Wednesday’s front page expose of Barnaby Joyce’s messy personal life is the latest example of a journalist or media outlet choosing not to stick to the generally unstated tradition that politicians’ personal lives are off limits when it comes to reporting political matters.
The stated exception to this practice is if the relationship is “in the public interest”. Laurie Oakes would have invoked a justification along these lines when he went public with the relationship between former Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot and senior Labor minister Gareth Evans.
Let’s be clear why this tradition exists – it’s not necessarily because journalists particularly respect the private lives of politicians and their families (although it should be stressed that some really do).
But it’s also because any wholesale public scrutiny of the interconnected personal lives within Canberra’s parliament house would potentially uncover many other relationships between politicians, staff and also members of the media.
No, I’m not suggesting that our parliament is the modern equivalent of a roman orgy, or that the media runs exclusively on pillow talk. I am suggesting that undisclosed relationships between journalists (or commentators) and politicians or their staff can be an unseen influence on what or how that journalist reports. And voters deserve to know about that influence so they can take it into account.
I’ve been interested to hear and read today that some journalists have claimed the Barnaby Affair (sorry) couldn’t be reported because the rumour could not be substantiated. However that doesn’t seem to stop the some elements of the media reporting unsubstantiated information in the form of anonymous leaks.
As for any politician involved in an extra-marital relationship, I’ve written before that it’s in the public interest to know this because it goes to their character. It may also go to their state of mind; we now know that Joyce has been under considerable stress for many months as a result of his marriage breakdown.
That stress may have contributed to the Deputy PM’s poor (let alone juvenile) decision to dump well-performing Darren Chester from the Cabinet. [Some of Joyce’s colleagues have made similar comments to the media. And this subsequent article claims senior staff left Joyce’s office because of the relationship with his staffer.]
Yes, yes, I know – marriages break down, and relationships can and do form in close working quarters. None of that is new, and in most cases it should not be newsworthy. But when this happens to a politician, voters deserve to know. It’s in the interests of greater transparency in our political system and better public understanding of what influences the political news they consume.
Perhaps there’s even an argument that our polity would benefit from voters having a greater appreciation that politicians’ lives are as complex and challenging as their constituents’ lives – with conventional or unconventional families (as we saw with Labor’s Susan Lamb today), tidy or messy personal lives, and a broad range of lived experiences.