The former Queensland supreme court chief justice overseeing the robodebt royal commission has singled out reporters from Guardian Australia and the Saturday Paper for their “committed” coverage of the evidence, calling it a “remarkably useful and important public service”, while criticising many other media outlets for their “patchy” coverage.
On the final day of hearings into the former Coalition government’s Centrelink income compliance program, just before closing statements, the commissioner, Catherine Holmes SC, took a few minutes to make observations about media coverage of the proceedings.
“This commission has to inquire and report, and an important part of the inquiry component is these public hearings because it’s the opportunity to explore evidence in a public forum,” Holmes said.
“But not many people have the practical ability, or the time or perhaps the will to sit through day after day of hearings. The interest of what I’ll call the traditional media to distinguish it from social media in these hearings has, with some honourable exceptions, been patchy.”
In the five months the royal commission has been holding public hearings, victims of robodebt have described financial and emotional suffering in the face of an opaque and punitive government program that was designed for budget savings rather than social welfare.
Media coverage across “traditional” outlets tended “to flare when a minister is on the stand”, Holmes said.
The royal commission heard from multiple former Coalition ministers, including former prime ministers Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull, former human services minister Alan Tudge, former government services minister Stuart Robert and former social services minister and attorney general Christian Porter.
“As a result, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of social media in this context,” Holmes said.
“I’ve been struck by how committed and serious some of the people tweeting are. They provide an almost full-time running summary of evidence with occasional comment. Some of them are people who’ve long been engaged in the robodebt issue. And they both tweet and cross over into mainstream commentary.
“I’m thinking of people like [law lecturer] Dr [Darren] O’Donovan, [Saturday Paper journalist] Mr [Rick] Morton and [Guardian Australia social affairs and inequality editor] Mr [Luke] Henriques-Gomes,” Holmes said.
“I hasten to say I don’t agree with every privacy or characterisation of the evidence that I’ve seen but I want to acknowledge that the Twitter coverage of these hearings has performed a remarkably useful and important public service in giving people access to the evidence.”
The robodebt royal commission held its final public hearing on Friday after 46 days of evidence.