Dubbo Photo News & Dubbo Weekender

Is there media protection in Australian politics?

Imagine the media firestorm if it was Julia Gillard having an affair with a staff junior member?

Her fitness to lead, her moral character and political judgement would have been raked over in fine detail. It would have been the lead story of every news bulletin and the source of thousands of words in editorials and opinion pieces.

Ponder the scenario of Gillard going to an election under that sort of the scrutiny, and the inevitable effect on the result.

This situation didn’t apply to Barnaby Joyce. The mainstream media gave him a free ride in the lead-up to last December’s by-election, discussing the dual citizenship fiasco at length, but silence on the exemplar of moral character that was the office affair.

I first read about Joyce’s affair in October, in the online news journals Independent Australia and True Crime Weekly. They had confirmed sources who knew of the affair, and Joyce had left the marital home. In a sign of the veracity of the articles, the National Party were silent – no defamation threats, no public statement.

Posts on Twitter by residents of the New England electorate alluded to Joyce having moved out of home. Several posts mentioned a car being driven though Tamworth by a woman with a loud hailer, giving a public critique of Joyce and his alleged philandering.

The affair was the worst kept secret in Tamworth. The mainstream media were not interested at this point, despite the candidate being an outspoken and moralistic proponent of the ‘No’ vote in the Same Sex Marriage survey, which was ultimately about giving people autonomy in their private lives.

In November, The Daily Telegraph printed an article defending Joyce, denouncing the alleged affair as innuendo and slur against a popular sitting member. The Nationals continued to remain silent, hoping the baling twine would hold the public image of their candidate together until December 2. The Newscorp newspapers continued to back Joyce, and the ABC were silent on the affair allegations.

Election Day concluded with the inevitable Joyce win. Prime Minister Turnbull held Joyce’s arm aloft in celebration. The band was getting back together. The one seat margin was protected. There was no sign of Mrs Joyce or their daughters.

Now ensconced in Canberra and heartened by the protection of the mainstream media, Joyce resumed his Cabinet and Deputy Prime Minister roles and put the whole dual citizenship sage behind him.

It took until February for the mainstream media to report that Joyce had engaged in an affair with a junior, now pregnant, staff member. The Daily Telegraph printed photographs of a pregnant Vikki Campion and boasted about publicly breaking the story. Journalists from other media outlets talked about rumours of the affair, but claimed a lack of evidence as the reason not to pursue the story in the lead-up to the by-election. No one, including the ABC, pulled up The Daily Telegraph regarding its boasts of breaking the story.

There was obviously hypocrisy going on here. Joyce received a free ride from the mainstream press, who were not prepared to do the digging, prepared only to do the bidding of their owners. And, again, his colleagues claimed it was a private matter and what’s private should remain private. But Joyce relinquished his right to privacy when he supported the public examination of the private lives of same-sex couples, actively courting the press to suit his own purposes, all whilst carrying on an affair that was at odds with his own family values public profile.

Cast your memory back to the reporting on the private lives of Julia Gillard, Cheryl Kernot and Bob Hawke. No quarter was granted by the press. Go back further to Jim Cairns, where every salacious detail was dissected in the media.

In the case of Barnaby Joyce, the mainstream media wanted to have it both ways. Avoid scrutiny of an elected official to ensure his re-election, gloat about revealing the events to increase circulation, then devolve to tabloid journalism.

This debacle has highlighted many issues with Australian governance – dual citizenship, sense of entitlement, ministerial conduct – but the relationship between the mainstream media and elected politicians escaped scrutiny.

As Turnbull said on by-election night, the band is back together (although that band is now more Fleetwood Mac than Pearl Jam). I want that publicly funded band scrutinised without fear or favour. The free and fair democratic process deserves no less from the mainstream media, otherwise it will accelerate its own demise.

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.