4. What interests the public? Moral framing of the Oakes-Evans-Kernot affair in ‘Letters to the Editor’

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

by John Harrison

While notions of “the public interest” are canvassed by other contributors to this colloquium, this piece asks the question: What interested the public in the Oakes-Evans-Kernot affair? In particular, how was that public interest expressed in the Letters to the Editor in the major daily newspapers: The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Courier-Mail and The Australian. This analysis is predicated on the assumption that the letters published are a broadly representative sample of the views put to the letters editor, who then publishes those which are brief, well written and witty. The concept of framing is well developing in the literature on communication, media and journalism.  (Entman 1993, p.52) defines framing in terms of “selection” and “salience” in order to define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgements and suggest remedies. “Moral framing” is simply a way of describing and analysing frameworks of moral or ethical understanding that underlie moral reasoning, and in this brief case study, the moral reasoning expressed in the Letters to the Editor.

Analysis

The total number of letters published in each paper and the number published on the Oakes-Evans-Kernot affair for the seven days July 4 to July 10 are tabulated as follows:

FIGURE 1: LETTERS to the EDITOR July 4-July 10

 

The themes covered in letters ranged from the morality of Evans’ lying to Parliament, and the wisdom, not necessarily the morality, of Kernot’s non-disclosure of the affair in her memoir, through to castigation of Oakes’ salacious (and thereby apparently unethical) headline hunting in disclosing a matter of private morality with no bearing on the public interest. So it was the SMH Weekend edition (July 6-7) that gave the headline to this piece: “This is not public interest, it just interests the public”. Counter-pointing this view was The Age on July 4, headlining its letters “Private morality impinges on public morality”. Here then is an overview of the moral framing of the issues in the published letters.

Journalistic ethics. The ethics of the disclosure, as well as the timing of the disclosure, were widely canvassed. Typical was this contribution, dripping with irony, from Garry Bickley (Elizabeth Downs, SA):

Laurie Oakes, senior media pigeon striking a papal pose, moral chest fully extended to do battle for truth, justice and good, while boosting the circulation of a struggling magazine and the ratings of a faltering television network (Australian July 5).

Some correspondents were critical of the Canberra Press Gallery coterie who decided what secrets should be revealed and what not. “Journalists have no right to pose as the moral guardians of our political life” (Australian July 8); “Laurie Oakes and The Australian are just gossips, nothing more” (Australian July 6) and “The Age should be above such gossip. Leave that to the tabloids,” (Age July 5)  were three such comments. There was muted support for Oakes: “Thank you, Laurie Oakes, for keeping the bastards honest”, (Australian July 8). Oakes’ use of the adjective “steamy” to describe the affair was questioned. One correspondent wanted to know how Oakes knew the affair was “steamy” (SMH July 6). Another said the term “introduces a salacious note which nudges him off the high moral ground” (SMH July 6). This debate led into an argument about the nature of the public interest.

Truth and lies. The principal argument about the public interest focussed on Evans’s lie to Parliament that he was not having an affair with Kernot. Evans’s justification was that he lied to protect his family. However, as one SMH correspondent responded: “Surely a better way (to protect his family) would have been to stay out of Cheryl Kernot’s bed” (SMH July 6). “The relationship had no bearing on national security or political probity,” according to Les Lomsky (Age July 5). Beasley’s subsequent comment that had he known about the affair he would have reconsidered Kernot’s translation to the ALP largely put paid to the argument that the affair had no public interest consequences.

The (im)morality of the affair was the subject of some comment. “What a ghastly pair Gareth and Cheryl are … An ill-judged quickie is one thing. Carrying on a five year affair that betrayed … is nothing short of shameful”(SMH July 6). Others were more measured, raising the issue of character, the foundation stone of virtue ethics:

What a person does in private tells us a lot about what that person will be like in public. If a person is willing to cheat on his or her spouse, is it not possible that he or she will also cheat on the electorate (The Age July 5).

Sexual politics and the gender agenda. As others in this colloquium have observed, the question of different treatment for men and women in the public arena was hotly debated in the Opinion pages. So too on the Letters pages. However, the letters published reveal a significant gender bias: 62 per cent of all letters published were by males; 27 per cent were written by females and 11 per cent could not be defined.

Figure 2: LETTERS by GENDER

 

“Not the Lady in Red but a Scarlet Woman,” asserted John Z. Smith from Warwick, Queensland (Courier-Mail July 10). Other correspondents railed against the treatment of women in politics: “More evidence that we support prominent women in principle but not in practice” (Age July 6), and “… she represents an intelligent, alternative way of seeing and communicating, that could have led us out of the closed male aggressiveness that is our present parliament” (Australian July 8).

Biggles flies undone. While Kernot had her supporters and detractors, Evans was seen as a principally as a figure of fun with some delightful references to his nickname, “Biggles”.  “Time was, Biggles would never have told a lie,” wrote Nick Hendel (SMH July 6). Other correspondents were not so subtle: “Gareth, you devil. You lucky devil,” wrote Monroe Reimers (SMH July 6) and from Steve Meltzer in The Age: “I’m looking forward to Gareth’s side of the story … Biggles Flies Undone” (July 5).

The end of the affair. The letters reflected the debate in the news pages, the editorials, the Opinion pages, the talkback calls and the cartoons. Given the extent to which the ethics of the affair particularly engaged the writers of Opinion pieces, perhaps the last word should go to Age cartoonist Michael Leunig who, on July 10, drew a child asking: “Father, what’s the difference between a column and a shaft?” The father, sitting reading a newspaper replies: “A column supports something and a shaft is a regular piece of writing in a newspaper”.

 

Next: 5 – Breaking the code? (by Desley Bartlett)