Saturday, May 22, 2010

Channel Seven - one step too far

There used to be an unwritten rule in the hurly-burly of Australian politics that private lives were off-limit.  This was observed by politicians and journalists alike, providing a clear division between public and private space to the mutual benefit of all.

This rule has been progressively eroded over time. This caused distress and commentary, but no one knew what to do about it. Now TV Channel Seven in Sydney appears to have gone one step too far.

For the benefit of international readers, Seven filmed a NSW Government Minister leaving a well known Gay club. It was well set up in a technical sense using multiple cameras. Upon being informed by the network that they would air the story that night, the Minister promptly resigned.

Bear with me if I don't give you details or links. For reasons that I will give in a moment, I regard this as a strictly private matter. 

The justification given by Seven was that Minister had misused his official car to go to the club, something that the NSW Premier referred to in accepting the resignation. I thought that that was very strange at the time because the Minister drove himself, while such cars have always been used in part as private vehicles. Now it has been confirmed that there was no misuse, that private use was allowed.

Channel Seven therefore appears to have fallen back on secondary justifications: the fact that the Minister had used a photo of his wife and children on Christmas Card proved that he was a hypocrite and therefore worthy of exposure; the fact that he had been Police Minister meant that his secret life exposed him to risk of blackmail in such a sensitive portfolio.

There is no evidence that the former Minister broke any laws. There is no evidence that I know of that his private behaviour in any way affected his ministerial performance. Even the Sydney Morning Herald, no friend of the Government, suggested that while his ministerial performance might be open to some general criticisms, the story had nothing to do with his official role.

There was almost universal criticism of the story from both sides of politics. The on-line opinion polls showed an overwhelming view that the story should not have been aired, a view that the Minister should not have resigned. These polls are not statistically valid, but are not a bad reflection of immediate public opinion.

For the first time that I have seen, other media outlets reported on past behaviour of one of those involved on the Channel Seven side. Essentially, if reporters and media outlets are to report in this way, then they can now expect similar return scrutiny.

In all, the story caused acute distress without, so far as I can see, a single public policy benefit.

I have written before on the problems created by this type of reporting - Why are we so hard on our politicians - and ourselves? is an example. I would like to think that in going one step too far, Channel Seven may in fact have created a reaction that will, to some degree at least redress the balance.   


Legal Eagle said...

Good post, Jim.

Legal Eagle said...

I guess the thing that worries me is that some stuff is open knowledge in the world of journalism, but no one in the public gets to know about it. Apparently, for example, the affair between Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans was well known in the press gallery, it just wasn't reported until someone decided Kernot deserved to be pulled down a few pegs.

What makes the press decide someone deserves to be pulled down a few pegs? Why the selective approach? (They tell about some people's secrets, but not others). It just leaves journos with an awful lot of power.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE. When I was active in party politics in Canberra I knew a lot of this stuff and not just in my own party. It's a bit hard not too when you are having dinner with assorted couples or a drink in people's flats!

Sometimes stories are so good - Gareth and Cheryl for example - that the temptation to run for the headline becomes impossible to resist. There have to be rules.

Anonymous said...

There is a rule: there are no rules. Or morals, and very little sense of decency.

This fits in well with your Thailand post, and the importance of good manners. And also comment about playing the ball, not the man.

The thing I found strange was that the morning of this 'news' was spent castigating that AFL player for his old fashioned attitude to this very same (non)issue.


Rafe said...

Legal Eagle said...

KVD - snap!

Anonymous said...

Legal Eagle, snapped indeed! And much more eloquently expressed. Why am I not surprised?


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, all, for the additional comments. I find it interesting that this, the Campbell case, is one issue that seems to have united across the political and ideologicla divide.