Access without insight

| August 24, 2022

The publication of Plagued, by Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, is destined to become a classic study of the perils for journalists in writing books about current political events.

You might have missed it in the tumult swirling around former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s multiplying ministries trick – but Plagued is where the public got its first inkling that Morrison had a yen for job-sharing.

By “inkling”, I mean the book had part of the story, but not the most important part. That should ring alarm bells: the main benefit of journalists writing books is they have the time and space to dig deeper into current events to reveal what is not known, or is rushed past, in daily media coverage.

The ‘inside story’

The book’s revelations are not just politically significant but will surely feature in future historians’ accounts of the 2019-2022 Coalition government. So, what happened?

Plagued is the work of two experienced journalists: Simon Benson, political editor for The Australian (and before that for The Daily Telegraph) and Geoff Chambers, chief political correspondent for The Australian (previously news editor at The Daily Telegraph).

The newspapers’ owner, News Corp Australia, has a large, well-resourced Canberra political bureau and appeared to have a direct line to the former prime minister and his office. News Corp regularly received speeches ahead of other journalists and broke numerous stories. The company’s media outlets strongly supported the former Coalition government, to the point of using its journalism to campaign for it – as academics Denis Muller and Rodney Tiffen have written in articles for The Conversation.

The subtitle of Plagued is “Australia’s two years of hell – the inside story”. The back-cover blurb trumpets the two journalists’ “exclusive access to the crucial machinations of government at the country’s highest levels, not just within the corridors of power but also behind doors normally sealed”.

The promise of taking readers into places normally hidden from their view is territory Bob Woodward of The Washington Post has been mining since the 1976 publication of his account, co-authored with Carl Bernstein, of the end of the Nixon presidency, The Final Days.

Woodward and Bernstein took us into the Lincoln Sitting Room the night before Nixon resigned in 1974, to see Nixon asking his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to pray with him. Similarly, Benson and Chambers take us into the Lodge in January 2020 after Morrison, “badly bruised by the fierce criticism of his family’s Hawaiian holiday”, has returned to work and is receiving early warnings about COVID-19.

The authors describe Morrison stepping out of a dinner at the Lodge with his treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the Nationals leader, Michael McCormack, to take a phone call from his elder brother. “Morrison could hear the dread in his brother’s voice even before he heard the fateful words, ‘Dad’s gone’.”

What we’re offered is a seat in the room where great ones make crucial decisions affecting all our lives. It can be thrilling to read. Watch Nixon as he beats the carpet in anguish, contemplating his political mortality. Listen as Frydenberg tells Morrison early in the global pandemic that the budget surplus is toast and the wage subsidy package is going to cost $130 billion. My God, replies the PM.

There are a number of problems here. First, positioning the reader at the scene of important events is alluring, but how do we know the events are being accurately recounted? We don’t. We have to trust the authors.

Gaining readers’ trust

One way journalistic authors can gain trust is by telling readers how they know what they know – and sharing their means for weighing sources’ conflicting accounts of events. This has become increasingly common in recent years, precisely because of earlier controversies involving Bob Woodward, among others. There was a lot of debate, for example, about whether Nixon did actually thump the carpet.

A recent example of improved practice in book-length journalism is Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. It has 62 pages of endnotes and a five-page note on sources, outlining the thousands of pages of court documents, law enforcement files and letters Radden Keefe drew on (and how he obtained them), along with the number of interviews he conducted – 200-plus. Where Radden Keefe attributes thoughts or feelings to people, it is because his interviewees have told him what they thought and felt, or he is relying on a characterisation from someone who knew them.

Plagued has endnotes, but they are for secondary sources or transcripts of ministers’ media conferences. This is fine, but it accounts for only a portion of the book’s contents and none of its insider material. For instance, a series of text messages Morrison sent the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews – which range from comradely support (“Hang in there Dan”) to an exchange about the Commonwealth and state governments coordinating responses to the second wave of the virus in mid-2020.

Morrison and Andrews, the authors report, enjoyed good relations in private, even if they sometimes clashed in public. After Andrews sharply criticised aged-care facilities and Health Minister Greg Hunt publicly rebuked him, Morrison sent the premier a text saying, “Am standing up shortly, I assure you my tone will be very supportive […] There is nothing to be gained by personalising the challenges we face”, to which Andrews replied, “Agreed”.

Scott Morrison and Daniel Andrews got on well in private. 

I say “report” because the book says nothing about who was interviewed or when. Occasionally the phrase “Morrison later recalled” is deployed, but that’s primarily when he is quoted commenting on past events. It is the only (oblique) sign that he has been interviewed for the book. Very few others – not Andrews, nor federal ministers – are quoted from interviews with the authors, as far as can be told from the book itself.

Benson and Chambers have not only failed to give readers any idea of the source of their exclusive material, but aggravate matters by rendering numerous passages in the omniscient authorial voice – as quoted above, when Morrison learnt of his father’s death. The omniscient authorial voice is a longstanding device in novels where the author is literally the creator of their fictional universe, but journalists by definition are not omniscient. They deal with verifying the truth of events that are contested or confected or hidden.

Again, it is a common criticism of Woodward’s work. The trend in recent works of long-form journalism is to avoid an omniscient authorial voice and practice some humility, drawing attention to the limits of what can be known – and to the writer’s own position and predisposition towards the subject. Margaret Simons has been doing this for years, first in her 1999 book Fit to Print, when she shone a light on the workings of the Canberra press gallery.

More recently, when Katharine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia, wrote about the global pandemic for a Quarterly Essay (published in late 2020), she foregrounded how she was not part of the “Yes mate” club of male broadcast interviewers chosen by Morrison to reach his preferred public – and neither was her publication, Guardian Australia.

Morrison’s perspective

With humility and transparency not in the offing, what becomes clear by the end of Plagued is that it recounts the past three years primarily from the perspective of Scott Morrison.

The reader is given his version of every event; it is the authors’ preferred version. Morrison, according to Plagued, works harder than anyone, is across his brief better than anyone, cares more about the Australian people, knows better than anyone what is needed, sees geopolitical trends more clearly. He wants to rise above daily politics and yearns to bring people together – a quality he admired in former Australian prime ministers Bob Hawke and Joe Lyons.

Problems that arise are always the fault of others, from the “sclerotic”, “folder-bearing bureaucrats” who fail to brief him quickly enough about the crisis in aged-care homes, to overly cautious officials on the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, and everyone in between.

The result of the 2022 federal election comes as something of a jolt to this relentlessly Morrison-marinated narrative. The change of government is dispensed with in four short paragraphs on the book’s final page. A brief explanation is proffered a few pages earlier:

“Politically, the prime minister had fallen victim to the longevity of the plague, the elevation of hostile Labor premiers to a national platform, the inevitable mistakes that would be made the longer it persisted, and an impatient and cranky public.”

Morrison’s own reflection is: “The only thing I can observe is that our critics are seeking absolute perfection and anything less than that is a failure, and that means the whole world failed.”

If that straw-man-seeking language sounds familiar, it is. Morrison sounded a similar note in his hour-long media conference on 17 August, when he said as prime minister he was “responsible pretty much for every single thing that was going on, every drop of rain, every strain of the virus”.

It was at that media conference, too, that Morrison pitchforked his obedient chroniclers into the briar patch. He revealed he had given Benson and Chambers “contemporaneous interviews” where he told them he’d been sworn in as health minister alongside Greg Hunt in March 2020.

As they report, Morrison and Hunt agreed that checks and balances were needed on the powers of section 475 of the Biosecurity Act. Passed in 2015 under the previous Coalition government, it gave a health minister sweeping powers that overrode other laws and were not disallowable by parliament.

“Morrison then hatched a radical and until now secret plan with [then Attorney-General, Christian Porter’s] approval. He would swear himself in as health minister alongside Hunt” who “not only accepted the measure but welcomed it”.”

In the next paragraph, they quietly report Morrison also swore himself in as finance minister alongside Matthias Cormann, but don’t say whether Cormann knew.

The book portrays Morrison as a victim of ‘the plague’.

Excerpts of Plagued, including reference to Morrison’s hidden new powers, were published in The Weekend Australian on 13 August. But nobody seemed to notice until nearly 48 hours later, according to a chronology pieced together by Amanda Meade, media writer for Guardian Australia.

Then, thanks to reporting by Samantha Maiden of and Andrew Clennell of Sky News, it was revealed there was a third portfolio Morrison had acquired – Resources – and that Cormann had not been let in on the secret.

On Monday 15 August, the current Labor Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, expressed his alarm at news of the secret plan and vowed to seek advice about its legality, and its implications for the Westminster system of government. The issue ran all week, prompting calls for Morrison to resign from parliament and launching a thousand comic memes, which Morrison himself wanted everyone to know via Facebook that he too found amusing.

Journalists seduced and betrayed

On Sunday 21 August, Maiden clarified on ABC TV’s Insiders that it was Cormann who rang Morrison demanding an explanation, rather than Morrison calling his former longtime finance minister to apologise. Something else was becoming clear: Morrison had done a reverse Janet Malcolm, first seducing, then betraying his two journalistic courtiers.

He had seduced them with the prospect, unique as far as we know, of exclusive access to him “in the middle of the tempest”, as Morrison put it at his media conference. He gave them the most defensible end of the story – assuming power for Health alongside Hunt at the beginning of the pandemic – and another morsel – assuming power for Finance.

But no more. Now, Benson and Chambers have no one but themselves to blame for failing to ask more questions. They called it “a secret plan” and secrets are to journalism what catnip is to cats.

Then Morrison betrayed them by revealing 58 minutes into the media conference that he’d told them about the shared ministerial arrangement at the time. It’s not clear whether Morrison told them about all five portfolios, and that he had actually overruled one minister, Keith Pitt – on an issue driven not by the pandemic, but the desire to be re-elected. And the authors are being reticent.

Asked by Kieran Gilbert on Sky News when they became aware, 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.” If Chambers were a politician bowling up that answer at a media conference, do you think that would satisfy his questioners?

The whole tawdry episode brings to mind a famous essay by Joan Didion, where she argued Bob Woodward wrote books “in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent”. That is, Woodward relentlessly accumulates quotidian details – what people eat, what they wear – but refuses to question the meaning of events or discuss the issues he is reporting. She quotes Woodward saying, essentially, he writes self-portraits of the people who cooperate with him for his books.

This sounds eerily like Plagued. It’s replete with quotidian details: the former PM’s official car in Sydney was a “bullet-proof white BMW 7 Series”; early in the pandemic he and Daniel Andrews enjoyed a “glass of whiskey from a bottle of single-malt Tasmanian lark”. Yet it rarely pauses to question Morrison’s version of events – and equally rarely seeks to contextualise events, or consider alternative perspective in any but the most cursory way.

On the former, Plagued does not mention, for instance, that one of the main reasons Morrison was fiercely criticised for his Hawaiian holiday was because he was secretive about it. On the latter, the issue of gender equality, for instance, loomed large in the last term of government; but it occupies just two pages in Plagued.

What began as two News Corp Australia journalists’ attempt to secure Scott Morrison’s reputation as the leader who steered Australia through the global pandemic looks most likely to have tarnished his legacy forever. That’s an eye-watering own goal.

When Didion’s essay about Woodward’s work was published in The New York Review of Books in 1996, it was headlined “The deferential spirit”. For its republication five years later in a selection of her essays, she chose another title: “Political pornography”. Sad to say, it is a title that could refer to Plagued.

This article was published by The Conversation.