPs are demanding he explain himself.”
Even the now prime minister commented on the way the story was handled, saying he was stunned “it wasn’t front page of every newspaper on Sunday”.
“Because I found those revelations quite extraordinary,” he said.
BREAKING: Former Finance Minister Matthias Cormann was NEVER told PM has sworn himself into his portfolio. Only found out when read it in paper this weekend https://t.co/EpBreosYij
— Samantha Maiden (@samanthamaiden) August 14, 2022
There has been some criticism of the authors for sitting on the dynamite revelations for two years, especially as the news may have affected the way the public voted in the election. The fact that Bridget McKenzie confirmed in January 2021 that she was in a relationship with Benson has added to the intrigue of who knew what, when. The Nationals senator and former minister has been interviewed, and called the developments “concerning”, but has not been asked when she knew.
It's astonishing that journalists sat on this news for a book published after Morrison's term is over, rather than recognising it as the momentous front page bombshell it was at the time #auspol
— Sarah Holland-Batt (@the_shb) August 17, 2022
It is common for journalists to hold back material for a book, especially if they gave the subject an undertaking.
However, such an undertaking may prevent political journalists from informing their readers about something which is in their interest to know.
Asked on Sky News by Kieran Gilbert when he and Benson became aware of the secret portfolios, a question which was raised by Albanese, Chambers said: “Well, we spoke to dozens of people over two years and this was part of the story and, well, the story is out now. So that’s my response.”
It’s not the first time Foxtel boss Patrick Delany has made a silly remark while giving a speech at an event.
Hosting a red carpet premiere in Sydney for HBO’s House of the Dragon, the Game of Thrones prequel, Delany said he was initially bemused when he heard about Game of Thrones and said “What’s this show with the dumpy-looking girl who walks into the flames?”
Delany has apologised, saying the comments were meant to be “self-deprecating and lighthearted”.
It’s not as off-colour as the recent gaffe but in 2018 Delany raised eyebrows at another event when he admitted he’d never heard of another HBO show, Barry, an American black comedy, which was running on Foxtel. “I didn’t even know about that show and I’m the CEO of Foxtel!”
When ABC broadcaster Caroline Jones, who died this year aged 80, was appointed to anchor Four Corners 50 years ago the headline was “Girl will take over Four Corners”.
That is no doubt why Jones was the driving force behind the establishment of Women In Media, a not-for-profit organisation that assists with scholarships, mentoring and post-maternity reskilling sessions for women in the business.
The first Women in Media Industry Insight Report released this week found more than one in two women think media bosses are still not serious about gender equity and an above average 16% weekly earnings pay gap persists between men and women in the sector.
According to Victoria Laurie, the national co-patron, women have long overtaken men among graduates of journalism schools, yet 56% of surveyed members wonder where their careers are going. “They are dissatisfied with their advancement and see lack of opportunity as leading to male-dominated senior roles,” Laurie said.
News Corp axe falls
Despite reporting an almost doubling of profits in 2021-22 to a record US$760m (A$1.1bn) this month, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation has taken an axe to the Australian newspaper business.
Weekly Beast can reveal News Corp Australia has identified 15 editorial positions as redundant: five at the Australian; two at the Daily Telegraph, three at the Herald Sun, two at the News Network and three in the production hub.
A News Corp spokesman declined to comment.
At the same time, the editor-in-chief of the Australian, Christopher Dore, is losing a sizeable chunk of his senior staff, who have each clocked up decades with the paper.
The redundancies across the group coincide with the departure of several veterans, some of whom put their hands up for a package, including the sports editor, Wally Mason; the Melbourne-based business columnist, Richard Gluyas; and the editorial writer and unofficial transgender issues correspondent, Bernard Lane.
The editor of the Weekend Australian Magazine, Christine Middap, is stepping down and taking up a writing role, and Alice Workman, who was the editor of a daily column, Strewth, is leaving the paper.
We hadn’t noticed that Strewth, once a must-read column when it was written by James Jeffrey, who is now Anthony Albanese’s speechwriter, has not appeared in print since 6 May. It was put on ice after the election and then quietly put to sleep.
Dore has been approached for comment.
News Corp will stop printing comic strips, once a staple of the daily print newspapers, in all its newspapers from 11 September.
The Australian cartoonists who will lose their gigs are Jason Chatfield (Ginger Meggs), Gary Clark (Swamp), Tony Lopes (Insanity Streak) and Allan Salisbury (Snake Tales).
Statement on behalf of the Australian Cartoonists Association. pic.twitter.com/V6nIQMnMYc
— The Cathy Wilcox (@cathywilcox1) August 16, 2022
The rest are US syndicated strips.
A spokesperson for News Corp said it was a reflection of the changing readership habits as audiences are more interested in puzzles, games and crosswords.
“Our editorial cartoonists remain as loved and valued as ever and continue to play a critical role in both our print editions and increasingly in our digital growth strategy,” he said. “It also reflects a worldwide trend where the audience for comic strips has moved to movies and events rather than newspapers.”