08 February 2018

Out with the bathwater

The fact that Barnaby Joyce had impregnated a former staffer and NewsCorp journalist was widely known before the New England byelection on 2 December last year. It has been ridiculous, and a bit sad, watching traditional media justify itself in relation to this story.

Fucking inconvenient

Let's remind ourselves of the political situation in late 2017.

The government needs a stable majority in the 150-member House of Representatives. It had 76 members, meaning that with the Speaker above the fray the Coalition fielded 75 members against 74 Labor and others outside the Coalition.

Barnaby Joyce, as Member for New England, was a NZ citizen by descent. John Alexander, Member for Bennelong, was a UK citizen by descent. Both renounced their non-Australian citizenships and were endorsed for the byelections. Each man, we now know, had left their wives and were living with another woman beyond the family home. Both men represented, and had sought to represent again, conservative electorates with above-average rates of married couples raising children.

Had either or both lost the byelections held last December, the Turnbull government would have been forced into minority status, propped up on a contingent basis by some of the MHRs outside both the Coalition and Labor. Almost every media outlet represented in the press gallery had editorialised before the 2016 election to return the Turnbull government. They still believe in Peter FitzSimons' Fantasy Malcolm. The press gallery hated having to cover a multivariate parliament in 2010-13; they tailored their reporting to minimise the possibility that the Turnbull government would lose its majority (oh yes they did). Labor candidates in Bennelong and New England did not make their opponents' marital woes an issue, and journalists didn't either.

J'accuse: political journalists deliberately held off reporting, or even confirming, stories about Joyce's infidelity in order to maximise his chances of winning, and by extension ensure the continuation of the Turnbull government.

Delayed gratification

Yesterday's sheepish effort from Sharri Markson (no I won't link to it) was too little, too late, but the press gallery has finally given itself permission to start talking about the issue. Almost immediately, traditional media was forced by reader outrage to defend its decision to avoid the Joyce story. This is not a proud moment in Australian journalism. It is not a harbinger of a bright future, nor even one that might keep things much as they are for that beleaguered industry.

Before we go through the traditional media's sorry-not-sorry piece, there are three precedents (in terms of pollies' actions and how the media responded to them) that are relevant here. Senior members of the press gallery, and the ninnies who now occupy the ranks of editors/news directors of traditional media organs, were directly involved in these incidents:

Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot

Evans was Attorney General and Foreign Minister in the Hawke-Keating Labor governments, and a senior Labor frontbencher once his party went into opposition. Cheryl Kernot was a Senator and leader of the Australian Democrats. Both were married to other people when they began a sexual relationship, which (as with Joyce-Campion today) was widely known but not reported.

Laurie Oakes decided that the hypocrisy of Evans championing family values and Kernot failing to mention the affair was enough to put the story into the public domain. Then as now, the press gallery talked about the convention of private lives being private while slavering over the story. There was no social media back then.

Ross Cameron

In 2004 Ross Cameron was an up-and-coming junior minister in the Howard government, a vocal proponent of heterosexual marriage and other traditional values. While his wife was pregnant in Sydney, Cameron began a sexual relationship with a woman in Canberra. The woman shared a flat with a press gallery journalist.

Traditional media covered Cameron's infidelity in the lead-up to the 2004 election. Cameron lost his seat (at that election, Barnaby Joyce was first elected to the Senate). Then as now, the press gallery talked about the convention of private lives being private while slavering over the story. There was no social media back then.

Julia Gillard

Julia Gillard had never married but had a male partner. There were no allegations of infidelity but plenty of media speculation about her private life nonetheless; "private lives are private" be damned, and there was social media but the press gallery were only starting to become afraid of it.

I will not be lectured about media ethics by that journalist

Fairfax ran a piece by Jacqueline Maley lecturing us about the media ethics around this story (*snort!*) and NewsCorp did the same from Caroline Overington (oh come off it). There's been enough accusations about hypocrisy over this matter, so fuck it, I am just not going to do Caroline bloody Overington lecturing anyone about anything. The Maley piece is bad enough, and she has form for being a terrible journalist, but for now let it serve as the chew toy for journalistic ethics in covering political sex scandals.
Why didn’t Fairfax Media publish the story? Why would we protect Barnaby Joyce?

The reasons were less conspiratorial than they were journalistic: we couldn’t stand it up.
Oh no, they were conspiratorial all right: the press gallery believes people shouldn't judge politicians on the basis of their private lives, and have been horrified to see political careers end at the hands of voters who take a different view (see Kernot, Cameron above).

As to stand-up journalism, this can be very selective. Let's look at some of the other stories on politics Maley's colleagues have seen fit to publish:
  • This article speculating about the US Ambassador to Australia is terribly weak. First, Admiral Harris' name has been floated earlier, and the appointment has neither been officially confirmed nor denied, so it isn't really news. Any compelling force it may have is negated with tenuous links like "Fairfax Media has been told [by whom?] ...", "Mr Turnbull is also expected ...", "It is widely expected ...", "Fairfax Media understands ...", and "[Turnbull] is expected also to discuss the economy and trade with Mr Trump [no shit, really?]". How did this slip through Fairfax's iron ethical grip?
  • The idea that Anthony Albanese might challenge Bill Shorten for leadership of the ALP is one of the longest-running non-stories in Australian politics. It is no closer today than it was three years ago or at any other point since Shorten became leader, but it helps dispel the fantasy that Fairfax never runs speculative political stories.
The entire oeuvre of James Massola and half that of Kate McClymont would have to be binned if Fairfax seriously applied the put-up-or-shut-up standard Maley is trumpeting here. Apparently, as with their counterparts in North Korea, the Canberra press gallery can only report what has been formally announced.
Within our newsroom, there was debate over what resources, if any, should be devoted to confirm the rumours.

In a newsroom that is hollowed out by cost-cutting, every reporter who is assigned to cover a love child expose, is a reporter who cannot write about national energy policy (which affects far more of our readers), or about the latest factional dispute in the Labor Party, or about the citizenship crisis.
Energy policy is better covered by dedicated and knowledgeable writers (who often spend little time lounging about the newsroom) rather than gallery hacks splicing a press release to a Google search. The Labor Party aren't in government, and if you can't tie a factional spat to a policy outcome (and you can't), then forget that. Perhaps framing Joyce's family issues with the journalistic cliche of the "love child expose" is the problem here?
At the same time, we knew it would probably be broken, sooner or later, by the News Corp tabloids.
Before the New England byelection Joyce's daughters had toured Tamworth with a loudhailer, warning that if he could breach trust with his family then none of his political promises could be trusted either. Independent Australia put out not one but two articles to this effect. So did True Crime News Weekly. There is a long tradition in the Australian media of "respectable papers" waiting for "the yellow press" to break an unsavoury story, and then appear to pick it up reluctantly: any of these events would have given traditional media the impetus to run the story, on 3 December if not earlier.

The ABC is doing this hold-your-nose-and-report-the-story thing tonight too, and it's risible. Joyce would normally retreat to the conservative redoubt of Sky, but nobody watches that crap outside of what bushies call the SCAM triangle (Sydney, Canberra And Melbourne). Leigh Sales has, like Joyce, undergone a recent marriage breakdown, which may explain why she has gone so easy on him and is treating him like the victim here.

You'll always have an excuse not to do your job. And when it comes to political journalism, you can count on Jacqueline Maley to not do it well at all.

Maley exceeds herself by lapsing into what-if:
If it had been published in full, could the story have changed the crucial byelection result in New England?

During the campaign it was reported the Deputy Prime Minister had broken up with his wife and was living with his sister. Rumours about an extra-marital affair and a pregnant “mistress” (terrible word!) were widely known throughout the electorate. His long-time nemesis, former New England MP Tony Windsor, frequently tweeted about it. At one point Joyce was hounded by a man who harangued him about his family situation in a pub.

None of it affected his popularity. Joyce won the byelection with a huge swing to him of 7.21 per cent.
For starters, the candidates at the byelection were different to those at the general election. Here's what would have happened if traditional media brought their imprimatur to this story:
  • Candidates who might not have stood against Joyce may well have done so, affecting the result;
  • The local gossips might have borne less of the burden for the story, and so too those stout defenders of the Deputy Prime Minister ("what a terrible thing to say! I know Barnaby and his family! That would never happen!") might have looked a lot less silly. The authority of trusted media helps clarify matters both for those who want to believe the news, and those who don't.
  • The idea that journalists at major outlets call it as they see it without fear or favour would be reinforced, and not diminished as it has been. When Jacqueline Maley calls on you to subscribe to Fairfax and to help with the campaign against proposed laws that might send journalists to prison, she might've been able to point to a recent example where fearless reporting outed a family-values hypocrite and a crap Agriculture minister, rather than misrepresenting a political liability as the nation's choice.
If you're going to trash your reputation for fearlessness in gathering and disseminating information, be it on your head. This is why it's silly to stake your reputation covering for Joyce: five years from now he'll be gone from politics, will you be gone from journalism by then?
Joyce, a Jesuit-educated Catholic, has long proclaimed the sanctity of traditional marriage. He has often spoken of his conservative “family” values.

During the debate on same-sex marriage Joyce advocated against it, saying he believed marriage was a heterosexual institution that had “stood the test of time” and was “a special relationship between a man and a woman, predominantly for the purpose of bringing children into the world”. He then abstained from the same-sex marriage vote, perhaps because he realised how untenable and hypocritical his position was.

Joyce is a leader, not just a regular MP, so his character is part of his political brand. Voters are now free to judge him on it.
Voters are always free to judge him on it. Always. On 2 December you should have provided voters with the information they would need to make such a judgment, and you chose not to do so, diminishing your value as a provider of information.

Joyce's decision on the same-sex marriage vote is less important than the decisions cast by people who sincerely believed the Deputy Prime Minister, and who believed that his words were quoted in the appropriate context by Fairfax outlets. They weren't, and it doesn't matter whether or not Joyce's office and/or the Fairfax newsrooms were festooned with knowing smirks as his words were quoted without that vital context: that he could not imagine any same-sex couple might fulfil the rights and obligations of marriage at least as well as he had (this is where the blithe "love child expose" bullshit falls down).
Then there is the human factor of the story. Who can look at the photo of Vikki Campion, surprised by a photographer outside her Canberra home, heavily pregnant and wearing gym gear, and not feel a little icky about it?

It is such a huge invasion of her privacy, not to mention the privacy of the unborn child, at a time when a woman is at her most vulnerable (and prone to emotional distress).
Can I direct you to your highly ethical coverage of Lindy Chamberlain, or Stormy Daniels, and ask you to shut the hell up about icky.

Here's icky for ya: Vikki Campion is a former NewsCorp employee. That invasion of privacy, the slut-shaming and all the rest of it, was done by people whom Campion personally knows and worked with. You'd think there would be some "honour among thieves" among Caroline Overington and the Murdoch people, but clearly not. Jacqueline Maley's newsroom is full of former and prospective NewsCorp employees: there but for the grace of God and Rupert Murdoch go we all.
Some readers will remember the huge scrutiny and nasty sexual innuendo Julia Gillard copped over her personal life and suspect a double standard is at play.
No suspicion: the contrary case simply cannot be made. Contrast with the treatment of the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, and start preparing lists of press gallery journalists who need to be replaced as soon as possible.
The scandal is unlikely to be a career-ender for Joyce.
Only people who don't understand politics would say this. Anyone who's seen politicians come and go knows that Joyce has more past than future. His Cabinet picks showed the overreach of a man on his way out. We know not the date or the time (unless the press gallery are holding out on us again), but only a fool would be shocked at the prospect of a new father suddenly wanting to spend more time with his little one - particularly if the youngest Joyce proves to be a boy. Watch as the very same photographer snaps pictures of Barnaby being a doting dad!
Finally, there are Joyce’s four daughters and wife to consider.
You should have considered them when Joyce trotted them out for staged pictures that made it look like he could manage a long-distance family life on top of everything else. You could have used some journo skills to show that he was a sham and a joke at that, too. We'd be better informed, and you'd be the respected news outlet that nobody in the newsroom dares admit you no longer are.
The families of politicians are generally considered off-limits for good reason: they didn’t sign up for public scrutiny ...
Driving down the main street denouncing one's father, the Deputy Prime Minister, deserved some scrutiny; Fairfax diminished itself as a reliable news outlet by failing to provide even that.

Imagine the impact on Australian politics of a Deputy Prime Minister felled by the feisty women of his broken household, who weren't going to put up with his shit any more. Some allies you are, Jacqueline Maley and Caroline Overington and all the rest of you arse-covering swine. Barnaby fucked up, and so did all those newsroom heroes: you haven't exactly made a strong case for more resources and loyal readers, have you?

18 comments:

  1. Perfect Andrew. Although I think 'arse covering swine' as an epithet to describe most of the corporate MSM is defamatory to swine.

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  2. The pontificating from the gallgal about not covering personal affairs after their treatment of Julia Gillard's personal life is beyond nauseating.

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  3. Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce use their kids as props for propaganda to make them look like decent family men...it's all just blown up in their face. The older conservative voters either don't care or get manipulated by this silly spin..oh the irony of having a daughter who's getting married only after three weeks is even more ridiculous ...we have sleazy Anglo-Australians who are the dregs of the bourgeoisie in our political class...ZERO sympathy.

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  4. By the way Janet Albrechtsen and Michael Kroger are also an item and we have a state election here in Victoria...interesting year ahead. There are conflicts of interest every-where.

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  5. "Barnaby fucked up, and so did all those newsroom heroes:"
    Let me re-phrase this for you:
    Barnaby fucked up, and so did all those newsroom whores:...
    Much better.
    I find it quaint that some of us still think that Leigh Sales as seen as anyone other than a fluffer of the powerful.
    (see wikipedia for definition on flufffer.)
    You who still watch the "serious media" on TV have proven to have a much stronger stomach than I. All I want to do is throw a brick at the 65" LCD.

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  6. Ah... Sharri Markson. Every time I see her name, I'm reminded of your description of her: "Brynne Edelsten without the wit, talent or news sense".

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  7. I am a Kiwi+Australian, been living in NZ the last few years, so I'm only partly up on the latest news. However I am disgusted that Aussie journalists knew that a politician who was running on a "traditional marriage/family values" ticket, had rooted his office-girl, got her pregnant, then left his wife to be with her. According to Dr Phil, and others, the later relationship is also likely to fail, as he's most likely to keep doing the same thing, over and over. Aussie Journalists, hang your head in shame. By covering up the truth, you allowed a politician to effectively steal a by-election and that effectively stole, (well "retained") the current bunch of pollies in power.

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  8. It's not privacy vs. public, it's HYPOCRISY. People who draft and enact laws and regulations that govern others' lives, exempting themselves from the "traditional" rules, the religiously-ordained "absolute morality" that they impose on us.

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  9. They looked into the lives and bedrooms of gay and lesbian couples with their disgusting survey, they peer into the beds of single parents in case they get an extra $ to feed their kids and then expect privacy.

    Thank you for calling out Maley and Overington, two people unworthy of the label journalist.

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  10. When you sign up for public office, your life becomes ours! If you act like a sleazy hypocrite it's definitely a duty of journalists to inform the public of this! Journalists, and I use that word far to generously, have once again failed miserably in their duty, and deserve everything voming their way, as so succinctly and forcefully put forward by Andrew! Another great article Andrew.....from a journalist!

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  11. this is a very good essay, one of the best, if not the best, of the current crop on this subject. its good to see you back, too. thanks for sharing your lucid critical thinking with us. -a.v.

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  12. I share your disgust at the too-little-too-late justifications of our "mainstream" media. However amidst all the moral outrage nobody is really pointing at the MOST newsworthy and defensible reporting of all... Joyce's private life might be private, but his public life is absolutely open to scrutiny. Did a Minister have sexual relations with a subordinate, in clear violation of every HR and ethical standard known? Did a Minister abuse his public funds to indulge in nepotism and favouritism in return for sexual favours? Did other members of parliament collude in misusing public funds to support his "private" affair? All of those are fair and square in the public interest and misuse of position and public funds is a front page story. There was NO excuse for not running that story, in fact failing to run it has nothing to do with journalistic delicacy, it is complicity in malfeasance, pure and simple. I note that 9news has finally picked up that ball and is running with it, but I suspect their motives have more to do with current power struggles than any real care for abuse of public funds. They should have run the story when it was happening - but that might have caused the government to fall, rather than allowing a regime change once it was returned.

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  13. Great commentary Andrew. Today, Saturday 10th Feb, if anyone is unafraid of making themselves sick, have a look at Katharine Murphy's sanctimonious pap in defence of self on the Guardian website, comments not enabled:
    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/feb/10/barnaby-joyce-i-didnt-report-the-story-because-i-couldnt-verify-it-katharine-murphy

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    1. Absolutely agree Anon. Murphy's "defence" was pathetic. An excuse like that disqualifies her from the ranks of so-called journalists.

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    2. I thought the same. Murphy often closes comments after a very short time, deletes any that even slightly criticise her, or disallows them altogether. Says much about her defensiveness.

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  14. Excellent stuff...as usual. The best bit of writing I've seen so far on this. The loudhailer moment is the kicker. That was undoubtedly in the public interest, y'don't drive down a street shouting into one about family matters if y'wanna keep those family matters out of the public domain.

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