Of Standards Bearers and Jokers


Members of a major political Party busted doling out fake pamphlets; Walkley-award-winning journalists losing it with Federal candidates at polling booths. With this sort of feral behaviour, perhaps our former Prime Minister was right to campaign so vigorously against the decline of ‘family values.’

These are the type of values invoked by The Australian‘s Caroline Overington – the journalist accused of assaulting and abusing Labor’s candidate for Wentworth, George Newhouse – in her comments over Julia Gilliard’s admission that she doesn’t place a great deal of importance on marriage and religion:

Two of the key pillars of Western civilisation, two grand institutions, two of the most precious and important elements in most people’s lives Christian faith, and the family and [Gillard’s] openly dismissive.

Good, old-fashioned values are also something close to the heart of Fairfax’s Miranda Devine – a self-styled standards bearer of the Howard era. It’s confusing then, to say the least, that Devine devoted a recent column to defending Overington’s email exchange with Danielle Ecuyer, independent candidate for Wentworth and former girlfriend of Newhouse.

‘Have you decided how to preference yet??’ Overington wrote to Ecuyer.

‘No sweetie, it is way too early, let’s see what happens on policy from the major Parties if anything,’ Ecuyer replied.

Overington’s response? ‘Too early! My girl, you’ve got four weeks Please preference Malcolm. It would be such a good front-page story. Also, he’d be loss to the parliament and George forgive me would be no gain.’

According to Devine, ABC TV’s Media Watch Executive Producer Tim Palmer and Presenter Monica Attard ‘squandered the program’s opportunities to do good’ in their final episode by fussing over what amounted to a ‘jocular exchange’ between the journalist and the aspiring politician. Apparently blinded by their ‘spurious vendettas against female columnists’ Devine lists herself, Overington and Janet Albrechtsen as examples Palmer and Attard missed the point:

Overington says it was a joke, and anyone who knows her or has even the most fleeting acquaintance with her knows she is always making such jokes. It’s part of her style.

Devine’s reading of the controversy had support from Overington’s boss, The Australian‘s Editor-in-Chief, Chris Mitchell. He also dismissed the correspondence as simply part of Overington’s style. The exchanges were ‘no more than colourful’, Mitchell claimed, and to be expected from one of his ‘colour writers.’

Mitchell’s description of Overington is also confusing. Here’s what her prominent byline on The Australian website tells readers: she’s a ‘two-time winner of the Walkley Award for investigative journalism’ and ‘last year received the Sir Keith Murdoch Award for Excellence in Journalism.’

In an interview with Devine before his Government’s annihilation in last weekend’s election, John Howard proudly summed up his legacy as a four-term Prime Minister: he’s left this country ‘less politically correct.’ In case we’re in any doubt about what that meant, his wife spelled it out to Devine. Janette Howard described the ‘culture wars’ her husband is claiming victory over in terms even the most ‘ordinary’ Australian could understand: they were a battle over ‘standards.’

Defined this way, the Right’s pre-occupation with protecting decent folk from the threat of moral bankruptcy posed by what Devine calls the ‘progressive wreckers’ of our values and institutions seems a matter of common sense. What reasonable person wants to see the high standards of an exemplary Western liberal democracy like Australia eroded?

In relation to the most democratically vital of these institutions the media these are the sort of high standards that courageously drive investigative journalists to hold government and big business publicly accountable. Overington’s recent book on the AWB scandal, Kickback, is a shining example of this.

On the back cover of that book is the now infamous image of disgraced AWB executive Trevor Flugge, shirtless and smirking, pointing a gun. No doubt Flugge would write this private photo off as some kind of ‘joke.’ But, as journalists like Overington are well aware, his intention was irrelevant.

In a democracy, the public quite rightly demands that there be an appearance of probity as well as real probity from politicians and anyone else in a position of power and influence particularly in an era where journalists jump at the chance to ‘out’ public figures over comments made off-the-record or in social contexts.

The experience of former NSW Opposition Leader John Brogden is a case in point. After Premier Bob Carr resigned in 2005, Brogden tipsy at a private function – distastefully described Carr’s wife Helena as a ‘mail-order bride’ and sexually harassed two female journalists. The media had a field day and Brogden attempted suicide.

In his analysis of ‘hyena journalism’ in the Brogden case, Rodney Tiffen singled out the Daily Telegraph for practising ‘the well-established tabloid maxim that the best time to kick a man is when he’s down’ – referring to the Tele‘s publishing a ‘secret shame file’ on ‘Brogden’s Sordid Past.’ Tiffen’s view that ‘too often the excesses of one media organisation allow politicians and commentators and the public to tar them all with the same brush’ is a commonly held one, particularly among those in the ‘quality’ media. It’s assumed one of the crucial differences between ‘tabloid’ versus ‘quality’ media formats is that the former ‘are scavengers rather than hunters.’


Certainly, the Daily Telegraph’s handling of the Brogden affair looked particularly shameful in light of his suicide attempt. But while tabloids may trade more vigorously in the personal particularly anything sexual ‘quality’ media has become increasingly vigorous in its erasing of private/public boundaries.

In the end, the distinction between ‘tabloid’ versus ‘quality’ media formats is a difference that makes no difference as far as the players or the public are concerned. Careers are destroyed and personal reputations ruined if there’s a story in it. The notion of what’s ‘in the public interest’ may be cashed out differently, but it’s driven by the same thing: satisfying the audience.

Yet, while the media has become increasingly comfortable with putting anyone in the public eye under the microscope, they are themselves now ‘being peered at from every angle and finding the experience deeply uncomfortable,’ as The Age‘s Matthew Ricketson puts it.

Commentators like Devine and Crikey‘s Christian Kerr think people critical of Overington’s behaviour should just lighten up. But if journalists of the claimed seniority of Caroline Overington want to hold politicians to account in the way she does in her AWB book, they need to expect that their own professional correspondence will be held to account.

Whether they’re joking is irrelevant ‘making a joke’ is not an excuse that flies when any correspondence can be understood as having a professional implication to it. What matters is the appearance of being above a conflict of interest, as much as the reality of whether there is one.

Overington may well have been involved in what she perceived as a light-hearted exchange between two ‘girls’ bantering about politics and journalism. But as someone who consistently invokes her status as a serious journalist with a book on the AWB scandal, she ought to be far more aware of the difference between personal and professional exchanges.

The same goes for Devine. By aligning herself with a ‘fierce newshound’ like Overington, as well as emphasising that her trip to Afghanistan and Iraq in August was made in concert with a senior journalist like Dennis Shanahan, the political editor of The Australian, she affords herself a status well beyond that of a ‘colourful’ opinion writer. Other less-than-frivolous pursuits confirm her public status: she sits on the Editorial Advisory Board of the influential Quadrant magazine and was appointed to the Australian Government’s National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy from 2004 to 2005.

As their own professional code of ethics puts it, journalists ‘scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable.’ No one has been more outspoken or more active on this issue than former Fairfax journalist Margo Kingston. She’s ‘completely disgusted by the hypocrisy’ of the media ‘holding politicians and public figures to account, sometimes in the most unfair and distorted ways, while having no accountability ourselves.’ While acknowledging the complexity of the issues involved, for Kingston, the bottom line is simple: ‘If we give it out we’ve gotta cop it. That’s the problem in the profession – that we won’t cop it.’

Media pundits less-than-pleased with the Federal election result are tripping over themselves to hold Rudd to his promise of restoring ‘accountability’ to government. And so they should.

But they must be prepared for the same type of scrutiny. That great standards-bearer of our time, John Winston Howard, even had a term for it: ‘mutual obligation.’

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