Paula Matthews: Scott Morrison perfects the art of hiding in plain sight

Do you feel like Scott Morrison has been missing in action? It's just a matter of where to look, Paula Matthewson writes.

Do you feel like Scott Morrison has been missing in action? It's just a matter of where to look, Paula Matthewson writes. Photo: AAP

Unless you’re a user of social media or a listener to talkback radio, you might have begun to wonder “Where the bloody hell are you, Scott Morrison?”

You have a good reason to be concerned.

The Prime Minister seems to have vanished from our television screens in recent times, doing fewer TV interviews and holding fewer media conferences than we’ve come to expect from the government’s principal promoter.

However his absence isn’t necessarily because the PM’s too busy running the country – it’s because he has imposed tight controls over what is being said, and to who.

A quick glance at the PM’s website shows that Mr Morrison hasn’t actually decamped to the south coast for an early summer break. Over the past week he issued 10 media releases, did four radio and two television interviews, delivered three speeches, and held two ‘doorstop’ press conferences.

Significantly, only once during those interactions did he receive any real scrutiny, and that was during the interview with ABC Radio.

This snapshot reveals the aim of Mr Morrison’s media strategy – avoid interviews that would likely end up as negative footage for television news programs, steer clear of the skilled interrogators in the Canberra press gallery, and use tabloid radio to communicate directly with likeminded voters.

The last point comes straight from the tactical playbook of former prime minister John Howard.

Mr Howard learned during his time as opposition leader to bypass the gatekeepers and news creators in the Canberra Press Gallery, who had previously decided what readers and viewers would read, see or hear about the PM, by talking directly to Australian voters through talkback radio.

PM Morrison clearly took note of this approach and has since extended it to the some of the most popular forms of ‘new’ media that make it possible for politicians to convey unfiltered messages to larger audiences (while still avoiding any pesky journalistic questions).

With about 18 million social media users in Australia, it comes as no surprise that over the past week the PM (or his team) posted 33 times on three of the biggest platforms (Facebook 8, Instagram 6, and Twitter 19), including 11 videos (Facebook 4, Instagram 4, Twitter 3), which are fast replacing traditional free-to-air television as our favoured source of ‘news’.

While Facebook remains the behemoth of the social media world, being the most used platform for nearly every age group, the image-sharing platform Instagram has a smaller but growing number of followers, particularly in the age groups up to 50 years.

According to Roy Morgan, nearly 70 per cent of Gen Z Australians (approximately 15-30 years old) use Instagram, and many of those in the 18 to 25 year age group are almost impossible to reach any other way (except YouTube).

The implications of Mr Morrison’s careful communications channeling would be clear to anyone who has followed the ongoing discussion of whether Facebook (and by implication, other social media channels) should be responsible for ensuring that paid advertising posted on their channels is ‘truthful’.

Certainly both the Coalition and Labor have complained that misleading Facebook ads in the 2016 (on Mediscare) and 2019 (death tax) federal elections contributed to their respective vote losses.

But even with goodwill from the social media companies, it will be almost impossible to enforce ‘truth’ online.

No matter how welcome and overdue, imposing truth in advertising restrictions on Facebook will do nothing to staunch the flood of misdirections, deflections, mistruths and porkies that can flow through the other direct-to-voter channels.

Mr Morrison is just one example of a politician hiding in plain sight, who avoids questions on the big stage, and uses social media to strike up unfiltered conversations with the voters in the stalls.

This is the future of political and campaign communications, but it is already here.

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