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Thu 1 October 2020
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CJ Werleman explores why the Australian journalist Jonathan Swan was able to sidestep deference and put the American President on the spot as others have been unable to do

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Whatever slender odds US President Donald Trump had of securing a second term in office became almost invisibly slim when an interview he gave the American news site Axios aired on Tuesday.

For 35 minutes, the self-proclaimed “very stable genius” at the helm of the United States revealed just how deeply ignorant, outrageously incompetent and malignantly dishonest he is when it comes to matters related to COVID-19, racial minorities, national icons and national security.

The interview is so damning that there is no need for Trump’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, to say another word or run another television advertisement. His campaign can just continue playing Trump’s own words on endless loop, particularly his dismissal of the deaths of 150,000 Americans with the cruellest of all obituaries: “It is what it is.”

The interviewer, Australian journalist Jonathan Swan, dared to do what none of his American colleagues have done at any point during the past four years: he engaged Trump directly, challenging his lies and falsehoods with real time fact-checking, follow-up questions and calm defiance, while denying him the kind of deference the US media typically affords the occupant of the Oval Office.

“The interview is also casting a new light on overall media treatment of Trump, with the Australian journalist Swan finally providing the kind of tough treatment of Trump – that is, actually calling him out on his lies and evasions during the interview – in a manner that American reporters have simply failed to do so,” observes Media Matters.

Jared Yates Sexton, a political analyst and author of American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World But Failed its People, believes the reason the Axios interview is so damning is “because the interviewer actually engages with what Trump says instead of treating him with unearned respect because the ‘Oval Office of the Presidency’ or whatever. Our media has failed this moment”.

Thus, for the first time, American voters were granted a clear and unfiltered view of just how dangerous the current leader of their country is.

On behalf of Australian journalists everywhere, you’re welcome, America. And while you’re at it, you can also thank our convict past.


Empire State of Mind

As a former British penal colony and now independent nation state, Australia’s national character is built on a rejection of authority and the advancement of an aggressive form of egalitarianism, with an overwhelming majority of Australians occupying a narrow income band spanning $60,000 to $150,000 a year.

As such, tradesmen reside in the same neighbourhoods and share the same pubs and restaurants as doctors and lawyers.

Somewhat amusingly or peculiarly, the fastest way an Australian can lose their social status is to become far more successful than their peers – a dynamic often referred to as ‘tall poppy syndrome’. We want our mates to do well, but not well enough that they might somehow believe they belong with the high and mighty.

The former world number one golfer Greg Norman once joked that, when the owner of a high-end luxury car leaves it parked on a US street, a passer-by will think to himself “if I work hard, maybe one day I might be able to afford that”, whereas Australians are more likely to run a key down the side of it than waste a moment heaping praise on its owner. 

It’s therefore no wonder that the first word that comes to the minds of most Australians when they think of the self-aggrandising Donald Trump is the derogatory term “w**ker” and it likely explains Swan’s refusal to grant him deference by default. The subtext to each of his follow-up questions read “cut the crap, you’re full of it”.

In 2015, when the then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, an Oxford University Rhodes Scholar who conveyed an air of smugness from every fibre of his being, took a stroll through a shopping mall in Perth to meet with voters, he extended his hand to an elderly man, saying “good morning, sir – how are you?”

The man looked Abbott directly in the eye and replied “d**khead”, before continuing on his journey as though he hadn’t just shared a televised moment with a leader of a G20 nation. 

More recently, when the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a climate change denier and product of the country’s powerful coal lobby, toured communities devastated by climate-induced bush fires, many refused to shake his hand and some even verbally abused him at close range – something that would be unlikely to ever happen in America or the UK.

Associate Professor Tony Moore, a historian and head of communications and media studies at Monash University, says that one reason why the UK didn’t experience a republican political revolution such as those in the US and France “is because they exported their political activists to Australia”.

Australia “achieved democratic constitutions in advance of the UK in the 19th Century,” he says. “One of the least free jurisdictions on the planet become quite free and quite democratic in the late 1850s and 1860s”.

According to Moore, Australia’s convict legacy offers a teachable moment in a time when an ever increasing number are under-employed or employed as casuals; when political corruption has made real problems unsolvable; when housing, education and healthcare has become unaffordable; and when civil rights are being trampled on in the name of national security.

If American journalists want to hold the most destructive President in history to account for his transgressions, and if the American public truly wants to resist the repressive measures of an ever increasingly fascist government, then they will do well to learn from Jonathan Swan’s fearless journalism and Australia’s convict past.


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