Australia’s Prime Minister is facing renewed questions about his links to the country’s highest profile QAnon supporter, after an episode of an investigative TV show looking into the controversy was suddenly pulled this week.
The episode of Four Corners, an investigative reporting series on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was scheduled to air next Monday, looking at the alleged influence wielded by Tim Stewart, Australia’s foremost QAnon booster, and his friend of 30 years Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
But on Thursday the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the show had been pulled after editor-in-chief David Anderson expressed concerns about the show.
The decision comes just days after former Attorney General and current Industry Minister Christian Porter decided to drop his defamation action against the ABC over the reporting by Four Corners of a historical rape allegation against him.
But in an email to staff on Friday, seen by VICE News, Anderson defended the decision not to air the show, saying “any suggestion that I ‘pulled’ or ‘blocked’ the program is simply not true.”
Anderson said he had been shown a rough cut of the episode on Wednesday and wanted to “satisfy myself further on a number of claims made in the story.” He asked the reporters to provide a written response next week, saying the airing of the episode was not time-sensitive.
Whether the story was pulled or simply delayed, the result is that allegations that have been simmering for the last 18 months are headline news again, and could now threaten Morrison’s credibility.
Morrison, speaking to reporters in the capital Canberra on Friday, said it was “really poor form” for Four Corners to look into those allegations.
“I find it deeply offensive there would be any suggestion I would have any involvement or support for such a dangerous organisation. I clearly do not,” Morrison said. “It is just also disappointing that Four Corners in their inquiries would seek to cast this aspersion, not just against me but by members of my own family.”
While QAnon is predominantly a U.S. phenomenon, one of the most startling aspects of a conspiracy theory so deeply rooted in U.S. politics is how quickly it has gone global. And Australia is one of the countries where it has the strongest hold.
And Stewart, who previously ran an online health food venture called Fruit Loop, was one of its most vocal supporters from the very beginning, amassing a Twitter following of over 20,000 people.
Morrison and Stewart have been friends for 30 years because their wives, Jenny Morrison and Lynelle Stewart, are best friends. The pair were bridesmaids at each other's weddings and today Lynelle Stewart works for her friend in the Prime Minister’s residence in Sydney, where she holds a government security clearance.
The claims about Morrison’s links to QAnon date back to a speech given by Morrison in the Australian Parliament on October 22, 2018, when he issued a formal apology to the survivors of institutional child abuse.
“The crimes of ritual sexual abuse happened in schools, churches, youth groups, scout troops, orphanages, foster homes, sporting clubs, group homes, charities, and in family homes as well,” Morrison said.
The use of the term “ritual” was what caught the attention of some watching, as it was not a term used by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. At the time the use of the term went unnoticed by the mainstream media, but a blogger called Richard Bartholomew did highlight its use as odd at the time.
But the strange phase didn’t escape the notice of QAnon figures. Notably, Joe M, at the time one of the biggest QAnon voices on Twitter, wrote: “Do my ears deceive me?” asked Joe M. “The new Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison must be a rider in #TheStorm.”
An explanation for the use of the term “ritual” came six months later, when a former friend of Stewart, Eliahi Priest, posted a video on Facebook detailing the close relationship Stewart had with Morrison and how he claimed to wield influence over the prime minister.
At one point Stewart told Priest in a Signal message, included in the video, that the prime minister was “awakening”—a term used widely for people who believe in QAnon conspiracies.
Stewart then sent a message at 7.30am on the morning of the speech, saying: “I think Scott is going to do it!!” which Priest said was a reference to dropping the word “ritual” into his address to parliament.
But the link between Morrison and Stewart wasn’t reported in the media until months later when the Guardian linked Morrison and Stewart. Subsequently the website Crikey reported in October 2019 that Stewart and his son Jesse both openly celebrated on social media Morrison’s use of the term ritual in the hours after the speech.
The investigation also highlighted how the Stewarts had worked with Australia’s most notorious conspiracy theorist Fiona Barnett to get Morrison to use the term “ritual” in his speech.
“Great moment,” Jesse tweeted. “You know #theGreatAwakening is in full swing when the Australian Prime Minister @ScottMorrisonMP mentions #RitualAbuse,” describing it as a “big step in a good direction for Australia”
“Scott is a patriot,” he added.
Tim Stewart also celebrated, tweeting via his now-deleted account Burn Notice, that “a new conversation began today in Australia. It was a stepping stone to be sure, but we took the step. @ScottMorrisonMP took control of the narrative powerfully and commenced phase 1 of our restoration.”
Morrison at the time attempted to dismiss any links between the use of the term ritual and QAnon in a statement to Crikey.
“The term ‘ritual’ is one that the Prime Minister heard directly from the abuse survivors and the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse Reference Group he met with in the lead up to the Apology, and refers not just to the ritualised way or patterns in which so many crimes were committed but also to the frequency and repetition of them,” a spokesperson for Morrison said in a statement.
But 18 months later the controversy has not gone away. And whether or not the Four Corners episode was pulled or simply delayed due to editorial concerns, according to Andersen’s email to staff, it will be aired at some point, meaning Morrison will have a lot more questions to answer about his links to Stewart and to QAnon.