The Twitter Mob and Their Newsroom Ferals

There has been press coverage lately of a poll conducted by Australian National University regarding attitudes to this summer’s bushfires. Given the politicisation of the fires there were no surprises. The poll claimed to have found only “27.3 per cent of respondents reported that they were confident or very confident in the Government”, a low level indeed for a government just recently re-elected. The Guardian, right on cue, referred to the “horror summer in which Morrison chose to holiday in Hawaii”. Does anyone seriously think that, given the irrational and often downright dishonest coverage of the fire season, the poll result would have been any different if he had remained in Australia?

When I read The Guardian’s predictable coverage, I was reminded of Mark Twain’s words: “To not read the news is to be uninformed, but to read it is to be misinformed.” Can anyone doubt that the Australian media’s overwhelmingly partisan outlets played a significant role in shaping opinions about this government’s response to the fires?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting Scott Morrison is immune to blunders or poor performance. Certainly, there was valid criticism, some made in good faith, about how he communicated with the public in the fires’ early days (this is an area for political self-improvement and sharper advisers, not a major character flaw), but what we have been seeing on social media is a far different beast from what was once normal criticism. It is yet another example of fake outrage placed at the service of political ends.

We’ve seen “Scotty from Marketing” — a brilliant put-down, by the way — accused of not doing enough, not caring enough, of needing to be shamed into acting, even of forcing people to shake his hand. To reach these conclusions requires Olympics-standard mental gymnastics. These partisans, and the media which gave them a megaphone, are not rational, and in the case of the latter, not ethical either. They are capable of twisting anything that suits their agenda and always eager to do so. As Owen Whalan, an 85-year-old bushfire evacuee from Taree, put it when the PM gave him a hug, “Whether you do something or you do nothing, you’ll always be criticised.”

The fires provided an excuse to rant. For many, Morrison became the villain after refusing to meet media expectations and predictions by losing the last election, the one the Guardian, ABC and Nine papers tirelessly assured us would be all about climate change and the electorate’s fear of a burning planet. When the bush burned, it wasn’t overgrown state forests and fuel loads in neglected national parks that were blamed but coal exports and the like. That the media not only went along with this but actively promoted it might help to explain why Australians tell pollsters they place little faith in what they read.

Graham Richardson wrote in The Australian: “Once you are in the top job you are expected to get it right every time”, but it seems to me there was a special vitriol, an acid distilled equally from electoral frustration and a  virulent contempt, behind the mob assault on the PM and his performance

So why the readiness of some to hate the PM? American economist Thomas Sowell provides a valuable insight: “People do not want a factual or analytical explanation that leaves them emotionally unsatisfied. They want villains to hate and heroes to cheer.” A designated villain enables critics to feel good about themselves, to think ‘Well at least I’m far better than him.’ The PM knows this and has acknowledged: “I know when people get fearful or indeed angry, and they want to express that, and if that means they want to get angry at me, then if that helps, by all means, I’ve got broad shoulders.”

We generally don’t enter a situation free of bias when making observations; rather, we bring pre-existing beliefs and desires of which we are often not even aware. As Australian social scientist Hugh Mackay notes, “the observations we make in life tend to confirm the perspective from which they were made.” For some, a little part of the brain is always on the lookout for a villain, and those so fixated generally find what they seek.

If it’s villains the public want, then the media are shamefully quick to oblige. With selective reporting and spin, they customise villains and present them for a public burning. Strip away the references to Hawaii getaways and whipped-up anti-coal hysteria and the fact remains that Morrison has allocated unprecedented funds and resources to managing the fires and helping those affected by them. He’s also addressed the need to overhaul current conventions so that the Commonwealth can more readily respond to natural disasters. But why dwell on that when a family holiday is there to be presented as one of the greatest outrages against human decency in living memory? For those who derive some satisfaction from knocking the PM and this nation’s government, ask yourselves how well your hate campaigns worked at the last election?

There is still much hard work to do after the fires. They will have long-term implications in ways we can’t even imagine. While some problems can be anticipated, some will be totally unexpected. And let’s not forget that during the clean-up, there are going to be the usual major issues that require government management, such a maintaining a strong economy and maintaining international relations, as always. The knee-jerk naysaying we can expect, the mania that saw bushfires blamed on coal mining, isn’t going to help what is a massive national recovery operation.

Here the media can help. We do not need any more journalists betraying their craft, which is supposed to be  about getting to the truth, by taking their cues and themes from Twitter’s keyboard warriors. The damage the bushfires wrought is extensive and the recovery from them will be long, expensive and arduous. If the critics want to truly feel good about themselves, then lending a helping hand and an encouraging voice is a better way to go. I’d like to think that’s what a true Australian does. I’m also far from optimistic that is what we’ll see.

Anthony Dillon is a researcher at Australian Catholic University. For more, visit


13 thoughts on “The Twitter Mob and Their Newsroom Ferals

  • wmrbuck says:

    Left wing puerile populism, and its associated hate speech, will backfire on the left as it has done in the anti-Trump campaigns.

  • G & J Stanley says:

    More of your usual sense, Anthony – is there a way of making it catching??
    Thank you.

  • pgang says:

    I couldn’t care less what a PM says or does in regard to fires. This reaction is simply more evidence that the state is becoming our god.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    “With selective reporting and spin, they customise villains and present them for a public burning. Strip away the references to Hawaii getaways and whipped-up anti-coal hysteria…. ”
    Could it possibly be that the subtext of this presentation is that coal burning played no role in the lead-up to the recent bushfire crisis, and could not possibly have done so? One might well conclude that from the above passage.
    In which case, Anthony Dillon would (shock, horror!) not be practising what he preaches in the rest of his …er…. thoughtful dissertation.

  • ianl says:

    To further progress actual knowledge and quash the trollster’s utter ignorance, we read:

    Next we’ll have a plethora of “evidence” from the Guardian, or the ABC, or … None of these will present hard, empirical evidence, but as C.P. Snow astutely noted, most people today have no more understanding of core scientific disciplines than did their Neolithic ancestors. They do love ad homs, though … so easy.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    “ianl” or whatever your real name is: You mean ‘ad homs’ as in ‘trollster’?

  • Bernard says:

    Here is the latest from Sydney University. A series of workshops entitled “Philosophical Reflections on the
    Bushfire Disaster and Climate Crisis”. Tendentious language already. The subject of the first workshop, by a Kristie Miller, is “Bushfires: when a clueless, venal, government outsources its protection of its citizens to unpaid, under-resourced, volunteers”. You could not, if you tried, construct a sentence with more bias, ignorance and lies.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Went as per the advice of ‘ianl’ or whatever his real name is, aka the resident House Hypocrite, to
    Pathetic. Holes in it I could drive my farm truck through.

  • padraic says:

    I agree with Anthony about journalists and “their craft, which is supposed to be about getting to the truth…” So much today is opinion dressed up as truth. I don’t mind media when part of it is formally classed as “opinion” as does occur, but to pretend opinion is truth is the pits. The best way to depict the truth is to present the facts and let the media consumers make up their own minds. The contrast of modern newspapers with the early versions is dramatic. I once visited a small declining country town where they had converted an old wooden home on the outskirts into a restaurant. The walls were of vertical hand-sawn planks – my grandfather told me that such houses in that style were over 100 years old, and that was in the late 1940s – and the custom in those early days was to use old newspapers as wall paper in order to stop the drafts coming in the house, despite mud on the outside being used to fill the gaps between the vertical planks. The original newspapers were still on the walls. There were no sections as we know them today. They just added items to the page as they came to hand or fitted in the gaps. So you had a paragraph about Mrs So and Sos lost cat, next to an announcement about the next sale of cattle at the sale yard and next to that was a bigger item about the latest state of play in the Crimean War etc. But the reporting was just presenting the facts. There was no opinion. That was left to the reader or in some cases the editor may write an “Opinion Column” but in those country papers editors were usually wise enough to leave out an opinion in case they lost customers. It was so refreshing to see such a form of journalism.

  • padraic says:

    Oops! “Draughts” not drafts.

  • Bwana Neusi says:

    G’day Roger Franklin – Editor
    I noted your comments about the propensity of some contributors to indulge in contrary jousting to boost their own standing. The comments above are typical of that “whatever your name is” says it all
    I for one would be pleased to see this posturing excluded from comments

  • John L Devlin says:

    padraic: “But the reporting was just presenting the facts. There was no opinion. That was left to the reader or in some cases the editor may write an “Opinion Column” but in those country papers editors were usually wise enough to leave out an opinion in case they lost customers. It was so refreshing to see such a form of journalism.”
    All the news that fit to print – and lots of opinions that aren’t.
    I have often felt the urge to apply for a mature entry into journalism school.
    It must be a fantastic course.
    Why, merely months after graduation a 23 year old bimbo on a TV live cross lectures us on the hazards of Covid 19 for 3 minutes ,and then is called upon almost immediately thereafter to educate us on the politics of world hunger – and of course the necessary solutions.
    Damn these kids are good, because there is often more if we can muster enough willpower to stay awake ….thousand year old middle east conflicts , social welfare ,fracking issues on productive farmland , personal pronoun issues that have stumped Jordan Peterson yada yada
    So much to learn so little time.
    I have some issues …. 80 year old/white/overtly hetero.
    I have a strategy.
    From now on …with apologies (thanks?) to Monty Python….I want to be known as Loretta.
    It is my right as a man.

Leave a Reply