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Is Morrison gaining a reputation for untrustworthiness? The answer could have serious implications for the election

For good legal and ethical reasons, the media are generally wary of calling someone a liar.

It is a serious slur on a person’s reputation, implying that he or she is untrustworthy, unreliable, duplicitous and deceitful.

These are the kinds of meanings lawyers draw from the word “liar” when preparing a writ for defamation. Unless a media outlet is confident it can defend these meanings, it is foolhardy to make the accusation.

From an ethical standpoint, such a serious slur on a person’s reputation ought not be made without solid evidence and good reason.

Up to the point when French President Emmanuel Macron accused him of lying over the submarine contract, the media had generally avoided calling Morrison a liar, while many times accusing him of playing fast and loose with the truth.

Sean Kelly, in his recent book The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, gives several examples.

One was a statement about the risk that asylum seekers would bring diseases such as typhoid to Australia, followed by a denial that he had said anything about the risk. Another was perpetuating the lie that the Uluru Statement from the Heart included a proposal for a third chamber of parliament. A third was when he declared Australia was “at the front of the queue” for COVID-19 vaccines when it clearly was not.

The significance of the Macron accusation is that it gave the media legal cover to call Morrison a liar by quoting the French president. Then Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, said Morrison had lied to him often. This is all useful evidence.

“Oh, he’s lied to me on many occasions,” Turnbull was reported as saying. “Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies.”

Then Neil Mitchell on Melbourne radio 3AW put the accusation of lying directly to Morrison. Mitchell asked him whether he had ever told a lie in public life. Morrison replied: “I don’t believe I have, no.”

This was a very interesting answer.

Read more: View from The Hill: Scott Morrison caught in catch-22 over the issue of his integrity

No one is in a position to refute Morrison’s belief. If he says he believes he has never lied, then that’s that. But it is not conclusive.

Morrison’s belief is subjective: it comes from within the person concerned.

The public, however, is entitled to an objective response – what his words convey to the ordinary reasonable person. The media are entitled to hold Morrison to account for the objective meaning, regardless of what he might have believed he was saying.

The media and the public are under no obligation to accept his beliefs. They can look at the facts, at the words he used, and ask: what would an ordinary reasonable person think Morrison was saying?

Take the submarine deal. Morrison’s office leaked a text message from Macron in which Macron asked: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?”

Morrison, when asked about it, said:

[Macron] made it pretty clear he was concerned that this would be a phone call that could result in a decision by Australia not to proceed.

Morrison’s subjective interpretation is that this amounted to telling the French the deal was off. Objectively, it is nothing of the kind. It is obvious Macron did not know what the government’s decision was.

Now, under the legal cover provided by Macron and Turnbull, there has been a cascade of media stories about Morrison’s alleged lying.

The Guardian has listed five topics on which it says Morrison has made false or incorrect statements: electric vehicles, the submarines, the vaccination roll-out, Australia’s policy on Taiwan, and his calling the former Labor senator, Sam Dastyari, “Shanghai Sam”.

The Australian Financial Review’s Phil Coorey commented that there were now questions about Morrison’s integrity and this meant he was carrying baggage into the election that he had not had to carry in 2019.

Even Morrison’s media allies on Sky News are joining in. After Morrison’s about-face on electric vehicles, Andrew Bolt said Morrison was exacerbating exactly the criticism he has been getting, “of being a fake, of being untrustworthy, of not telling the truth”. Bolt went on to call Morrison a fake and a fool.

At a time when democracies are being weakened by disinformation and misinformation, the conduct that Morrison is accused of is pernicious. The world saw what happened to the American democracy when the big lie about a stolen election took hold.

This places an extra responsibility on journalists not only to be sure they tell the truth themselves but to call out lies and falsehoods when they see them.

There is a vast literature stretching back to Machiavelli’s The Prince on the subject of truth and lying in public life. Machiavelli argued that a lie was justified if it succeeded in accomplishing a political goal, wrong if it failed. Morality did not enter the calculation.

Read more: 'I don't think, I know' – what makes Macron's comments about Morrison so extraordinary and so worrying

The contemporary ethicist Sissela Bok takes a radically different view. She begins by asking under what circumstances does lying in public life undermine trust most grievously?

She also argues for a broad definition of what constitutes lying. She rejects a definition that requires both that a statement be made with the intention to deceive others and that the statement itself be false.

It is sufficient, in her view, that there be an intention to deceive – for example, by making a statement that might not be entirely false but which is couched in such terms as to mislead.

The risk Morrison takes is that if the media continue to focus on his integrity, as they have for the past couple of weeks, a stereotype will develop of him as untrustworthy. In the run-up to an election, that would be bad news for him.

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