McMahon moments and Australian media

Liberal treasurer, later prime minister, William McMahon was admired for his apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of the Australian economy, being able to quote pages of statistics on the spur of the moment during debates in parliament. Only years later was it revealed that McMahon simply made up the figures as he spoke, and his staff later inserted the correct numbers when they received the draft of Hansard.

This tells us something about the meaningfulness of past parliamentary debates. Of course, no one would do such a thing now. But maybe that’s because they don’t need to.

The question arises because of another falsification I recently stumbled upon. It is much less serious than faking statistics, and it doesn’t involve Hansard, but it still raises some interesting points.

Enter Scott Morrison. Morrison is the treasurer in a government that is proposing to deny citizenship to migrants whose command of English is not up to university entrance level. But on a recent broadcast of the ABC’s 7:30 program, Morrison said: “This idea that people and inequality and incomes has been going in the wrong direction …”

Wrong, Scotty! Plural subject requires a plural verb: “have”, not “has”; you wouldn’t get into a real university writing like that on an entrance exam.

But Morrison will not be deported to Nauru for an indefinite period of remedial English classes. Aside from the fact that his political friends wouldn’t do that to him, few people in Australia are likely to be aware of his inability to speak English correctly.

This is so because nearly all the reports of Morrison’s words changed them. They quoted him as saying, “This idea that people and inequality and incomes have been going …”

When I read Louise O’Shea (Red Flag 100) quoting Morrison saying “has” instead of “have”, I decided to check with a Google search. Of 348 quotes that Google found at the time, 346 had Morrison speaking grammatically. Two quoted what he really said.

I am confident of this because one of the two dissenters was the ABC’s transcript of the program – more or less the equivalent of Hansard without ministerial staff amendments. (The second was a blog called aussiemagpie. Red Flag’s correct quote didn’t show up on Google because it hadn’t yet been printed.)

Did those “authoritative” sources deliberately misrepresent what Morrison had said? Some undoubtedly did. Depending on who they were, they told themselves, “We’re just making it clear what he really meant” and/or “We can’t let a Liberal minister look like the dork he is”. The rest probably took the inaccurate quotation from one of those sources, without even considering the possibility that the “authoritative” quote was false.

Does this tell us something about Australian commercial media? A grammatical error is rather trivial, but if the media will falsify something that doesn’t matter very much, can we trust them to tell the truth on issues their owners really care about?