Hillary Bray assesses the Cheryl-Gareth wreckage as the dust begins to settle one week on.

It’s been a week since Laurie Oakes revealed a story even bigger than he is. By now, all the leading lights of the media-spindustrial complex have had a chance to have their two bobs worth and Oakes has now offered a postscript or post mortem of his own.

So what have we learned? Did it matter? When Kernot launched her autobiography 10 days ago, she chose not to mention it. Should it have been reported in the first place?

When a story like this comes along, of course, it’s important to remember that the meeja likes nothing better than reporting on itself. As for the inhabitants of Parliament House well, they’re even worse. Much of what passes for political debate and reportage is simply the obsessings of the handful of people who work inside Parliament Drive the Beltway writ small.

This, of course, is the core of the debate over “elite” opinion versus the unheard views of the “mainstream”, but in this particular case the elites thesis simply splintered along with reactions in Parliament House and Puntersville.

Rehame reports for what they’re worth show that the court of public opinion, talkback for what that’s worth came down strongly against publication. At the same time SBS the elite’s network, let alone the network most likely to screen the activities of consenting adults decided it was below it to report the story.

The Gallery responds

Oakes’ fellow Gallery titans, Michelle Grattan and Alan Ramsey, were split. Grattan had her say first, on Friday, and was for publication. Her starting point was soundly grounded. She listed Oakes’ record and stated simply how he “is certainly not a journalist who indulges in irresponsible sensationalism”. Her fundamental conclusion was fair, too: “If Kernot hadn’t written her book, there’d have been no compelling reason to canvass the affair (despite some critics of the press gallery claiming its members hold too much information back) But context is everything, and the book provided that It is unlikely that we are seeing here some dramatic shift to a US-style reporting where journalists too often hound politicians over their private lives. Rather, this incident is in the groove with the periodic disclosures in Australia of politicians’ personal behaviour, when it is politically relevant.”

It was typical Grattan at her best scarcely colourful, but an excellent summation.

Alan Ramsey’s opinion pieces mix colour and quality. The first item was in bountiful supply in his comments on the matter. He may have got a little to carried away to deliver the second.

Laurie Oakes called Ramsey as a “friend” of Kernot’s in his postscript. The Bulletin issued Oakes’ story along with a media release on Tuesday night and presumably Ramsey was just able to scrap his regular Wednesday column and produce a spoiler piece. But what a spoiler. Its handwringing over the Kernot marriage over-shadowed Oakes and its conclusion thundered: “So now her book is published and she’s had her say, as she sees it. On Monday night, from her phone call, she sounded liberated. I hope she thinks it worth it. I don’t. I think she will truly regret the scab was ever lifted. So will others.” With friends like Ramsey

It’s arguable that his piece with it’s emphases on the Kernot marriage pushed Oakes into going all the way on Channel 9 that night. He might like to tackle that one in a column.

Ramsey opened with a good assessment of Oakes’ column for his readers on Saturday: “What, supposedly, most upset Oakes was that Kernot’s book did not confess to what he called ‘the biggest secret in Kernot’s life’ which, ‘if made public, would cause a lot of people to view her defection from the Democrats to Labor [in October 1997] in a different light’. Really? And that secret was? Well, for another 48 hours, it was still too secret for Oakes to say. But he thundered in his column: ‘While it is one thing for journalists to stay away from such a [secret] matter, it is quite another for Kernot herself to pretend it does not exist when she pens what purports to be her ill-fated change of party allegiance. An honest book would have included it …’ An honest column, even if a grubby, sanctimonious one, would have included it, too.”

But then he had to go on and prove that he was a greater insider, revealing that Labor was left with little change from $1 million after accommodating Kernot between her resignation from the Democrats and the Senate in 1997 and her return to Parliament the following year and then repeating this alleged conservation between then Labor federal secretary Gray and Senate leader John Faulkner: “Gray: ‘I want to know – is Gareth slipping her a length?’ Faulkner: ‘Well, when Kim and I left Cheryl’s flat at 11 o’clock last night, all they were doing was sipping wine.'” With friends like Ramsey It was excess.

Mungo McCallum made one of his occasional appearances on Saturday when he popped up in the Age with a flash and a bang, surrounded by his usual cloud of green smoke or whatever colour the fumes from the stuff they smoke by his home in Byron Bay are.

For someone who deserted Canberra when the Non-Members Bar at the old Parliament House closed, he offered a remarkably accurate assessment of what goes on in “the big white building on the hill” that its inhabitants should have shared:

“While there can be long periods when nothing much happens there, people are constantly on edge, waiting for the first hint of a political development and terrified of missing it when it comes. There are moments of great elation and equally great despair; the mood is intense and manic, switching constantly but unpredictably between the highs and lows.

“In the process, people are thrust into the kind of intimacy that is quite outside normal experience: indeed, when people get out of the place they often find it hard to explain their actions inside it. And not unnaturally, much of the tension resolves itself in sex.

“It is not always calculated while there are sexual predators around the place, Kissinger-like types who exploit their status to seduce their victims (although the victims are seldom unwilling), most affairs are almost accidental. They are seen as a kind of occupational therapy, arrangements of mutual convenience rather than deep and romantic commitments.

“They cross social barriers, employment categories and (although this is less common) party lines. They are simply part of the scene, not taken too seriously by participants or observers. When insiders describe Parliament House as a rabbit warren, they are not just talking about the architecture.

“In the ordinary course of events, such liaisons are not considered news. Indeed, the unwritten rule in the press gallery has always been that they are not reported. This restraint is partly self-defence: journalists are more often than not enthusiastic participants themselves in the general promiscuity. It is also partly practical: if reporters pursued the ins and outs, as it were, of every sexual affair in which members of parliament were involved, they would never have time for any real work.

“But mainly it is a matter of ethics. The state, as former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau once famously said, has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. Equally, private affairs between consenting politicians are generally none of the media’s – or the public’s – business.

“If, when lonely, tired, overworked and overstressed, they seek a bit of comfort on the side, well, good luck to them. Such diversions are more likely to improve the quality of the service to their constituents than to hinder it.”

After that, his final conclusion was inevitable: “Oakes says he agonised over the decision, and I believe him and respect him for it. But I still think he got it wrong. He should have gone back to the basic rule he was taught as a cadet on the Daily Mirror all those years ago: When in doubt, leave it out.”

In contrast, the other veteran weekend commentator, Brian Toohey, wandered down one of the cul-de-sacs he lost The National Times in all those years ago:

“The Labor leader, Simon Crean, opened a Pandora’s box with his call from London last Wednesday for Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot to give a “full explanation” about their affair. With Crean backing disclosure, it will now be much harder for senior politicians to draw the traditional line between their public and private lives. The war on terrorism also means that US intelligence officials want tough action taken against any Australian minister who has an affair which they regard as a security risk”

The last political columnist to have his say was the great pretender, Glenn Milne and he had no doubts about the story: “Both sides of politics are agreed: Laurie Oakes’s story about her affair with former foreign minister Gareth Evans has had absolutely no effect on contemporary politics. It will have nil effect on the chances of either Simon Crean or John Howard at the next election. In the words of one Labor frontbencher: ‘It has had bugger-all political fallout. I have never seen such a huge dichotomy between elite opinion [ie the media and its fascination with the story] and the people on the street. They couldn’t care less.’ For that and other reasons it is therefore hard not to conclude that Oakes’s decision to both publish and broadcast this story was driven by other motivations. At the very best this was simply a matter of titillation. At worst, something darker.”

Was there anything personal here? There are four titans of Australian political reporting Oakes, Grattan and Ramsey in the Gallery and Paul Kelly on his own plane of enlightenment. Milne would like to join them.

He is the chief political correspondent for a TV network and has columns of his own, in the Fin and now with the Australian. He gets good stories, too. Milne, theoretically, has the same status on paper as Oakes himself but he remains stuck in the Bs. He isn’t even their captain. Ten’s Paul Bongiorno is a much more genial soul to chat with and Kerry O’Brien strikes greater fear into political hearts. Does this colour his views?

Weaving in and out through all of this was Margo Kingston and her web diary. Kingston may be an acquired taste, but deserves credit for always spelling out where she is coming from. She is honest. Kingston tells readers when she is running with the pack and they can’t miss it when she is off on a solo sortie. Her final assessment for her little community was just like her old boss Grattan cogent and concise prefaced with a clear declaration that this is just her view and that we have been free to make up our minds.

“I support Laurie’s decision to publish, but like him, persist with the view that private lives should be off-limits unless they impinge or could be perceived to impinge on the performance of public duty. This is what I wrote when John Anderson opined a couple of years ago that ‘I’ve never understood the difference between private and public: If a man’s family can’t trust him, why should the nation?’

“‘The rule is part self-interest – who among political journalists can afford to cast the first stone? A general ban on private life stories also gives politicians more confidence to relax with reporters off duty, allowing a smoother flow of background information. It also allows reporter and politician to be human with each other.’

“But the rule serves a public interest too. Its use has avoided the domination of politics with sex scandals, as in the US and Britain. And everyone knows wowsers who make terrible politicians and miscreants who are brilliant at the job.

“We haven’t crossed the Rubicon. We’ve just had a big conversation about the boundary and where it is and why it’s there. The public has forced us journos to examine our assumptions, and told us where they stand – like us, on both sides of the Kernot/Evans fence. But by overwhelming majority we agree there should be a fence somewhere.”

The cultural commentators

When the Kernot camp and its spokespeople Joan Kirner et al reacted to Oakes by adopting their usual victim mentality, they gave Miranda Devine a free kick. She didn’t miss. She scored a goal dead centre:

“Thanks a lot. With all her sanctimonious, honey-voiced pronouncements about feminism and the status of women and all her complaints about sexism and blokey cultures, Cheryl Kernot has proved herself to be the single worst enemy Australian feminism has ever had. Not only was she seemingly incapable of restraining herself from committing adultery with a renowned charmer, but she blamed the subsequent fallout on sexism and the unreadiness of Australian society to accept a successful woman in politics. Barf.”

In contrast, the veteran cultural commentator Paddy McGuinness fumbled the ball.

PP’s opening got it half right: “The revelations about the Kernot-Evans affair have not shed a great deal of light upon politics, but the resulting recriminations within the media, and especially among the members of the Canberra press gallery, are already shedding a great deal of light upon the shortcomings of political journalism Consider the ‘unwritten rule’, that personal matters should not be reported (no matter how much they are gossiped about among the cognoscenti). Whose rule is this? The club’s, of course, and its force continues only so long as the group mentality which normally reigns in the press gallery lasts it is that group thinking which ensures that there is so little difference of reporting or of opinion emanating from this group, and that the ‘line’ on any particular situation or moral-political issue is generally adhered to”.

The trouble, however, is that from what we know the folks at home didn’t think it was worth reporting either. McGuinness was too busy expounding on one of his favourite themes to ask the fascinating question: did they react that way because of conditioning by the Canberra cognoscenti or what?

He was back on form with his comment: “The real sin which Laurie Oakes has committed in the eyes of many of the rest of the Canberra club is to threaten this tightly held circle of privacy and secrecy. This is in part because the solidarity of the club is threatened by that universal solvent, the Internet” but more on that later.

The other veteran, Gerard Henderson, was patchy too. He started strong: “In Australia, Britain, the United States and elsewhere, the relationship between producers and consumers of the media continues to change. This has led to a situation where, increasingly, the media is the news and a controversial story at that.” and then tripped over his laces.

When he scolded Australian political journalists accompanying the Australian Prime Minister on a trip to Europe for discussing Australian politics then suggested that his provided “the first hint of a disconnect between the attitude of the majority of journalists to the Oakes disclosure and that of a majority of readers/viewers/listeners” he really lost his way. Most Australian visitors in Germany would be more interested in the news from a call from home than the headlines in Die Weld. Did he expect the Gallery hacks to follow Paul Keating’s lead and offer their German counterparts a soaring view of Berlin architecture unparalleled since Speer showed his boss the models for Germania? That would be a real disconnect.

Henderson had a killer blow the line all of us should have thought of: “Oakes and others can assert that there was a causal connection between the affair and the defection. But it is only an assertion. If Kernot was so knocked off course by her continuing romance with a senior ALP politician, why did she negotiate an important deal with the Coalition on industrial relations after the 1996 election?” but buried it.

Oakes responds

Yesterday, for once, the Bulletin went flying off the shelves. What would Oakes’ response to all the coverage of the story be.

His response was measured and precise. He dealt with three issues was it a Packer cross promotion, was it revenge for Kernot’s comments on him in he autobiography and is different treatment accorded by gender well. No one had put Henderson’s question at the time of writing, so his answers on the question of the influence of the relationship on the parties involved were also sound.

His reasons for the timing of the story he believed Evans when he said there was no affair, he only received the e-mail that proved its existence two months ago were also justifiable.

Oakes was on less certain ground in justifying the publication of the story itself. Misleading the Parliament is a serious offence, particularly when it is done by one who has held high office as Evans as much admitted. Still, both he and Kernot are out of the fray.

Earlier knowledge of the affair may well have blocked Kernot’s defection to Labor but as it was not present it becomes purely hypothetical.

History also makes Oakes’ use of “the impact the gradual break-up had on Kernot’s behaviour and therefore Labor’s election chances” as grounds for publication less justifiable. Kernot’s behaviour on election night 1998 left her tainted from that moment on. Labor were looking good in Autumn last year. The Government was forced to resort to outrageous pork-barrelling in the Budget that May but after they skilfully and ruthlessly exploited the shock and tragedy of September 11 and the less spectacular sufferings of refugees, their return was certain. Oakes must know that Kernot and Evans had no bearing on its outcome.

He was back on terra firma with his final justification: “And there is the book, containing no mention of the affair but promoted on the cover as ‘a woman dealing honestly with the unravelling of her political life”.

Here, the awful weight of the words Alan Ramsey used the same days as Oakes’ column appeared finally sinks in: “I hope she thinks it worth it. I don’t. I think she will truly regret the scab was ever lifted. So will others.”

Oakes was justified in publishing the story but can the manner in which he let it slip out be justified. This is the stumbling block Crikey can’t overcome.

The chronology is worth a rehash. On Tuesday evening, the Bulletin issued a media release about the article, accompanied by a copy. The magazine hit shelves the following morning.

But Oakes only talked of “the biggest secret in Kernot’s life”, that, if made public, “it would cause a lot of people to view her defection from the Australian Democrats to the Labor Party in a different light” and how “if Kernot felt that the subject was too private to be broached, there should have been no book”. He didn’t actually reveal the facts and what evidence he had to support them until the Channel 9 News that evening and in an interview straight after with A Current Affair.

By that time, Crikey was well and truly on the game. Stephen sent an item to subscribers that joined the dots mid morning, and I had a wrap on the free site naming names at midday.

Oakes says in this week’s Bulletin: “I wrote a column which I hoped would lead to Kernot speaking for herself truthfully. Simple as that, really. With the benefit of hindsight, I concede it may not have been the most appropriate way to handle the matter.”

Oakes has been around. He knows that a confession obtained under duress is inadmissible.

Kernot has wallowed in self pity. Her autobiography is an exercise in self pity. But it is easy to feel sympathy for her when, in the dying moments of her book tour, as the story was breaking and her world collapsing, she clutched at the big lie and still insisted “There is no big, deep, dark secret”.

Oakes treatment of Cheryl Kernot was definitely not “appropriate”. It was cruel an unusual punishment.

In the wake of it all, he told the ABC: “People say, ‘Come out and say it”, and if you do come out and say it people say you’ve crossed the line.”

They don’t come bigger than Oakes. If he thought it was relevant, he should have said it. All. At once. If anyone can stand his ground, it is Oakes.

Us, too

Why did we name the names? Oakes’ article pointed to one inescapable conclusion for anyone involved in politics and the media. So whatever the motives did Ramsey’s. The fact that they tried to play coy did nothing.

The chattering classes knew who and what they were talking about but wouldn’t share it. We were contacted by a number of people who tried to raise the matter on talkback, only to be told that it was not up for discussion.

That’s why we put it out to the people who are kind enough to pay to keep this show on the road but we did not actually name names on the website until after Oakes did his business that night.

While we’re not claiming credit for it, Oakes then saw fit to come out on the 9 News and then A Current Affair with the full facts. And after, the dam burst.

One week later

The back cover blurb of Speaking for Myself Again” asks “Who is Cheryl Kernot? Why did she make the choices she made? Do the newspaper headlines tell the real story?” It promises “a more complete picture”.

It answers none of the questions honestly and without that the book cannot honour any promises.

Laurie Oakes was right to publish. This was a “publish and be damned” moment.

Where he was wrong very, very wrong is in the way he chose to run the story. Neither his readers nor Kernot benefited.

And as for the debate over the media elites, the Gallery and everyone else? Well, Kernot should perhaps be grateful it was Oakes who broke the story rather than, say, Piers Ackerman.

What sort of debate would we be having now? Where would we all be standing? This particular story is over but there’s a hypothetical worth thinking about.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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