Saturday 2 December saw the New England by-election. This had been a nasty campaign.
From the social media feeds, I learned far more of Mr Joyce's personal life than I ever wanted to know. I kept wanting to say stop. Mr Joyce is a public figure, but what you are doing is not fair on anybody else.I deliberately did not provide details. However, over the course of the campaign the twitter feeds provided accumulating material and detail. Not all this material was correct. An apparent example is the story that one of Mr Joyce's daughters drove down Tamworth's Peel St in a car with “Barnaby Joyce” branding, yelling at people not to vote for him through a megaphone. However, core details were fleshed out at interminable length. As the campaign proceeded, the tone became increasingly angry with anger directed in part at the mainstream media for not reporting. To drive this point home, many of the tweets were copied to journalists. If you just scroll back through the #NewEnglandVotes twitter feed you will get a feel.
Following the by-election, the matter rested until the newscorp media decided to run the story. Mrs Joyce confirmed basic details but asked for privacy. Fat chance. Now the barrier has been breached, the story has run and run. I don't know what the Joyce family is going to do, although their Tamworth home is reportedly for sale. It's hard enough managing a deeply personal thing like a marriage breakdown, harder still in the withering glare of national publicity.
The local media in particular were placed in a difficult position, something covered in part by Jamieson Murphy's piece in the Northern Daily Leader. They had to balance questions of proof, the right to privacy. the question of public interest in a frenetic campaign. I'm not sure how I would have handled it had I been an editor. I would have been conflicted.
Some of those who oppose Mr Joyce are arguing that the failure to report affected the election outcome. That's possible, although I'm doubtful. The matter was widely covered on social media and was the subject of considerable local gossip. Press coverage might have cost him some votes, but might equally have gained him some from those believing that this was part of an already perceived campaign against Mr Joyce.
While reporting might not have affected the election result at the time, I do think that the current controversy will have some adverse political effects on Mr Joyce and the National Party. Of more importance, however, is what the case might mean for the dividing line between public and private morality. Are the Daily Telegraph and the other newscorp outlets in their role as "defenders" of public morality taking us down the path previously followed by the British tabloids with their sometimes salacious coverage of moral, generally sexual lapses, by British public figures? Alternatively, will Australia follow the route that the US seems to be going of outright bans on sexual relations between elected officials and their staff? Or maybe both, since the second is likely to lead to the first anyway?
I don't know. I can't answer these questions. The current sometimes febrile debate around relationships suggests a continuing shift in attitudes towards morality, the emergence of new views on what constitutes acceptable behaviour, new views increasingly enforced by various forms of social and legal sanctions. The effect appears to be a progressive widening of the scope of public morality at the cost of private morality.