3. The domestication of a “feral” Cheryl: How the media demonised a fallen darling

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

by Martin Hirst

“She is about as honest as Christopher Skase and Nick Bolkus, she is about as loyal as Benedict Arnold, and she has the morals of an alley cat on heat.” So said Liberal backbencher Don Randall in Adjournment debate in Parliament on March 12, 1998.

In various guises this quote re-surfaced in just about every major newspaper in the country during the Kernot-Evans affair. That the media was quick to pounce on this quote and re-use it is not surprising. There is news in the fact that Gareth Evans lied to the Senate in denying the affair. But the gleeful way that the press pounced on this grab, particularly the last telling phrase, “she has the morals of an alley cat on heat”, is the perfect sexist put-down of the strong and sexually active woman. It is nowhere near as damaging when used about a man.

The Australian media crucified and vilified Cheryl Kernot over four weeks in June and July 2002. A Lexis-Nexis database search of Australia’s major metropolitan dailies shows that between June 22 and July 19 more than 500 news items about Cheryl Kernot appeared in the print media. Some 100 of these items were about the imminent launch of Kernot’s memoir and appeared prior to July 2 – the day of Laurie Oakes’ Bulletin column. More than 400 items appeared in the 16 days after the “big secret” was named on the crikey.com website and the end of the surveyed period.

Why was Kernot exposed so ruthlessly after July 3? The short answer, given by Laurie Oakes and those who defended his actions, is that the affair became public property when Kernot’s memoir was published and did not mention the liaison. This is a version of the “public interest” argument and much of the ensuing media debate has focused on the pros and cons of this position. The most emphatic thing that one can say about this “he said, she said” commotion is that the justification for publication is arguable. There are no cut-and-dried answers when talking about media ethics. However, this contribution to the discussion argues that it was an attitude of sexism in the media that dictated the terms of Kernot’s (and Evans’) exposure over their love tryst.

In the ensuing hailstorm of columns and op-ed pieces, the predominant tone was harsh in its treatment of Ms Kernot, but interestingly, the coverage of her equally exposed lover, Gareth Evans was more muted. His predicament was framed as that of a “repentant cad” and personified rather jokingly as “Biggles Flies Undone”. Cheryl Kernot was routinely portrayed as the “scarlet woman”, the “villain” of the piece and basically deserving of the “come uppance” dished out by the press. Whether or not this treatment was “deserved” is not the issue here. Cheryl Kernot was traduced and her reputation shat upon by a moralistic media that saw its role as putting a sexually active and allegedly “promiscuous” woman back in her kitchen.

“Don’t ask. Don’t tell”: The gendered rule

There can also be no doubt that the sexual secrets of Parliament House, if revealed, would be heavy enough to sink the proverbial battleship. In short, it’s part of the “game” for those involved. The infamous “Don’t ask Don’t tell” rule is said to apply in Canberra. This rule is interpreted thusly: “We” (insiders) know and understand the pressures that build up in the political circus, but we leave it all ringside and we don’t tell outsiders – though we are free to gossip among ourselves.

In relation to the Kernot-Evans affair, this rule has been broken. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. What is interesting this time is the vitriolic, unflattering and character-destroying language that has been used to describe Cheryl Kernot. It is significant because we haven’t seen evidence of this moral outrage in relation to the prominent male politicians who might, but for the “Don’t tell” rule, be caught in the media searchlight. The rivers of ink that poured into this story have been described by one commentator as a “tsunami” that “crashed over Cheryl Kernot and beached both her and her former lover Gareth Evans” (Murray 2002). The gendered “Don’t tell” rule would indicate that such a tidal wave would not sweep away a male politician in the same way. This code of silence takes the form of a spurious “chivalry”; “a gentleman never tells” (Seccombe & Millet 2002, p. 27).

The relationship between power and sex is complex and volatile. The emotional and intellectual excitement of politics is an arousing combination. No doubt the Kernot-Evans affair was an intellectually and emotionally complex liaison. Only the participants and their closest confidantes can have any real inside knowledge of the dynamics of their mutual attraction. However, this is not acknowledged by the media, which prefers to reduce it to a tawdry “bonkfest”. In the process Cheryl Kernot is reduced to the sum of her sexual parts and the assumption made that she was “horizontally recruited” to Labor by Gareth’s sexual prowess, rather than the actual sex being the culmination of a process of political bonding over many months. In this version Evans “lured her to the Labor Party” (Harvey 2002,p. 1). This is the position adopted by many of Kernot’s detractors in the Press Gallery, including Margo Kingston who alluded to a “consuming passion” that clouded Kernot’s political judgment (Cited in Neill 2002, p.11). No one has suggested that the decision-making could be sexually “transmitted” from Kernot to Evans. The dictates of the news production process and adherence to formulaic news values of drama and conflict mean that the press could not deal with the depth of human emotions involved. Kernot is described as “increasingly erratic” (Bolt 2002, p. 21); her book damned as an “ill-moderated whine” (Angela Shannahan 2002, p.13); she is said to suffer violent “mood swings” (Ruehl 2002, p. 64) and as a result of the exposure deemed to be exhibiting “erratic and emotional behaviour” (Milne 2002, p. 11). Miranda Devine even called her “self-obsessed and remorseless” (2002, p.15). This kind of emotive language is rarely, if ever used to describe male politicians.

Scolding witches

Was the uproar over Kernot a media witch hunt? It certainly appears to have been. She is described as a “flawed political figure”, who “brought a lot of her trials upon herself” and had her private life “stripped absolutely bare”. (Warhurst 2002, p.11) Even Kernot’s supporters concede she “has often been her own worst enemy” (Neill 2002, p.11) John Warhurst does acknowledge the “special” treatment meted out to Kernot: “women’s sexual lives in general are treated by the media differently from men’s sexual lives” (2002, p.11).

In 1994, when Kernot’s star was rising, she was sympathetically profiled on Channel Nine’s A Current Affair, but the program placed her squarely in the domestic, rather than the political sphere of public life and the ACA reporter, Janet Gibson, framed this with the line: “Cheryl Kernot’s idea of a personal victory is to be a good mother to 10-year-old daughter Sian.” Ray Martin’s saccharine closing comment neatly encapsulates this sentiment: “Mmmm, Janet Gibson reporting there on a good woman” (ACA, March 2, 1994, cited in Hirst, White, Chaplin & Wilson 1995,p. 89).

How quickly the mighty fall (especially when thrown from a great height). We can continue to track Kernot’s “trial by media” through the Sydney Morning Herald’s revelations in December 1997 that she had conducted a relationship with a younger man some 20 years earlier (the source of the Randall quote above). Within a few short years of the ACA fluff piece, Kernot had become a “bad mother” and a “dummy-spitter” when she refused to indulge the media’s need for information about her personal life. (Cited in Ellis 2002,p.13) Again, the “Don’t tell” rule was broken, or at least significantly bent, for Kernot in a way that would not be done for a male politician.

It is evident that over the past few years Kernot’s public persona has moved between the two stereotypes allowed for women: “Madonna”, or “whore”. Women leaving their families behind to pursue a career in politics is “bad” enough, the media argues, but when a woman takes the next step, to leave her family to be with a new lover, it is beyond the pale. Why is this never an issue for men?

Kernot’s defenders are, I believe, on fairly solid ground when they level the charge of sexism and witch hunting against the media in this case. The Sydney Institute’s Anne Henderson summed it up: “Why is [Kernot] the wicked one? My theory is that women are still not equal. The subtext is that she was sexually dazzled, that her judgement was impaired by passion.” (Cited in Crisp & Margo 2002,p.24). In the same article Eva Cox makes a similar point: “[Kernot] got done by a very masculinist, anti-star culture. Surprise, surprise. I can’t think of a male politician and there’s been some really tacky ones where there’s been such a consistent campaign to pull them into line.” (Cited in Crisp and Margo 2002,p.24). Quite so.

This tells us more about the culture of the media today – the sexism, the hypocrisy and the thirst for salacious gossip – than it does about Cheryl Kernot’s morals, or her “fitness” for public office.


Next: 4. What interests the public? Moral framing of the Oakes-Evans-Kernot affair in ‘Letters to the Editor’ (by John Harrison)