Well, what a week in federal politics. Not so much about the revelations about the affairs of the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, but the role of the media, and the wider picture of the relationship between government and journalists.
To be honest, I really don’t care about who Joyce sleeps with, or who he doesn’t sleep with. Canberra is a lonely place in winter for many MPs and I can imagine, with all the focus of attention and the power accrued within their positions, that it would be close to saintly to avoid the temptation of becoming engaged in an affair, away from family, and the likelihood of never being found out, especially with friends in the media that will usually look the other way and look for “material of a publishable standard”.
Sexual encounters of the third kind and sleep arounds within politics are nothing new and will be with us forever, and they often bring up surprising matches. Many years ago, I visited a friend who was house sharing with a political wannabe engaged in an Labor Party preselection battle for a marginal federal seat. After hellos and a quick cup of tea, who should step out of the bedroom but a senior Liberal Party advisor, one who resigned from the Liberals and later flirted with the Australian Democrats and the Greens. On another visit a few weeks later, same situation, but a different character emerged from the bedroom – this time, an ALP figure who subsequently became a politician in the NSW Parliament. Maybe it was all innocuous, and perhaps they were debating preference deals and the intricacies of designing the How To Vote cards in a more intimate environment, but these types of events are not rare. And we shouldn’t really care or be involved too much with what politicians do in their privates lives.
However, in the case of Barnaby Joyce, there is the issue of consistency of reporting, and the motivations of those journalists that refrain from reporting the private affairs of politicians. In December last year, Barnaby Joyce faced a by-election in the seat of New England, after it was found that he was a dual citizen, and ineligible to sit in Parliament. The by-election was critical, as the Liberal–National coalition only held government by a margin of one seat.
As it turned out, Joyce was having an affair with one of his staffers, Vikki Campion, and the Prime Minister’s office was involved in having her shifted to other National Party offices, due to the disruption the affair was causing within Joyce’s office. And, Campion is due to have a child with Joyce in April this year.
And if that’s not enough, Joyce and Campion are living at an apartment provided rent-free by a major donor to the National Party, and a beneficiary of many government infrastructure projects, local business man, Greg Maguire.
Would widespread knowledge about these matters in the electorate influenced the final election result? Probably not. In a seat like New England and the low calibre of candidates in the campaign, Joyce probably more than likely would have won the seat, even if the community was aware of his misdemeanours. But, we’ll never know and, at the time the media decided to lay low on the issue, we definitely wouldn’t have known who would win the seat.
The key question is, why didn’t the mainstream media make further investigations? Many are now saying that it was ‘an open secret’, but why did they decide not to report? It was reported in independent media as early as October, including revelations Joyce had left his wife of 24 years, and family of four children, and taken up with his media advisor, who was also pregnant.
Other rumours and ‘open secrets’ include the allegations a drunken Joyce stalked a 17-year-old girl at an awards ceremony in 2012, chased and molested her in a toilet. If true, it sounds a little bit like rape.
Should details like this remain ‘private’ for a politician? Not when the same politician has been lecturing us all about the sanctity of marriage ever since they arrived in Parliament; spoken out about adding the HPV preventative drug, Gardasil, onto the Theraputic Goods Administration list – “don’t you dare put something out there that gives my 12-year-old daughter a licence to be promiscuous” – and railed against marriage equality. In these circumstances, the public has a right to know, especially in the case of sanctimonious hypocrisy and misuse of public funds for politicians to have their bit on the side and keep it quiet.
Why did the media wait until three months after the election? Because they feared that it might cost the government a critical seat? Who decides which issues the public has right to know, and this new equation of “verifiable truth”, as reported in The Guardian?
Joyce was missing action for almost all of the New England campaign – he didn’t attend a candidate’s forum (all other candidates attended), a regular event organised by the Tamworth Chamber of Commerce was cancelled because he wasn’t available (but he was available to travel to Canberra to collect a personal $40,000 National Agriculture Day award from mining magnate, Gina Rinehart, on the same day), and only held carefully managed short folksy media events. This didn’t pique anyone’s interest?
All of these red flags were in place, the ‘open secrets’ were obvious to everyone, yet no one in the mainstream media decided to run with anything negative on Barnaby Joyce. In fact, most of the media coverage, especially on the ABC News, was highly favourable and positive towards Joyce and the National Party.
And since the Daily Telegraph’s Sharri Markson “broke” the story this week, all we’ve heard from other mainstream journalists has been the weak excuses about why they didn’t report the story about Joyce at the time. “Private matters are private”, “the facts didn’t stack up”, and this classic from Fairfax journalist Jacqueline Maley: “in a newsroom that is hollowed out by cost-cutting, every reporter who is assigned to cover a love child expose, is a reporter who cannot write about national energy policy (which affects far more of our readers), or about the latest factional dispute in the Labor Party, or about the citizenship crisis.”
So, it’s more important to write about fictitious factional disputes and imaginary challenges to Bill Shorten – where none of the facts stack up and unnamed and unknown sources are cited – than a case where all the facts point to corruption in the Deputy Prime Minister’s office (and, possibly, the Prime Minister’s office), and a local member who is distracted to the point where he can’t do his job, and can’t even be bothered to campaign in the by-election for his seat.
I always like to image political life in parallel universes. What if this case involved a deputy leader from another political party, say Labor’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, leaving her husband and three children after having an affair with her male media advisor? And Bill Shorten then creating two new positions to accommodate the male advisor, and move him to Penny Wong’s office, to avoid a dysfunctional workplace environment?
It would have been promptly reported way before the stories hit the keyboards of social media, or independent online news outlets. We would have never heard the end of it, until the resignations of all parties involved. It would be a replay of the 1975 affair of Labor’s Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Jim Cairns, and his chief-of-staff, Junie Morosi, on steroids.
Compare Joyce with the way the mainstream media reported every skerrick of innuendo in wholesome flavour when it came to former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, former speaker, Peter Slipper, or former Labor MPs, Craig Thomson and Cheryl Kernot. Special treatment is reserved for Labor members of parliament, but when it comes to the conservatives, a special rule of “verifiable truth” or “private lives are private” is always invoked.
What else are journalists deciding to withhold? Joyce’s landholdings in Gwabegar, purchased in 2006 and 2008, but now surrounded by gasfields owned by Santos? According to Joyce, he purchased “mongrel country” of “poor economic value” for $572,000. But who purchases half-a-million dollars worth of land of poor economic value, if there is no potential to reap massive rewards later on? Why did former Nationals leader, John Anderson, advise Joyce in 2005 it would be a good purchase?
It seems like a clear case of insider trading and corruption, especially in the context of the Turnbull government which Joyce is a part of, pushing the NSW Government to fast-track the approval of gas exploration.
Aside from snippets of material over the past year, the only serious analysis undertaking has been by independent journalist, Michael West (‘Barnaby’s gas bonanza and the pervading influence of the gas lobby’).
Why are there no takers in the mainstream media for what is, on the surface, potentially one of the corruption stories of the decade?
Australian journalism has had a massive fail over the past two weeks. Firstly, the ABC managed to access confidential cabinet documents from over a ten-year period, covering the Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott governments. From the hundreds of pages they retrieved, they selected several issues, including former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s request to ASIO to slow down asylum seeker visa applications; Tony Abbott’s consideration to consider a total welfare cut for under-30s; journalist Andrew Bolt consultation on amendments to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act; and erroneously claiming Kevin Rudd was warned about critical risks in the home insulation scheme.
All of these issues were either already in the public domain, or barely controversial. But what did the ABC decide not to report, and who decided what was fit for public consumption? The ABC then proceeded to contact ASIO and return the documents, with the promise of not to publish other material from the documents, and followed up with a completely far-fetched story: ‘The Cabinet Files: How classified documents were found at a Canberra second-hand shop’.
It’s akin to The Washington Post deciding to give all the Pentagon Papers back to the Nixon government in 1971, and agreeing not to publish any information that showed the US government had consistently lied about the Vietnam War for over a decade, in the “interests of national security”.
It’s weak and cowered journalism, compromised for the sake of not creating embarrassment for the incumbent government. Which is the opposite of the ideals of journalism and what is it meant to represent.
And now, the Joyce affair. In both the Joyce affair and the cabinet papers leak, journalists from the mainstream media were defensive, offering a litany of excuses for why they should hide information from the public.
Why are journalists so timid? It’s a tough world out there, with many journalists losing their jobs over the past few years, due to the many changes in the delivery of news and journalism, and the downfall of revenues at the major media outlets. And I’m sure over at the ABC and SBS, there’d be a cautious eye cast over the role that Malcolm Turnbull had in the sacking of journalists Nick Ross and Scott McIntyre, after publishing material that was either critical of government policy, or deemed to be unfavourable. Not even Ginny Stein, a journalist with three Walkey Awards, can find work with the ABC, having recently been made redundant. So, is it better to be the journalist that toes the line and protects their mortgage repayments, as well as their direct line to key political contacts, or the ex-journalist back in the pack, looking for work in an ever diminishing pool of resources?
Political reporting and journalism is in a sad state at the moment, but to make improvements, it’s not so much the relationships between politicians and their staffers that need to be curtailed, but the relationships between politicians and journalists. It’s far too cosy.
Of course, it would be better if all those male MPs in Canberra could put their penises back into their trousers, zip up and stay zipped – we wouldn’t hear anymore of these salacious stories and we could start talking about the important issues that really matter in politics. But, unfortunately that’s not going to happen.
The most critical step is for journalists to stop socialising with politicians. Close down the Parliamentary Bar. Which other workplace, aside from a hotel, encourages so much drinking on the job? Then, cancel the annual Mid Winter Parliamentary Ball for the media and politicians. Sure, it’s an event raising money for charities, but pass the hat around Parliament House and get those stingy politicians and media personalities for fork out money in other ways. And, while we’re at it, cancel the annual drinks for the media at The Lodge with the Prime Minister.
As Paul Keating once said, if you want a real friend in Canberra, get a dog. There’s no room for friendships in Canberra.
These are only small steps. But at least we can get back onto the path of journalists reporting what is in the national interest, not what is in the partisan interests of their friends in Parliament.