Ethics in journalism and the Cheryl Kernot affair

A colloquium

Download a copy of “Cheryl Kernot Affair – A Colloquium”

Rhonda Breit, John Harrison, Martin Hirst, Trina McLellan & Desley Bartlett.
School of Journalism & Communication, The University of Queensland.
(2002) Australian Studies in Journalism, 10, 33.

Ethics asks the “ought” question. Ought Laurie Oakes have disclosed Cheryl Kernot’s affair with Gareth Evans? Ought the affair be taken into account in any assessment of Kernot’s motives for defecting to the ALP? Ought Kernot have disclosed the affair to ALP leaders before her defection? Ought Kernot have omitted the affair from her memoir? Ought politicians’ private lives be paraded in public? Ought journalists re-consider their treatment of high-profile women in public life? All these issues and more are discussed in the colloquium below.

Just the facts

Cheryl Kernot was elected as an Australian Democrat Senator for Queensland in 1990, and was leader of the party from 1993 until 1997, when she defected to the Australian Labor Party – cast into Opposition at the 1996 general election after thirteen years in government. Kernot gave as her motivation that she wanted to be in a position to have greater influence on politics and public policy, and in particular to contribute to the defeat of the Howard Liberal government. Kernot resigned from the Senate and successfully contested the marginal House of Representatives seat of Dickson in the 1998 general election and was appointed Shadow Minister for Regional Development, Infrastructure Transport and Regional Services and Shadow Minister for Employment. Recontesting the seat at the 2001 general election Kernot was defeated. Conceding defeat, Kernot announced she would write a book about her experiences in politics.

Upon release of Kernot’s memoir, Speaking for Myself Again in July 2002, Laurie Oakes, the political editor for the Nine television network, wrote in his weekly column for the Bulletin magazine that the book omitted Kernot’s biggest secret, which Oakes argued, “would cause a lot of people to view her defection … in a different light” (Oakes 2002a, p.16). Oakes did not reveal the secret, but acknowledged that, “for a long time now, some members of the Fourth Estate have been aware of the biggest secret in Kernot’s life”. The secret – that Kernot had conducted a five-year affair with former ALP parliamentarian, Gareth Evans – was revealed by Stephen Mayne to subscribers of his crikey.com website the day Oakes’ Bulletin column was published. Evans, who had left Parliament in 1999 and was now based in Europe, released a statement acknowledging the affair, having vigourously denied it in Parliament when it was raised in March 1998. Kernot went to ground, her publisher cancelling the remainder of her book publicity tour. The ongoing public debate ranged across a number of issues, including the materiality of the Evans-Kernot affair to Kernot’s decision to defect, the public interest justification for disclosing the affair, the timing of the disclosure, Evans’ misleading of Parliament over the affair, the treatment of high-profile women in politics and Kernot’s contribution to public life. The Canberra Press Gallery was split over Oakes’ action. Talkback callers were reported as 80% against Oakes. Oakes himself in the Bulletin the following week wrote of his decision to write the story saying, “The privacy versus public interest debate is an important one. I made a judgement which I and many others believe was right. But it is not a matter of black and white…” (Oakes 2002b, p.19).

Methodological issues

Michelle Grattan, now of The Age newspaper, regards this case as generating the most substantial debate about journalism ethics in Australia in recent memory. In this colloquium, five scholars from the University of Queensland School of Journalism & Communication reflect on the case from a range of perspectives. All the contributors have taught ethics – albeit in a wide variety of contexts. The literature on learning about ethics suggests that peer-led discussion is the most effective context for the development of ethical insight (Nelson & Obremski 1990). For the contributors, this colloquium represented such an opportunity and, to some extent, this piece has parallels with the work Lou Hodges has been doing regularly in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, although the United States is normally the context for the cases Hodges presents (Hodges 1992).

There are of course risks in the use of case-based moral reasoning, or casuistry as it is known. Until recently casuistry was largely discredited as a form of moral reasoning. It has been revived, largely in the field of bioethics, through the work of Stephen Toulmin and Albert Jonsen (1988) but not without some trenchant criticism (Boyle 1997; Tomlinson 1994). Casuistry seeks to work inductively from cases, (Jonsen & Toulmin 1988, pp.106-107), comparing like with like, whereas deontological moral reasoning, based on codes, is deductive. The advantage of using a method such as casuistry is that people who hold different principles can often come to agreement on the solution to a particular ethical problem without the necessity to compromise on the principles they hold. However, casuistry is an explicitly non-principled form of moral reasoning, and still has some way to go before it is rehabilitated as a universally acceptable form of moral reasoning. Boeyink (1992) makes a case for the use of casuistry in journalism ethics, but not a convincing one. Skating over casuistry’s problematic past in one paragraph (p.112), Boeyink posits casuistry as a middle way between a ‘situation ethics’ which sees each case as unique and an ‘absolutism’ in which cases are “the passive raw material to which moral principles are applied” (p.111), a sort of systematised situationalism.

There has been no attempt to synchronise the views of the contributors, each has selected an aspect of the issue and the ensuing debate to discuss. Rhonda Breit opens with a discussion of ‘lying’ and legitimacy of keeping information secret; Trina McLellan assesses possible motives for placing such a story into the public domain; Martin Hirst looks at the media portrayal of Cheryl Kernot as a high-profile woman in Australian politics; John Harrison contributed the introduction and analyses the moral framing of the issue by the public as represented in Letters to the Editor, and Desley Bartlett relates the issue to the current MEAA Code of Ethics.

Next: 1: Sex, secrecy & lying: can it be ethical? (by Rhonda Breit)