Fiery text messages have emerged between a Channel Ten reporter who was having a nervous breakdown and Scott Morrison’s office over the former prime minister’s infamous handshake with a bushfire victim.
Daily Mail Australia revealed on Monday how former Canberra political reporter Tegan George, 38, says she was left suicidal and turned to alcohol after being traumatised by the bushfire crisis.
Ms George says she suffered PTSD and nightmares after seeing apocalyptic scenes of dead livestock killed in the blazes and terrified families fighting for their lives and homes.
She says she is haunted by the harrowing scenes she witnessed while covering the devastating fires around the NSW South Coast for Ten between December 31, 2019 and January 5, 2020.
But in the midst of the mayhem, she publicly branded the PM a liar after she filed a report on Cobargo bushfire survivor Zoey McDermott refusing to shake Mr Morrison’s hand on January 3, 2020.
Mr Morrison grabbed Ms McDermot’s hand anyway and heard the pregnant mum’s pleas for more support for the local fire service before telling her, ‘I understand’ and walking away.
Ms McDermott later slammed the PM for turning his back on her after she had just lost everything in the bushfire which razed her home.
Fiery text messages have emerged between Channel Ten reporter Tegan George (pictured) who was having a nervous breakdown and Scott Morrison’s office over the former prime minister’s infamous handshake with a bushfire victim
But the PM told reporters: ‘We talked about what she was asking for, which was greater support for the firefighting effort in that part of New South Wales.
‘So we talked about that.’
In a tweet that day, Ms George accused the PM of lying about the conversation, sparking a furious reaction from the Prime Minister’s Office.
After a terse exchange of messages between Ms George and one of the PM’s media advisers, Ms George told colleagues the PMO was ‘going’ her ‘for tweeting ScoMo lied’.
She posted them a screenshot of the terse exchange with the PM’s Office over the row.
‘Hi Tegan, re your tweet – can I please clarify what you say the PM lied about exactly?’ former PM media staffer Kate Williams messaged Ms George at 7.49pm on January 3, 2020.
‘Hey Kate, I’ve spoken with Zoe personally and she says the PM did not talk to her and what he is saying did not happen,’ replied Ms George. ‘He has said twice now it did.’
The PM’s Office fired back: ‘Sorry, he spoke to her on camera? What did he say happen that didn’t happen?’
The tweet triggered a terse exchange between George and the Prime Minister’s Office
Tegan George publicly branded the PM a liar after she filed a report on Cobargo bushfire survivor Zoey McDermott refusing to shake Scott Morrison’s hand on January 3, 2020
Ms George replied that Ms McDermott felt the PM had not talked to her and told the PMO that she would be happy to clarify his claims because the footage appeared to contradict him.
‘They spoke on camera,’ replied Ms Williams. ‘Understand she may feel a certain way but you’re the one calling the PM a liar.
‘So you need to be able to back up what he is lying about. He said he would pass on concerns about the RFS…’
Ms George forwarded the exchange to Ten’s political editor Peter van Onselen asking for advice. He promised his support but warned her not to call anyone an outright liar.
‘I’ll always back you up on stuff like this,’ he told her in a text that night. ‘Just for your own back of mind thoughts – and I hope you know I’m no jelly back!
‘But I try and avoid the word liar just because they do get rather angry about it. I know twitter hates phrases like “loose with the truth” or “deliberately misleading” etc.
‘But they make it much harder for them to have a whinge…just keep that in mind if you’d rather not always end up in a slanging match.’
He added ‘That said, it’s a good way to start to be firm so they don’t try and mission creep everytime when complaining to you.
‘If she’s unhappy with you simply saying you’re confident in your position having talked to the woman then tell her she has to take it further – which means taking it to me.
‘That will end it.’
Ms George thanked him for his advice and added: ‘That sounds like a good plan. Thank you.
‘I told her I stuck by my tweet and perhaps the PMO should put this much energy into helping out Zoe and her family … that didn’t go down well hahaha.
‘I ended up saying so you’re saying at best he was deliberately misleading? Haven’t heard back since but if so do I will tell them to take it up with you.’
Daily Mail Australia has contacted Ms Williams for comment.
Ms George is still a Ten employee but has been on sick leave since June 2021 and currently has two legal actions underway against her TV network bosses.
Ten’s political editor Peter Van Onselen pledged his full support to Ms George and told her to tell the PMO to take it up with him if they wanted to pursue it, adding: ‘That will end it’
Tegan George says the trauma of the bushfires in Bega, Bermagui, Merimbula and Cobargo which she covered between January 1-5 in 2020 wrecked her mental health and career
Tegan George’s lawsuit alleges the experience left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse/dependence
Ms George is suing Network Ten for personal injury caused by their alleged negligence and breach of duty of care in a fresh legal action against the TV station in ACT Supreme Court.
It follows another lawsuit she filed in the Federal Court in February 2022 claiming Dr van Onselen, 47, sabotaged her career and tried to make a star out of another reporter to ‘get back’ at her.
Dr van Onselen is one of several senior employees named in that lawsuit, which alleges Ten failed to provide a safe working environment for her at the Canberra bureau.
He is named again in the latest legal action, which was launched in March this year with an updated statement of claim made in October which links the two cases.
Dr van Onselen is understood to have been working in Melbourne for The Project prior to going on leave over Christmas and played no part in Ten’s bushfire coverage.
Ms George said the trauma of the bushfires in Bega, Bermagui, Merimbula and Cobargo which she covered between January 1-5 in 2020 wrecked her mental health and career.
Her claim against Ten said the trauma left her ‘intermittently incapacitated for work from February 27, 2020 and then totally incapacitated for work since June 7, 2021.
It alleges the experience left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse/dependence.
Ms George said she now suffers panic attacks and suicidal thoughts and has had to be admitted to full-time psychiatric care.
She still suffers ‘distressing dreams’ about the bushfires and is haunted by the memories of the suffering she witnessed and what she went through personally.
Her legal action says she can’t sleep as a result, struggles to concentrate or focus her attention, and has ‘numbness on the left hand side of her body’.
She is still unable to work, the court documents say, and she has ‘feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness’.
Former Canberra political reporter Tegan George says she is haunted by the harrowing scenes she saw while covering the catastrophic fires around the NSW south coast
Tegan George says she suffered PTSD and nightmares after seeing apocalyptic scenes of dead livestock killed in the blazes and terrified families fighting for their lives and homes
She has ‘reduced energy, motivation and interest and engagement in enjoyable activities’, the court documents allege, and suffers headaches and jaw pain.
Ms George needs to take several drugs, including ‘increased dosage’ of antidepressants fluoxetine and venlafaxine, tranquilliser diazepam and the anti-panic attack/PTSD drug Sertraline.
The legal action claims Ten ignored George’s symptoms of ‘psychological disturbance’ and failed to protect her against criticism of her work by Dr van Onselen and former executive editor Anthony Murdoch.
Ms George also alleged her sick leave triggered by the trauma was questioned by the TV station’s network news content editor, Ross Dagan.
She claimed was put under pressure to become involved ‘against her will’ in a workplace action against a colleague.
She said Ten failed in its duty of care to her by not giving her bushfire training in advance of being sent out to cover the blazes, failing to minimise the risk of injury and failing to identify the risk to her health and safety.
‘A reasonable person would have seen a person of normal fortitude might suffer a recognised psychiatric illness if reasonable care was not taken,’ alleges the lawsuit.
‘But for the [trauma], she would not have developed the psychological response to subsequent workplace events that she ultimately did – which culminated in her being incapacitated for work on June 7, 2021.’
Ten’s formal defence denies all allegations of negligence and says George’s claim relies on the ‘benefit of hindsight’.
It adds: ‘No contemporaneous “warning signs” were reasonably apparent to the defendant.’
The bushfires lawsuit against Ten has been filed through Sneddon Hall & Gallop Lawyers in Canberra, a different law firm from George’s earlier legal action against Ten, which is being pursued by Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.
A spokesman for Ms George told Daily Mail Australia it was the latest attempt by her to expose ‘the horrible way’ Ten allegedly treats its staff.
She and a colleague had to dodge flames by zigzagging through remote backroads to try to reach safety – and never knew if they were driving into an inferno, she alleges
George alleged TV bosses ordered her to drive into danger zones at the height of the fire crisis despite safety fears and ash falling from the black skies above her
‘Both legal cases have caused Ms George considerable stress and ill health,’ said a Maurice Blackburn spokesman.
‘She is determined to continue both cases to expose the horrible way Network Ten treats its staff, particularly female journalists, and to expose how it has allowed a work place culture that is hostile and toxic towards women.’
Ten responded to the new claim by Ms George by insisting that staff were supported by the TV network.
‘Supporting our staff’s wellbeing and ensuring a safe working environment is a key priority for Network 10,’ said a spokesman.
‘We offer a comprehensive employee assistance scheme and bespoke health and wellbeing services for news staff who require additional support, including for dangerous and affecting environments.
‘We work very hard across our entire business to ensure we have supportive work environments.