Crikey does not agree with much of what Pilita Polly says in this article but we’re a broad church and will always defend her right to say it.

The piety on this occasion is little different to that to which the Australian public is subject on every occasion there is a challenge to Australia’s defamation laws. Without exception we are lectured that it is in the public interest for individual privacy to be further eroded and undermined; that there is a greater good in the media being able to defame and slander citizens.

It is never about circulation, ratings and resulting corporate profits but rather, pure altruism and the inalienable right to report fairly and fearlessly. In the debate between individual privacy and public disclosure, the media without exception have always argued not only passionately, but invariably stridently and shrilly for public disclosure.

The cry in unison of public interest by editors and news directors is on this occasion, blatant deceit. When stories of the Kernot/Evans magnitude are seen in the offing, judgments of good taste and public interest are jettisoned without a moment’s thought. No editor was ever going to be the one not to run this story once Oakes broke it in The Bulletin. The herd rush was not in fear of being trampled, it was in fear of being left behind. It always has and always will be the way of media reporting in this country.

Private interests, good taste and fairness to the innocent victims of the publication, do not have a snow flake’s chance in hell of being competitive with a front page story. I have no doubt were it not for the overwhelming public disapproval at the disclosure of this liaison, the families of Kernot and Evans would have been staked out and stalked.

The editor of the Australian, Michael Stutchbury finds justification in his paper running the story on the basis that; “Now we find out that she’s in the middle of a seemingly torrid affair with a leading member of the Labor Party. I would assume that if the other leading members of the Labor Party knew about it they would have stopped it (the defection) and history would have changed.”

It does not seem to have occurred to Stutchbury that if the others had found out about what he gratuitously describes as the “torrid” affair, the affair would have stopped, not the defection. Equally, suggestions by Labor figures who now claim they would have vetoed the defection had they known of the affair, are equally disengenuous.

Had the outcome of the defection been a stunning success and had Kernot helped Labor win Government in 1998, not only would the relationship not have been reported, book or no book, there would not now be a peep from the beneficiaries.

Fairfax chief executive, Fred Hilmer claims in justification of his papers’ publication that Ms Kernot had opened herself to public scrutiny when she launched her book. Journalists were justified in ensuring it was a true reflection of what occurred. When books are written then it is proper for journalists to question the veracity of what’s put on the public record.” What utter arrogant pomposity. Hilmer is clearly drawing his own grubby inferences.

Autobiographies and disclosures

When a very senior former Labor Cabinet Minister wrote his autobiography some years ago, he detailed his dealings and those of his party with the media. What he did not tell his readers and which they were not to find out from the Canberra press gallery, was that he had during his Ministerial career, conducted an illicit sexual affair with a senior member of the Canberra press gallery. It was a matter well known throughout the gallery.

This was a man with a very controversial past career. Could not the claim be made that he had compromised that female journalist and those colleagues sympathetic towards her, in what she reported about him and his detractors.

There have over the years been many illicit affairs between members of the Canberra press gallery and parliamentarians of all rankings. May not any of these have compromised the fourth estate? Who is to know what great scandals of government have been concealed, what changed course of history unreported. By what criteria may they be disclosed?

There is no doubt that had a male Leader of the Democrats, however enormously popular, defected to the Labor Party and been found to be having a sexual relationship with a senior female Labor Party member, it would not have invited the same speculation of Svengali influence by the Labor woman. Oakes would most certainly have not bothered to report it. That in my view is the real test of relevance and public interest.

Besotted and beguiled

The truth of the matter is, the Kernot/Evans relationship is newsworthy because the unspoken sub text amongst the media is that Kernot was besotted by Evans and that through their relationship, Evans was able to manipulate Kernot into leaving the Democrats and joining the Labor Party. It is assumed that were it not for Evans emotional influence over Kernot, she would never have defected.

The further conclusion is that Kernot was always going to be totally unsuited to a role in the Labor Party, particularly in opposition and had she been able to think with a clear head and an unaffected heart, she would never have contemplated the move.

Oakes and others have strongly implied that her highly strung emotional state was due not so much to her failure to adjust to her diminished role in her new party and to her failure to cope with the pressures and demands of a front bench portfolio in opposition, but rather to her increasingly tortured personal relationship with Evans which manifest itself with her hospitalisation in 1999.

Rumours and gossip of Kernot’s alleged behaviour in pursuit of Evans when he is alleged to have attempted to break off the affair have abounded for months. The temptation to give them truth and as an explanation for every political step and action Kernot has taken since 1996, has proved irresistible to the conspiracy theorists in the Canberra press gallery.

Margo Kingston in her rush to support Oakes publication of the affair, sounded positively voyeuristic when discussing the issue on ‘Lateline’ on 3rd July. Her whole interview was consumed with sexual connotations. She began by accusing Kernot of writing the book so as to invite Oakes to disclose her affair with Evans so as to punish Evans.

Kingston talked of “one of the intriguing things about the defection was that it had all the hallmarks of an elopement” and that “especially the person they’re got the consuming passion with seduces them into defecting and changing parties.”

The viewers are even given an insight by Kingston into female journalists’ powder room gossip. “I remember Michelle Gratton saying to me years ago, that is what she suspected, there was this whole undercurrent of I’m about to leave my husband without notice and run off with my lover.”

Finally Kingston arrives at the profound conclusion that Kernot is a tragic figure “who has chosen to write a tell-all book and has not disclosed something that is clearly of enormous relevance.” Not satisfied with that, Kingston was able to psychoanalyse Kernot and explained that “It helps explain some of her, you know, behaviour at certain times.”

It must be remembered that this trash was coming from a senior political reporter upon whom the readers of the Sydney Morning Herald rely to provide them with accurate, balanced and informed news. It lacks any sense of discernment or objectivity. It is content better suited to an ill-informed, gossiping Billingsgate fish wife.

Oakes then and now

Oakes has at least, unlike Kingston and the various editors, had the good manners to pretend to hand wring in public. Of course it is utterly disengenuous nonsense. Oakes, who has made an art form of attending press conferences with his nasty one liners : “How does it feel to be a Demo-rat:” “Don’t you feel a dill Admiral Barrie” is a hard headed, ruthless journalist who in publishing the affair, did so in such a way as to maximise its exposure and publicity.

Clearly Oakes was personally stung by Kernot’s criticism of him in her book and his behaviour has all the hallmarks of a man who is used to giving and most unused to taking stern medicine. It is rare that members of the Canberra press gallery have to read of other people’s view about their own behaviour.

It really is beyond belief to view Oates conduct and the timing of his article, as anything else. It’s a weakness not unknown in the press gallery, although rather more the conduct of the types of Mike Seccombe in his Kookaburra column for the SMH. At the very least, Oakes knew he had a big story and Kernot’s references to him in her book gave him the personal excuse to run it.

If the personal relationship between Kernot and Evans is a story now because of the effect that relationship has had on “history” and the dynamics of Kernot’s decisions, it was a far greater story at the time when both parties were in parliament and events were unfolding.

Oakes claims to have sat on this story for years and has only now published it because of Kernot’s autobiography. Either he was then recklessly indifferent towards a crucial news story which if then exposed would have had a profound effect on political events, or he is now indulging in salacious personal gossip. Claims that the book was the touch stone of his revelations are hideously absurd and self indulgent.

Laurie Oakes is a highly experienced journalist who knows instinctively when he has a story of great consequence. He has never hesitated to write stories damaging to people if he believes they have political merit. In early 1975 Oakes wrote a very damaging article in the Sun newspaper about the Leader of the Liberal Party, Billy Snedden, then a great mate of Oakes. It was hearsay, based almost entirely on conjecture and destroyed the friendship between the two.

If Oakes had first evidence in 1997 or thereafter that Kernot’s relationship with Evans was dictating political events, he would have written it. He had no first hand evidence to that effect then and he has no such evidence now. Whether it be true is quite another matter. No one else other than Kernot knows whether her relationship with Evans coloured her judgment in leaving the Democrats to join the Labor Party.

The media – double standards and self interest

Members of the Canberra press gallery do not abide by a set of unwritten rules as they so frequently claim to nobly do. Their behaviour is invariably self serving and without regard to any other considerations. The normal criteria is; will this effect my future access to stories and can I make this newsworthy?

Often the personal conduct of Ministers goes unreported for fear that the offending journalist will be taken off the news drip. Mention of illicit relationships in which members of the gallery are involved is taboo irrespective of how professionally compromising they may be.

When Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson recently said that the private behavior of members of parliament was a matter of public interest and lectured members about extra-marital affairs, not one journalist asked him whether all federal members of the National Party were faithful to their spouses and what would be the consequence for those who were not. Members of the press gallery have particular knowledge of the extra-marital affairs of one of Anderson’s senior colleagues.

Putting Mr Oakes aside, an example of the self serving behaviour of some members of the gallery was evidenced in Parliament House in 1984. The staff of the bars and restaurants in Parliament House went on strike for twenty four hours over a pay dispute and while continuing to work, staff refused to collect payment from those occupants of Parliament House obtaining drink and food.

While the members’ facilities of parliament house were almost deserted, the non-members bar consumed a record amount of alcohol. The parliamentary press gallery, almost as one, turned into a drunken swill for the duration of the availability of free alcohol.

When the strike was over, a number of print journalists who had been at the forefront of this taxpayer funded drunken orgy, sought details as to the level of use and subsequent payment for food and drink consumed in the members bar and dinning room.

Kernot and Labor

Kernot’s move from the Democrats across to the Labor Party must be seen in the context of the time. Both Kernot and Labor had expected Kernot’s return to parliament in 1998 as a member of the Labor Party, to be that of a senior Minister. Neither Kernot nor Labor had planned that her transfer to Labor was to be for a full term in opposition.

The defeat of Labor in 1998 was devastating to Kernot’s future career. It was not one she had planned or was equipped to cope with. The loss by Labor in 1998 effectively ended Kernot’s political career.

For those close to events at the time of Kernot’s defection from the Democrats in October 1997, it was always going to be a great risk for Kernot. Everything rested on her winning Dickson and on Labor winning the election. With Labor’s loss, everything changed for Kernot.

She now had to perform an entirely new role in which she had never been tested. There is an enormous difference in rejecting or amending legislation in the Senate to that of developing alternate policies and legislation in the House of Representatives. Not only did Kernot have the assistance of substantial staff resources not available to a front bench opposition member, but also the help of the government departmental officers. The roles and functions alone were vastly different.

Kernot had moved from an enormously powerful and unique position in which she was courted not only by both sides of politics but she had ready access to the media which reported her every announcement and decision, to one of relatively minor status which brought no immediate results or gratification. Kernot was no longer a leader, but one of many shadow ministers who had to compete for every column inch of positive media.

More particularly, Kernot was now in a culture she did not understand and which would not easily accommodate her. She imagined that the initial flurry and flush of attention by the leadership in courting her and at the time of the announcement of her defection, was to be the level of attention she could look forward to on a permanent basis. Future media attention was bound to dwell on her weaknesses and failings. There are very few successes in opposition and Kernot had a great deal more to prove than most.

By her own admissions, Kernot had a totally unrealistic view of her role with Labor. In truth, neither she nor Labor had planned a role for her outside government. While the hard-heads saw her place in opposition as a high profile and popular shadow minister whose act of joining was in large part her value, Kernot saw herself as having a role a little less than that of Kim Beazley, a defacto roving alternate leader.

Little wonder, Beazley wondered why she continued to ask him about her place in the sun. To him it was clear enough; she had a portfolio to get on with and policies to develop and write.

To add to Kernot’s very considerable problems was her conduct on election night. In politics there is only one opportunity at first impressions and she made a very poor impression not only upon her electorate, but more importantly, upon her colleagues and the press. She had failed lamentably, the simple test of grace under pressure. It was an occasion from which Kernot was never going to recover.

Unable to placate her electorate, apparently ill equipped to write inspirational policy, with a jaundiced press and increasingly hostile colleagues, no longer an obvious asset to the Labor Party, Kernot without the infrastructure which had sustained her in the past, was bewildered, isolated, bitter and depressed. Clearly her future in politics was now a question of survival.

Kernot’s book leaves the reader with the clear impression that she never understood that her special and intrinsic worth to the Labor Party was almost completely lost on election night, 1998. Beyond that point she was little more than tolerated and she did nothing to warrant more.

Postscript

Mr Stutchbury’s latest attempt at self justification for his paper’s insatiable appetite for details about this matter was to have former Labor staffer, David Epstein write in the ‘Weekend Australian’, that the affair justified public disclosure. This was to be the ultimate insider’s definitive account.

In his article Epstein acknowledges that he had no knowledge of the affair and that only Kernot and Evans can possibly know whether their relationship influenced Kernot’s political judgment. Presumably the same can be said of Evans judgment.

That having been said, Epstein then proceeds to claim that the “true political impact of the affair justifies the exposure” of the story. He also claims “Kernot wrote a partial account attributing blame to others for her political demise without mentioning that the difficulties of her relationship with Evans might also be important.”

Epstein states that “one could fill a book of examples of the relationship affecting the political fortunes of the ALP in significant ways” then proceeds to recount two ludicrous hearsay tales, neither of which reflect upon Kernot’s behaviour and about which there is no evidence of her involvement or knowledge.

His evidence of the political impact of the relationship on the Labor Party of which Kernot can hardly be aware and could therefore not be expected to appear in her book, was Evans quite unremarkable demands that Kernot be included in the leadership group leading up to the election.

That Epstein believes that was material to Labor’s fortunes in 1998 says more about his understanding of political events in late 1998 than it does about Kernot and Evans relationship. It is certainly an insight into Labor’s priorities and preoccupations during the campaign. Leadership and strategy group memberships are always a mix of politics and practical considerations. It seems the sixty forty rule is the least of Labor’s internal troubles.

Kernot was considered such a great prize for Labor because of her demonstrated leadership skills, political savvy, communication skills and her standing in the electorate. Not for nothing as Leader had she achieved record representation for the Democrats in the Senate.

Having been instrumental in persuading Kernot to make a profound and monumental political change, it was hardly unexpected that Evans would want the Labor Party’s prize new secret weapon for victory to have some input, not the least about the constituency that had made her such a valuable asset. It seems Epstein thought her value was as an adornment whose constituency would blindly follow her across to Labor.

It is inconceivable that Evans or others members party to negotiating for her defection would not have assumed Kernot would expect to play some part in campaign strategy. It is perfectly likely that Evans gave Kernot an assurance during their negotiations that she would join the leadership group. It was surely an automatic and elementary condition.

Epstein’s second piece of bizarre hearsay evidence of the affair impacting upon Labor is that his informant alleged Kernot had said that Evans expected Beazley to lose the 1998 election and that Kernot was most likely then to become ALP leader. The absurdity of this claim is shown by the fact that Kernot joined the Labor Party in the total belief that Labor would unquestionably win the 1998 election and she would immediately become a Minister. Any other outcome was likely to result in the loss of Dickson.

David Epstein’s justification for the publication of Kernot and Evans affair can only lead an objective and fair minded reader to conclude that his grounds are contrived and without substance or merit.

What Epstein’s article does achieve is to demonstrate that not only did Labor have no clue of the affair, they had no evidence then and have no evidence now, that the relationship between Kernot and Evans, bore at all on events within the Labor Party. Stutchbury would have been better off keeping his money in his pocket.

Peter Fray

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