Morrison does not step back any claim or bend an answer to the perception of others. There’s no doubt about what he wants to say and who he’s speaking to, and in his eyes, that’s a strength. His certainty and the technical definitions of his replies appear to nullify some interlocutors, who don’t really want to get into an argument where they’re trying to essentially suggest he’s deliberately making incorrect claims. Morrison will outlast them. He’s an elite athlete in the sport of maintaining a forthright facade.
What’s been so striking – in a television sense, distinct from the very real tragedy of what has occurred this summer – is how Morrison’s rigid mastery of the political interview contrasted with his tone-deaf public appearances in bushfire ravaged towns. The footage from Thursday, January 2, of the Prime Minister clutching at the hand of Cobargo resident Zoey Salucci-McDermott but ignoring what she said was shocking. It will haunt his political career.
The three interviews Scott Morrison gave the next day – to ABC Radio’s Paul Culliver, 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, and the sole television appearance, with Leila McKinnon on Nine’s A Current Affair – were each telling, because the Prime Minister knew he was in trouble and hadn’t settled on a fix. Both Culliver and McKinnon put him on the spot, and Mitchell would do likewise after asking some detailed questions about Victorian fire logistics that also caught Morrison off guard. The trio asked the immediate questions that had to be asked.
The Prime Minister is a quick study. At some point that day it was decided he should emphasise the presence of his previously unmentioned wife, Jenny: he name-checked her three times on A Current Affair. That gives you an idea how prepared he was for subsequent ABC interviews, such as with 7.30‘s Michael Rowland and Insiders‘ David Speers on January 9 and 12 respectively.
Morrison controlled both interviews. His first answer with Speers ran for a comprehensive three minutes and 10 seconds: it was a masterclass in moving from one talking point to the next, complete with spin on the scornful rejection he’d received in Cobargo. It was nine days since McKinnon had begun by asking the Prime Minister if he’d “lost the respect of Australians”, but Speers opened with a vaguer variation of the same question. Frontal attacks on the Somme had a better chance of success.
The media’s commentary on the Prime Minister has been good, but trying to turn it into queries he’ll simply never consider is failing. It also narrows the scope of interviews: it was frustrating to watch the question of Australia’s response to climate change being reduced to emissions targets from the Kyoto agreement, for which the Prime Minister had a set answer.
Perhaps it’s time to at least try to draw Morrison on wider climate change issues, as well as the influence of his Pentecostal faith, rather than another “carryover credits” dig.
Something has to change, whether it’s the approach of interviewers or the format of the interview segment. Most Australians want to get a better sense of their leader, and that will not happen on Morrison’s terms. It won’t be easy, especially as that partisan divide means every interview already draws contradictory verdicts of bias and compliance.
But never underestimate the revelatory powers of television. It can still show us what someone doesn’t want us to know. We need to be the ones thanking journalists, not Scott Morrison.
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.