2. Absence of malice?

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

by Trina McLellan

Gareth Evans was the subject of an authorised biography by former staffer Keith Scott, published in 1999. It did not mention Evans’s affair with Kernot (Scott 1999). Why was there no disclosure at that time by journalists with knowledge of the affair? As the SMH editorialised on July 5, 2002 at the height of the revelations of the Evans-Kernot affair: “If the Evans lies are worth highlighting now, why weren’t they at the time, given the media’s knowledge then of the love affair?”

In reviewing disclosure of the affair between Evans and Kernot, Australian journalists, and their readers, might ponder not only the motivation behind the actions of Laurie Oakes, but also the motivations of those who condoned his actions or followed up the story. Oakes himself has admitted publicly he struggled over whether or not to say anything about the affair: “There is no right thing to do, it’s a difficult ethical problem that I faced. I hope I made the right decision but as I say I agonised, I worried and it’s a very hard thing to make a decision about” (The World Today 2002). But whether or not what Oakes did was right, was this particular journalistic exposé, and the “gotcha” (Lumby 1999) or “drive-by” (Rowse 2000) journalism it spawned, without malice?

In the court of public opinion Oakes’s actions were condemned with the vast majority of talkback callers around the country concluding that what consenting adults did in their own time should not be the subject of media reports, regardless of their public responsibilities. ABC Radio National Breakfast noted that media monitoring company Rehame Australia had monitored some 500 talkback calls and assessed that 85 per cent of talkback callers were against Oakes (Radio National 2002). This reflects the findings of a 1998 poll of Canadians. Commenting on the poll in the Canadian Liberal Party publication Liberal Times, pollster Michael Marzolini (1998) observed:

…Canadians don’t really give a damn about the sex lives of their politicians. Only 4% of Canadians tell us that this information would interest them. Some 94% have no interest. They are actually more motivated in learning where politicians spend their vacations, or what their favourite meal or drink is, than they are in their sex lives. Male, Female, French or English, Canadians from every region are unanimous in their disinterest.

Similarly, in their analysis of Canadian politics, Mancuso et al (1998) found that, “Politicians will find their reputations surprisingly resilient to lies and evasions that have to do strictly with their private life, but lying about public affairs is a very dangerous game.”

Such well-documented analysis of the public response to news of politicians’ peccadilloes may diminish enthusiasm for both ‘the public interest’ and the ‘what interests the public’ approaches to coverage of such issues. There was certainly little reticence to cover the affair and its ramifications in the Australian media. According to Media Watch presenter David Marr, only the “rather prissy SBS” decided not to join the fray (Media Watch 2002b), and the originating publication, the Bulletin, allegedly came to a parting of the ways with its film reviewer Susie Eisenhuth after she submitted a column that appeared to obliquely criticise Oakes’s actions (Media Watch 2002a). Indeed, virtually every other media outlet not only reported every aspect of the salacious news, but also the debate that raged around Laurie Oakes and his actions. Yet those who claim coverage was justified because Kernot’s private life must have impacted on her public actions and responsibilities are surprisingly quiet about the impact the affair needlessly had on Evans’s abilities and actions.

US media commentator Jeff Cohen  – who founded the US media analysis group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and then stepped down from the organisation to become a senior producer for Donahue observed in 1999:

With a political press corps that seems to have grown bored covering politicians who aren’t celebrities, personal gossip wins out over public issues and probes of ‘the character issue’ are reduced to sex, drugs and draft dodging. Pundits more readily find a character flaw when politicians partake of consensual sex than when they partake of policies that comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.

Cohen singled out two common comebacks: “The ‘new media’ made me do it” excuse that sees journalists claim that if they do not publish what millions of people have already heard or read, they will be acting as censors or people will think they have missed the story; and the “It’s not about sex” excuse that sees journalists claim what they are covering is not about the sex angle at all, but the lying and the cover-ups, issues of character – despite the highly sexualised nature of the headlines, interviews, expert commentary, images and footage.

Moreover, while journalists and media organisations, with whatever motives, continue to be fascinated with the titillating antics of those in the public spotlight, few journalists would be pleased to see the spotlight turned on themselves. Hickey (1998, p. 30) reported a Columbia Journalism Review survey that found 69 per cent of 125 editors and news editors in the United States believed that the private lives of public officials should be investigated when it affects public performance, and half think that public officials should accept that their private lives are fair game for scrutiny by the media. Conducted in the wake of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, this survey also found a slim majority of respondents (56 per cent) disagreed that “journalists’ personal lives – including their sexual behavior – should be held to a high a moral standard as the personal lives of political officials” (p. 31). A concerning fifteen percent were “ not sure”. As Jeff Cohen (1999) put it:

Privacy limits might seem worthy again if media figures themselves had to answer questions now deemed so enlightening on “character” or “judgment” or “integrity.”

If this proves to become the case in Australia, Laurie Oakes and others will have some much tougher ethical questions to think about. Not the least of these will the question encountered every time intimacies between high-profile public figures are discovered or disclosed: “Unless we published the dirt about Cheryl and Gareth for malicious reasons, how can we not publish this time?”


Next: 3 – The domestication of a “feral” Cheryl: How the media demonised a fallen darling (by Martin Hirst)