The team behind the ABC's Four Corners program has been described as an "elite investigative unit". The phrase conjures images of intrepid reporters battling vested interests as they unearth the truth about corporate and institutional malfeasance. Think Spotlight – which recounted the Boston Globe's dogged efforts to expose paedophilia in that city's Catholic archdiocese, often amidst intimidation or intransigence – and you get the idea.
I don't know whether previous episodes of Four Corners are sufficient to justify this kind of esteem. But what is clear is that "The Great Awakening", the program's recent probe into the friendship between Scott Morrison and QAnon devotee, Tim Stewart, falls far short of these exalted journalistic standards. Regardless of your opinion of the Prime Minister, I think it's true to say that he's the victim of what the industry calls a "hit piece" – a scurrilous example of televisual muckraking, masquerading as sober reportage.
The whole episode reeks of a desperate attempt to subvert Morrison's reputation – not for incompetence, nor for corruption, but for his long-standing association with Stewart. Reporter Louise Milligan and her colleagues have tried assiduously to cast aspersions over the PM, speaking ominously about potential security threats and Stewart's possible influence upon his friend. Trying to compensate for a near-total lack of credible evidence, "The Great Awakening" presents a web of insinuations and tendentious claims designed to overwhelm the viewer's critical faculties. Punctuating these segments are poignant testimonies from Stewart's distraught family, as they grieve the son and brother believed lost to the fevered world of QAnon.
One of the first things that strikes informed viewers is how much of the information supposedly uncovered by Four Corners has been in the public domain for two years. No new documents were unearthed, and any damning testimony proving, say, Stewart's sway over the PM was conspicuously absent. While Milligan and her associates have supplemented the narrative with more recent events (including senatorial inquiries into the matter), they have failed to add anything of substance.
Anyone looking for further insight into the relationship between Morrison and Stewart is likely to be disappointed. Christopher Knaus and Josh Taylor, writing for the Guardian Australia, reported on the connection in 2019. They revealed the PM's enduring friendship with Stewart, pre-dating the emergence of QAnon by many years. Knaus and Taylor also divulged details concerning Stewart's wife and her (former) position on the Morrison family's staff. But nothing in that article implied an improper relationship between the two men, nor that the employment of Stewart's wife at Kirribilli House was inappropriate. The Guardian article didn't so much as hint at any kind impropriety, and quoted Stewart categorically denying any conversations about QAnon – or public policy generally – with Morrison. True, Stewart seems to have boasted about intimate access to the PM to like-minded individuals. But while that may be somewhat embarrassing for Morrison, such behaviour is more plausibly explained as an all-too-human instance of braggadocio. The PM, for his part, has simply repudiated QAnon as a "dangerous" movement with which he has no relationship.
In 50 minutes of innuendo and solemn warnings, "The Great Awakening" does little to contradict this basic picture. Milligan and her producers strain themselves as they try and weave a scandal out of otherwise ordinary relationships, dangling a series of dark possibilities before unwary viewers. At one point they draw a link between Morrison's ill-advised trip to Hawaii in late-2019 and his friendship with Stewart, although it's difficult to discern their aim. Was this another (contrived) example of Stewart's Svengali-like power over Morrison? It must be said that a holiday between friends and a few personal photos do not a conspiracy make.
A somewhat esoteric connection is drawn between Morrison's use of the term "ritual sexual abuse" – uttered during a 2018 parliamentary apology to the victims of sexual molestation within various institutions – and the predilections of QAnon disciples. This is about as close as Four Corners get to anything resembling a connection between the PM and the constellation of beliefs to which Stewart adheres. Reproducing a text message Stewart sent to his wife at the time, Milligan alleges that he sought to persuade Morrison to include the phrase in his speech because of its status within QAnon networks; that the PM used it is cited as evidence that he offered a coded signal to Stewart and his allies, indicating sympathy with their cause.
Activist zeal has again run ahead of logic and facts. It's certainly true that members of QAnon talk incessantly about sexual abuse, especially of a ritualised nature. Indeed, their entire theology is founded on the belief that an international cabal of Satanic paedophiles, manipulating events from the shadows, has engineered the great crises of our age for the purpose of global domination. But a single text message, expressing one man's hope that his powerful friend would use a phrase of his choosing, is a very thin reed on which to hang the theory that Morrison may well be a fellow-traveller.
More importantly, Four Corners failed to mention that tales of ritual sexual abuse are hardly confined to the benighted margins of the extreme Right. The feminist Brisbane Rape and Incest Survivors Support Centre (BRISSC) freely uses the term on its website. Similarly, the Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse (now known as the Blue Knot Foundation) explored the concept of ritual abuse, sexual and otherwise, in a comprehensive report produced some 11 years before the first appearance of Q. And what about survivor testimonies given at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses Child Sexual Abuse? Many of them go into harrowing detail, as brave souls disclosed memories of sexual violence during ceremonies that can aptly be described as "rituals" (monstrously perverse though they were).
All these statements are in the public realm, a mere click away for the curious – or simply competent – reporter. Having found its way into a royal commission, the use of "ritual" to describe certain types of sexual abuse is hardly uncommon. A subsequent statement released by the ABC has, of course, tried to claim a semantic distinction between "ritual" (which devotees of Q supposedly favour) and "ritualistic". This is spurious. Aside from the fact that various bodies – entirely unrelated to QAnon – have used the word "ritual" in their advocacy, the difference is likely to be lost on the uninitiated. And in the relevant sense, Morrison is one of the uninitiated. While it's not impossible that he used "ritual" at the behest of Stewart and his allies, there's every reason to believe that he uttered the word – like so many others – while remaining ignorant of its allegedly menacing connotations.
Aside from watching the evident distress of Tim Stewart's family, perhaps the saddest part of "The Great Awakening" was the implied suggestion that Morrison should cut his friend adrift. Stewart's sister even evinces incredulity that the PM would want to be "seen" with someone holding such bizarre beliefs. But shunning people for embracing odd convictions is a notion that should appeal only to those whose lives remain untouched by compassion or sympathy. More to the point, heeding such counsel is bound to reinforce a person's conspiratorial thinking. As many voices have suggested – including those at the ABC – isolation acts as a breeding ground for the cult-like fervour that acolytes of Q routinely exhibit.
Numerous stories of immense public interest are waiting to be found in the wreckage created by QAnon. However, while "The Great Awakening"gestured in this direction, the program's efforts were largely inhibited by the overriding attempt to discredit Morrison. Let's hope that journalists unencumbered by naked partisanship might soon examine the real costs of this online scourge.