Only Some Bygones Are Bygones


Who here’s hanging out for The Matty Johns Show?

The former rugby league star’s new television vehicle "kicks off" at 7:30pm next Thursday 25 March on Channel Seven. The network is promising "a family-friendly mix of sporting stars, special guests, live performances, music and comedy".

It’s an oddly retrogressive prospect, harking back to the Hey Heyday of Aussie light entertainment. The jewels in Johns’s comedic crown will be gardening guru Don Kirk (a character based on Don Burke, whose 17-year-old show was finally euthanased in 2004) and explorer Alby Sandals (that’d be Alby Mangels, who’s hardly been seen since the late ’80s).

To add to the pervading retro flavour, Johns is apparently already feeling the pressure from the network "to produce high-quality improvised comedy in the style of Paul Hogan". Leaving aside the conflation of "high quality" and "Paul Hogan", Hoges’s show ran from 1973 to 1984.

Luckily for Johns, few media observers are revisiting his own just bygone era. Less than a year ago, Johns lost his Footy Show hosting gig at Channel Nine over allegations on the ABC’s Four Corners that he and his teammates had coerced a drunk 19-year-old girl into group sex on a preseason tour in 2002.

"His humour is absolutely incongruous with the revelations in the Four Corners report," wrote The Australian‘s Amanda Meade at the time. "At best he may be acceptable as a rugby league commentator — but even that depends on his being rehabilitated in the audience’s eyes."

As is usual for disgraced celebrities, Johns promptly grovelled for forgiveness — winning Tracy Grimshaw a Walkley Award for her interview with him along the way — but appeared much more concerned about his wife and family than about "Clare", the woman whose predicament, in Grimshaw’s words, "redefined consent".

Now he’s back, the jolly comedian whose antics the whole family can enjoy. Yet nobody seems to be asking whether someone whose callousness drove a teenager to the point of suicide ought to be hosting a family show. Is this what public rehabilitation looks like? And can his mates watch, too?

Meanwhile, the media are persecuting Lara Bingle in the tawdriest way over what is arguably a much lesser offence: an episode of infidelity which took place three years ago — and her willingness to accept money now to talk about it. As Jonathan Holmes pointed out in this week’s Media Watch, the Bingle frenzy reflects poorly on everyone concerned.

Why do the media refuse to forgive celebrities like Bingle, while others, like Matthew Johns, get their slates wiped clean? On what grounds do we let bygones be bygones?

Sydney Morning Herald league commentator Roy Masters suggested  that in sports TV, "credibility takes a back seat to likeability". Johns comes across as humble and personable, says Masters, whereas Lara Bingle and Brendan Fevola are "the balls of hot gas around whom the media world turns".

So, perhaps Bingle is being punished for craving the spotlight — and Fevola for once again stumbling into it — whereas Johns is rewarded for being quiet and dignified (qualities that surely will not last long into the first episode of The Matty Johns Show).

But if that’s true, then how come actress Winona Ryder will always be dogged by the stigma of shoplifting, despite taking five years off work after being convicted in 2002? She did her community service, paid her fines, and only spoke publicly about her crime in 2007 … yet she can’t escape those "sticky-fingered" jokes. It didn’t help when in 2008, the National Enquirer alleged that Ryder had set off a pharmacy’s security alarm by leaving with make-up for which she hadn’t paid.

No — there’s more to celebrity reputation management than public modesty and contrition. There’s also a gender dimension to our willingness to dredge up the "chequered past". We continue to judge female celebrities on years’ worth of their private behaviour — and we judge them more harshly than men.

Britney Spears is regularly criticised for being fat and slovenly, a weak singer and poor live performer, a bad parent to her sons and so mentally unstable she’s unable to manage her own life and thus is manipulated, puppet-like, by a circle of avaricious enablers. Spears has made many attempts to relaunch her career since her 2006 meltdown, and earned critical respect for her cameo appearances on How I Met Your Mother and her 2009 album Circus. Yet at the age of 28, she’s seemingly more interesting to the public as a ruin of a pop star and of a human being.

Similarly, when Heather Mills married former Beatle Paul McCartney in 2002, she was well-known as a committed vegetarian and charity campaigner. However, the media just couldn’t seem to get over the fact that Mills was once a nude model and is now an amputee. In her acrimonious divorce from McCartney in 2008, her past was raked over: nude photos; accusations of compulsive lying. Her claim for a sizeable chunk of McCartney’s fortune saw her widely pilloried as a "gold-digger", and her willingness to make dramatic public statements meant her charity work was no longer taken seriously. When she argued that giving up cow’s milk was an environmentally friendly act, her comments were reported thusly: "Drink rats’ milk, says Heather Mills".

Things get more troubling, however, when male celebrities get caught in degrading treatment of women. Actor Charlie Sheen can allegedly hold a knife to his wife’s throat and threaten to kill her — and keep his starring role in a hugely popular sitcom about a single dad. Alec Baldwin can win Emmy Awards for his own sitcom work — with a reputation for a temper so vicious he berated his own 11-year-old daughter as a "rude, thoughtless little pig".

Worst of all, director Roman Polanski can flee sentencing after being convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl, yet continue to produce critically acclaimed work for 32 years. When he was finally arrested last September, more than 100 of his peers, including Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar and David Lynch, signed a petition urging his release in which they called the vicious rape "a case of morals".

Closer to home, Australian actor/director Matthew Newton pled guilty in 2007 to assaulting his then-girlfriend Brooke Satchwell in 2006. He not only rebounded to star on Underbelly, but also subsequently had his conviction quashed on the grounds that he was mentally ill at the time.

Part of what cut Newton loose were the 17 gleaming personal references from family and friends — themselves high-profile entertainment industry figures. The presiding judge also noted that "the way in which he has been given particular media attention has acted as a considerable measure of punishment".

Clearly the media have not been quite punitive enough, for every now and then Newton’s bad-boy antics continue to make headlines.

But last August, Newton vehemently insisted that bygones remain bygones. In an interview on the Today Show to promote his directorial debut, Three Blind Mice, Lisa Wilkinson brought up the Satchwell incident, and Newton flatly said he didn’t want to talk about it, saying it "has nothing to do with who I actually am".

When Wilkinson pressed him on the matter, Newton bristled. "I think it would be like me asking you about your wedding night — it’s personal. It’s my life, my business, and certainly not what I’m here to discuss."

Bringing up a wedding night in the context of violence against women was a truly sinister move. Why? Because they are two absolutely different things. The commission of a crime to which "Australia says no" needs to be publicly condemned — or at least acknowledged — rather than consigned to a never-discussed past.

Just last weekend, Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Sir Ken Jones told the Sunday Age that our community’s tolerance of domestic violence contributes to a wider culture of violence. Last year there were 181 homicides in Victoria — more than in any other state.

I’m not suggesting that Matthews Newton and Johns are promulgating a culture of violence, nor that they must exist in a perpetual, public state of shame and have their careers permanently ruined by their past actions.

But it is abhorrent that these men can "put the past behind them" while the women they have treated so contemptuously — and famous women in general — aren’t granted that same luxury.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.