Kicking down the bedroom door

Photograph anonymous
Graphics by John Merkel

That celebrated ‘rock star’ politician, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, famously told us that politics has no place in the bedroom. That wise advice seems to have been forgotten by the Australian media in the past five years. Now the dam walls threaten to break. The private lives of politicians – and potentially other high profile figures, like CEOs of major companies, senior public servants and community activists – are now regarded as public property by the media.

The Australian media started kicking down the bedroom door in earnest in 2002, with veteran Canberra correspondent Laurie Oakes’ revelations about the extramarital relationship between Cheryl Kernot (as Democrats leader) and Gareth Evans (as Labor’s Foreign Minister). The disclosure was said to be justified by the fact that Evans had been instrumental in persuading Kernot to leave the Democrats and join Labor in 1998.

Fast forward to 2004, and the media breathlessly reported that Labor Leader Mark Latham has been captured on film misbehaving at a bucks’ night. A report that turned out to be without foundation. That didn’t stop the media from rushing to give Latham’s first wife airtime to describe the ‘horrors’ of being married to her ex. What was most disturbing about this episode was it showed when it comes to affairs of the heart or bed, today any rumour – rather than fact – counts as news.

As Shaun Carney noted in the Age on July 7 this year: ‘Not so long ago, newspapers, radio and television used to observe a convention that rumours were not regarded as news How far we’ve come. The bucks’ night rumour seems to have first appeared on the Crikey website late last week, then on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, then in a Sydney Sunday newspaper, and on Sunday night it was cited by press gallery veteran Laurie Oakes on the highest rating TV news of the week, the Nine Network’s 6pm bulletin.’

Soon after this, federal Liberal MP Ross Cameron spilled the beans on his own extramarital activities in the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Good Weekend magazine. Presumably Cameron wanted to get his story out before the media pulled his pants down.

In both the Latham and the Cameron cases the media justified its excited pursuit of these stories by arguing the public should know about the ‘character’ of the politicians they elect. In the case of Cameron, great weight was given to the fact that he’s scored considerable political mileage from proclaiming moral sanctity as a necessity in Australian life.

This shift in demarcation between the public and private is not just the fault of journalists chasing a scoop, desperate for that competitive edge to boost declining circulation. It’s been fuelled by the Howard government’s bad habit of feeding the media with highly personal slurs and innuendoes about its political enemies.

Take Andrew Wilkie, the former Office of National Assessments official who went public on the Howard government’s ‘sexing up’ of the case for the war in Iraq. Wilkie’s now a Greens candidate in the Prime Minister’s seat of Bennelong. Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s office provided briefing material to Coalition Senators on Wilkie before the latter testified before a Senate Committee. A Western Australian Liberal Senator, David Johnstone launched an extraordinary attack on Wilkie at the same time, describing him as ‘very unstable’. ‘At the very best, he is unreliable; at worst, he is flaky and irrational’, Johnstone fumed under cover of parliamentary privilege.

Last month one of the Howard government’s favourite barrackers, Andrew Bolt of the Herald-Sun, breathlessly informed readers that Mike Scrafton – who is causing Mr Howard embarrassment with his challenge to the PM’s truth-telling on the ‘children overboard’ affair – had been reprimanded for viewing pornography on his work computer. What this has to do with Mr Scrafton’s recollection of his conversations with Mr Howard about refugees is anyone’s guess!

How is the public good served by this kind of muck-racking? Not one bit. The Australian media has headed down a path that is highly destructive. It has taken the view that figures in public life are – as F Scott Fitzgerald said of the rich – ‘different from you and me’. Public figures are flawed human beings like the rest of us. We all aim for integrity in our private lives, and we all suffer from hypocrisy and fallibility in trying to meet that standard.

It is activity in the public realm that matters in a democracy – not what its participants do in their private worlds. By blurring that important distinction, the Australian media is confusing the community and eroding our faith in democracy.

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