1. Sex, secrecy & lying: can it be ethical?

(continued from Ethics in journalism and the Cheryl Kernot affair)

by Rhonda Breit

The revelations about the Kernot/Evans “affair” raise many ethical issues, some of which are discussed by my colleagues. However, this discussion focuses on three issues:

  • The complicity of journalists in perpetrating a public deception.
  • The nature of that deception. Was it a lie?
  • Was “the affair” reported in a manner that satisfies the public interest?

Oakes claims to have revealed “the affair” between Kernot and Evans because it involved public interest issues, not just privacy considerations. According to Oakes, he was not aware of it at the time of Kernot’s defection to Labor and Evans’s misleading parliament over his relationship with Kernot. While defending the delay in revealing the “biggest secret in Kernot’s life”, Oakes claims (2002b, p.19) that at least one journalist knew of the affair at the time of Kernot’s defection. But he “was not convinced there was a relationship until the second half of 1999, and … did not have email proof until two months ago”. In defending his decision, Oakes admits to difficulties balancing the concepts of privacy and public interest. This discussion seeks to unpack these concepts, taking up Oakes’s theme (2002a, p.16) of secrets and lies.

Secrecy and lies

Sissela Bok (1982, p.14) defines secrecy as “intentional concealment”, commonly linked with privacy and those things humans hold sacred. Secrets involve insiders, who are party to the secret and “outsiders”, who are not. Every secret involves conflict between what the insiders already know and what the outsiders want to know (Bok 1982, p.6). Even where an individual is the only person who knows the secret, he/she faces a constant dilemma: reveal or maintain the secret? According to Bok (1982, p.19), this conflict is over power “that comes through controlling the information flow”.

But how does this relate to Kernot’s secret? Who were the parties?

Obviously, Kernot and Evans were parties to “the secret”, but at least one journalist – and probably more – knew of the secret at the time of Kernot’s defection. According to Bok, this means Kernot (and Evans) had lost control of the information flow. Journalists had control because they could reveal the “big secret”: the affair!

That secret remained intact until July 2002, despite Kernot’s declaration that she was leaving the Democrats to help bring down the Coalition. At this time, the affair was “private”. Evans misled parliament by denying the affair and it was still a private matter. From late 1997 until now, the secret had been safe. Using Bok’s conception of secrecy, journalists’ silence could have reinforced to Kernot (and Evans) that the affair was a private matter. In effect, their silence legitimised the secret.

But did Kernot lie? Bok (1989, pp.13-14) defines lying as “any intentionally deceptive message, which is stated”. According to this definition, Kernot did not lie about the reasons for her defection, nor did she lie in her book. But she did deceive the public and others by keeping the affair secret. Bok identifies (1984, p.15) three filters that affect how a deceptive message is received, regardless of whether it is a lie. She identifies these as:

  • The level of self-deception;
  • Error; and
  • Variations in the actual intention to deceive.

Bok notes (1989, p. 249) journalists are perceived as having a public mandate to probe into and expose secrets. If journalists ignore a secret for five years because it is essentially a private matter, then their silence may legitimise the public deceptions used to protect the secret. The primary parties may be more vulnerable to self-deception and could start believing the public excuses. The truth becomes fractured into a private truth, shared by Kernot, Evans and some journalists, and a public truth served to those who are not privy to the secret. The public truth gains credibility because journalists maintain the secret.

Bok’s analysis of secrecy and lying also may make sense of Kernot’s feeling of abandonment and vulnerability during her Labor years and beyond: she had forfeited to journalists control over the flow of information about her relationship with Evans. Their silence about the secret signalled they would protect her. When challenged by journalists during that time, she could feel betrayed because they were her confidantes. The confrontation with journalists would heighten her feeling of vulnerability about her “biggest secret”.

But despite her spats with the media, no one revealed her big secret. Kernot wrote a book Speaking for Myself Again, where she presented her account of the Labor years. Oakes warned in the July 9 edition of The Bulletin, that many journalists had been aware of the biggest secret in Kernot’s life:

While it is one thing for journalists to stay away from such matters, however, it is quite another for Kernot herself to pretend it does not exist when she pens what purports to be the true story of her ill-fated change of party allegiance. An honest book would have included it. If Kernot felt the subject was too private to be broached, there should have been no book, because the secret was pivotal to what happened to her. (2002a, p.16)

If members of “the Fourth Estate” (Oakes 2002a, p. 16) had known about the secret for five years, and not disclosed it, was Kernot justified in presuming the matter really was not of public interest? Using Bok’s analysis, their silence fostered an environment conducive to self-deception. In turn, self-deception is relevant to the formation of an intention to deceive, where the conduct of journalists is instrumental in fracturing the truth.

However, there are alternative views on secrets and lying. Oral historians frequently deal with secrets and lies as they seek to make sense of what is included and left out of individual accounts of past events. Luise White (2000, p.11) suggests that secrets and lies are a way of “valorizing” information. She claims (2000, p.15) secrets and lies are negotiated explanations which conceal some things and reveal others: “Secrets and lies signal that what has been declared secret, what has been deemed worthy of a lie or a cover story, is more significant than other stories.” This conception of secrecy and lies suggests that “the affair” between Kernot and Evans (the private truth) was of greater value than the information revealed at the time of Kernot’s defection (the public truth). The question, which cannot be answered in this discussion, is whether that information derived its value because it was politically (publicly) harmful or whether it was harmful in a private sense.

But why did Oakes wait until Kernot’s book release to reveal the secret? Why didn’t he do this when he was in a position to prove the affair some months earlier?

White (2000, p.22) believes all secrets must be continually renegotiated. Kernot’s decision to write a personal account of her Labor years meant renegotiating her pact with those journalists who knew about the affair and had kept it secret. The book made the affair more newsworthy. It gave the story currency and focus, which it would not have had a few months earlier. Just as the secret gave the information about the affair “value”, Kernot’s repeating of a version of history, which again concealed the full account of what happened, boosted the value of the information left out. Her failure to disclose the secret also devalued the information contained in her book, which has recorded fairly poor sales.

This analysis does not attempt to level blame at any party nor is it designed to excuse the behavior of Kernot, Evans or Oakes. Rather, it seeks to illustrate how the decision by some journalists not to reveal relevant information could have fed a public deception. The journalists were party to the Kernot-Evans secret and, by their silence, helped to circulate stories that prevented the public from learning at least one account of the facts surrounding Kernot’s defection. According to White, the fact that it was not reported at the time means that account had more value in July 2002 than when the affair took place. But the decision not to reveal that account was not taken by Kernot and Evans alone; journalists also decided not to reveal it. Therefore, the conduct of Evans and Kernot in deciding not to reveal their secret cannot be examined in isolation from those journalists who failed to report rumours of the affair at the time of Kernot’s defection or, more importantly, when Evans misled parliament.  

Oakes’s justification for publishing the story was that he had a public duty to reveal the information to dispel the deception presented in Kernot’s book. He did so because it was a matter of public interest. Opinion is divided on whether it was a matter of public interest. This contribution does not seek to analyse this issue in detail. Rather, it examines whether the media have reported “the affair” in a way that satisfies the public interest.

Public interest

Public interest is a term often used by journalists to justify publication of stories likely to offend or upset some or all sectors of the public. Public interest presumes the value of certain types of information. Before determining what is in the public interest, it may be helpful to ask why the public needs information. When that question is answered, journalists are in a better position to do two things:

  • Evaluate whether information is a matter of public interest; and
  • Understand how to deliver that information to give effect to public interest.

In the revelations about “the affair”, much comment has focused on the line between public and private interest. Few have questioned whether the media has presented that information in a way to give effect to the public interest.

In contemporary liberal societies, the public has become increasingly dependent on the mass media to receive information. The mass media, including journalism, have helped developed what Taylor (1995, p. 190) describes as “the public sphere”, which is “the locus of a discussion potentially engaging everyone … in which the society can come to a common mind about important matters”. It is a “locus in which rational views are elaborated which should guide government” (Taylor 1995, p.191). He concludes (Taylor 1995, p.216) that the “public sphere is a medium of democratic politics itself”. Therefore, information pertinent to democratic politics is a matter of public interest because it is essential to formation of a common rather than popular view, which this article describes as public opinion.

In this case, the information about a relationship between the leader of the Democrats and a high-ranking Labor politician is relevant to the public’s forming a view on the defection. But did journalists, including Oakes, report the matter in a way that gave effect to that public interest?

Many journalists used the “affair” to explain away all of the unexplained. Kernot had deceived the public by not revealing the “affair”; therefore everything she said in the book was a lie. For some, it explained her failure as a Labor politician. In Kernot’s words, journalists sensationalised the affair. But the decision by Kernot and Evans to “negotiate” (albeit implicitly) with journalists to keep the secret provided the environment in which they could sensationalise.

If one role of journalism is to provide information for the public to form an opinion that guides government, then the information provided must assist the public in forming that opinion. Taylor (1995, p.190) points out that public opinion needs to be “a reflective view, emerging from critical debate and not just a summation of whatever views happen to be held in the population”. Information that facilitates the public interest should not reinforce existing prejudices. It should provide information that helps the public to challenge such prejudices and to form a reflective opinion.

When assessing the “ethics” of revealing an affair between two politicians, if it is a matter relevant to the formation of public opinion, then journalists reporting it must be careful not to reinforce stereotypical views that reduce the female politician to a person whose abilities are defined by what she wears, how she cooks and with whom she shares her bed. All issues are taken up later in this colloquium.

In summary, this discussion draws on various theoretical perspectives to found the analysis, inviting journalists to look beyond the code of ethics (and other industry rules) when dealing with complex ethical issues. In addition to looking at professional codes to decide whether conduct is professionally acceptable, journalists may find it helpful to take a more virtue-oriented approach to ethics and seek to balance between deficit and excess.

Next 2: Absence of malice? (by Trina McLellan)