The Coalition’s relationship with News Corp and its hostility towards the national broadcaster are influencing more than just the televised leaders’ debates. By Rick Morton.

Why is Scott Morrison dodging the ABC?

Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison at the first leaders' debate in Brisbane.
Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison at the first leaders' debate in Brisbane.
Credit: Jason Edwards / AFP

By some accounts, Scott Morrison never intended to commit to an election debate on the national broadcaster. He was instead stringing along the ABC while waiting for debate details to be confirmed with commercial networks Nine and Seven, following an audience loss in the Sky News People’s Forum on April 20.

Behind the scenes, senior ABC staff, led by Insiders host and press gallery stalwart David Speers, had been working for months on proposals that would secure an election debate on the main channel and across the news channel, radio, iView and YouTube. It was all for nought.

“If you were Scott Morrison, would you go on there? There’s nothing in it for him,” a Liberal campaign staffer tells The Saturday Paper.

“Elections aren’t won in the debates but if we’re going to do them, we are going to go where the undecided voters are.”

The implication is clear: the ABC is not “friendly” for the Coalition and its audience – many members of which live in regional and rural Australia – is not for turning. But Morrison couldn’t bring himself to simply say no, because that would have looked bad. Instead, he pretended the public broadcaster simply never asked.

“I said I’d do three. I’ve already done one,” the prime minister told reporters in Cairns on April 28.

“[Anthony Albanese] said he’d debate me anywhere, any time. So Seven and Nine. They booked the hall. I’ll be there. I look forward to seeing him.”

When he said this, Morrison was well aware that the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, had written to the Liberal Party’s federal director, Andrew Hirst, and Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, proposing a prime-time leaders’ debate on the national broadcaster.

On April 21, a week before, ABC spokesperson Nick Leys released an optimistic statement about progress in securing an election event: “The ABC is encouraged by the discussions so far and looks forward to sharing details of the debate when all parties are in agreement.”

Channel Nine’s “The Great Debate” on 60 Minutes will air this Sunday at 8.45pm, a key slot for the commercial networks. Seven West Media’s Channel Seven, meanwhile, will host the third and final leaders’ debate about 9.10pm on May 11, at the scheduled finish of an episode of the rebooted reality television show Big Brother.

A senior source within the ABC says the Coalition’s lack of engagement with the broadcaster is bizarre. “It is disappointing that in the closing weeks of a tightly contested election campaign, a leadership debate plays second fiddle to a reality TV show on Seven, infamous for turkey slapping,” the person said.

“Nine have surely missed an opportunity to host a debate from the set of LEGO Masters with Hamish and Brickman as comperes. Voters deserved an opportunity to see a proper leadership debate focused on the key policy issues and broadcast at a reasonable time on an accessible platform, which is what the ABC was offering.”

Although it was one of the most highly rated individual programs in Sky News Australia’s history, its people’s forum with the opposition leader and prime minister on April 20 was watched by just 312,400 viewers on the main channel and 197,000 people on the regional network, which is shown free through arrangements with Southern Cross Austereo and WIN.

“I guess he’s part of a government that cut funding for the ABC, and even our sensible suggestion of increasing ABC broadcasting into the region so we get Australia’s voice in the Pacific was ridiculed by this prime minister,” Anthony Albanese told ABC News Breakfast co-host Michael Rowland on April 29.

“I find his actions quite extraordinary. I think I’m up for more debates. We’ve had one debate. It’s one-nil up to now. And that was at a time and date of his choosing. But he can’t get to choose the entire process. And we should also have a debate at the National Press Club, as that has always happened during election campaigns.”

One thing Morrison knows instinctively is that many Australians do not engage much with the news or politics. That has never been more true than during this election. Audience numbers viewing online election content at the national broadcaster, for example, are anaemic.

“The most we expect for some people is for them to catch a vibe,” a senior commercial network political reporter tells The Saturday Paper. “And what creates a vibe? Managing the media cycle. That’s where the influence always comes in, and it’s why the parties spend so much time trying to get their gear into the newspapers in particular.

“I think it’s fair to say that in most titles it is the Coalition that has the best success rate, both in terms of getting the fawning coverage they’re after but also steering, as much as they can, the negative hits on Albanese and Labor.”

News Corp Australia’s tabloid front pages have offered up various soft interviews with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, where the Kooyong MP declared he was in “the fight of my political life” while posing for smiling photos with his wife and two children, as well as a page one splash for the caustic, anti-trans Liberal candidate Katherine Deves, declaring “They are all with me”. Her only media interview before that softball was a one-on-one with SBS World News’s Janice Peterson, which startled some observers because it appeared to be cynically aimed at ethnic communities, especially in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Although the tabloids have attempted to dig up some dirt on Albanese – including by going through his university-era writing to gussy up the horrors of socialism – the papers have been more “frenzied” in their approach to the “teal independents” backed by Climate 200’s Simon Holmes à Court. As a former senior media executive says, “They have been absolutely feral about the independents.”

To the extent that media organisations are able to throw life preservers to a government that has made self-preservation very hard, they have thrown them to Coalition MPs spooked by the groundswell of support for an independent political force. Dave Sharma in Wentworth, Tim Wilson in Goldstein and, of course, Frydenberg have all been particularly panicked by this new reality.

According to multiple polls, the Coalition and Scott Morrison have lost ground among women voters. Through Facebook advertising products, at least, much of the Liberal Party’s advertising spending has reached women in preference to men and has been overwhelmingly served to voters in Queensland and New South Wales.

On Google, transparency features reveal the Liberals are targeting all ages and genders, but in electorates almost exclusively in north and central Queensland, suburban Sydney and Tasmania. These are key to a government victory on polling day.

Former Media Watch host and ABC Alumni chair Jonathan Holmes told The Saturday Paper it was “frightening” how the Liberal Party has become “so hostile” to the national broadcaster, especially since Tony Abbott became leader.

“To be honest, I really do not understand it, this attitude of ‘anybody but the ABC’. There are many Liberal voters who watch it,” he said.

“If you look at David Speers when he was at Sky News, the Coalition thought he was great. You could walk into any parliamentarian’s office and he would be there on the TV. And now, somehow, since joining the ABC, he’s been contaminated in their eyes with some sort of left-wing jelly.

“You get the feeling that any agreement by the Coalition to have a debate on the ABC would be seen to reduce them in the minds of their supporters.  Which is frightening. We have got to the point where the national broadcaster is seen as untouchable and that is scary.”

The notion, he said, that the ABC is biased against the Coalition is “bullshit”.

In the void left by the prime minister, Anthony Albanese turned up as the sole guest on the network’s Q&A program on Thursday night, hosted by Speers. That same morning, he appeared on Virginia Trioli’s Mornings radio program hosted out of Melbourne.

During that broadcast, Trioli told her listeners that the prime minister’s office had given her a “blanket refusal”. Scott Morrison would not appear on her show at any point during this election campaign. 

Ahead of the election, The Saturday Paper surveyed readers on which issues they wanted to see covered in more detail. This piece is part of a series based on your responses.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Getting the message".

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