AN AFFAIR OF POWER
THE spectacular implosion of Barnaby Joyce’s private life has prompted the usual bout of handwringing as to whether these revelations represent a new low in journalism.
There is nothing new about this type of journalism. There is nothing low about it, either.
I can’t understand how people – especially people in journalism – can claim there’s no public interest in the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister’s life has gone so completely off the rails and that there are genuine doubts as to whether he can continue in his role.
If you applied the censorious test set by these critics, and went back through history with an airbrush, many stories would be expunged from the record.
You would never have heard anything about the Whitlam government treasurer Dr Jim Cairns and how his tempestuous affair with Junie Morosi, 41, coincided with his controversial decision to appoint her his principal private secretary, as the economy slid into the mire.
The appointment by former prime minister John Gorton of the stunning 22-year-old Ainslie Gotto as his chief secretary would have been downplayed, too, even though one furious ex-minister attributed his sacking from Cabinet to the influence she held over the PM.
On privacy grounds, the cameras would have stopped rolling when, in 1994, Bob Hawke had a breakdown on national TV over his daughter’s drug problems, even though the extent of his disengagement from his job would almost cost him power and start an enduring rift with then treasurer Paul Keating.
Internationally, you would put a line through reporting of the Profumo Affair in England, where topless showgirl Christine Keeler almost single-handedly destroyed a Tory government.
And as for that Monica Lewinsky business, well, let’s just leave that as a private matter between Bill, the intern, and the poor drycleaner who had to take care of her blue dress.
In terms of Barnaby Joyce, it’s hard to know where to start on public interest grounds, as there are so many.
For starters, it seems hypocritical that Joyce had the audacity to tell a certain class of Australians last year that they had no right to the apparently sacrosanct institution of marriage, when he was showing such complete disregard for his own.
Further, at a time when the corporate world is grappling with the question of workplace relationships – especially those framed around a power imbalance – why should the second-most powerful MP in the land be shielded from scrutiny?
We have seen sackings of executives at the AFL, finance directors and insurers stripped of bonuses, the sexual soap opera at the top of Channel 7 … stories involving older men falling for younger women.
Joyce is vastly older and more powerful than the younger staffer who will bear his child, but the privacy brigade would still have us put a screen around Parliament and tell people to look the other way.
This is one rule for them, another for everyone else.
Then there is the question I alluded to at the beginning – the impact all this is having on the ability of Joyce and those around him to do their jobs.
He seems rattled and broken, the Nationals’ ministerial offices have been affected with the staffer being shuffled around … all this goes to the good workings of government.
It is made graver by the widely held belief that there is more to come.
But the biggest reason all of this is in the public interest – and the one many polls and the more squeamish journos bristle at – is the most simple. He’s a politician.
I come to this issue from the somewhat weird perspective of being both married to a federal politician (Kate Ellis) and being a former editor of the paper that broke the Barnaby Joyce story last week, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.
There were times in my relationship when my now-wife and I were the subject of annoying tittletattle in the gossip pages, the karmic quality of which was not lost on me given it was pretty much what I used to do to other public figures in the course of my working day.
Here’s the thing. If you don’t want scrutiny for you and your family, politics isn’t the job for you.
I am not saying it should be open season on MPs, or that people should be able to publish any old crap.
Any personal stories should be relevant to the performance of their work, their character and, obviously enough, you would also hope that they were true.
I add that last point mindful of the rubbish directed at Tony Abbott and his chief adviser Peta Credlin, the nonsense Julia Gillard had to endure, and even some of the absurd theories about what Paul Keating and even John Howard used to get up to.
But with those caveats, politicians simply cannot expect the same level of privacy as private citizens.
They cannot hypocritically demand that their families be shielded from media attention when their past actions have involved using them for favourable coverage.
You can’t pose up for the cheesy election photos with your partner and kids – images that are wholly designed to convey the message that you’re a stable and reliable family person – then claim a privacy breach when the whole Brady Bunch facade collapses amid revelations you’ve been fooling around in a Queanbeyan motel.
Politics might be an often thankless task and one that can place relationships and families under real pressure, but MPs wield real policy power over average people’s lives. They are also paid much more than the average worker.
We have more right to know what makes them tick and what they are up to, than others in the community.
If it’s freedom from scrutiny you’re after, get a job as an accountant.