Last Tuesday Crikey published an editorial criticising Chris Masters’s Jonestown for the way in which it “outed” Alan Jones and treated its subject matter with “breathless, censorious innuendo.” It took my breath away.

It wasn’t only the cheek of Crikey accusing the country’s leading investigative journalist – a man who has done more than anyone at Crikey to keep public life clean – of having missed the lead that made me uneasy. It was that hardly anyone – including me – had had a chance to read the whole book, and yet the debate was raging based only on the extracts published in The Sydney Morning Herald on the weekend.

Those extracts – selected by Fairfax – have done the book and the community a disservice. If you read them, then you have read almost all the quasi-s-xual material in the book, which is 453 pages long not including footnotes and index. If you have read nothing else, then you don’t know what the book is about.

Yet because the s-xy bits came out first, the debate has been hijacked by the issue of whether Masters should have “outed” Jones, and whether he did it in a justifiable way.

These are important and difficult issues, and I will return to them. I am not completely on Masters’s side.

But outing is not by a country mile the most important thing in the book. James Packer is wrong when he says the book lacks substance. David Flint is also wrong, or at least misleadingly selective, when he implies in today’s Australian that the book rests on anonymous sources and is entirely to do with s-xuality.

Masters’s work is clearly based on dozens of interviews with people directly involved in events, and almost every assertion is footnoted. (In a nice twist, one of the sources credited frequently is an earlier interview with Jones by Gerard Henderson – who has been one of Masters’s critics.) Most significant, Masters has had a huge “leak” of Jones’s correspondence with politicians.

So what else is in the book? What should we be debating? Here are a few of the well supported, meticulously researched assertions.

Jones’s intervention was instrumental in getting the NSW Police Commissioner, Peter Ryan, sacked, and blighting the career of Assistant Commissioner Clive Small who was, Masters says, “better at catching crooks” than ingratiating himself with Jones. As a result, the program to tackle serious corruption in the NSW police force was largely derailed, and the mentally unstable Timothy Priest elevated to the status of martyr, hero and authority on policing matters.

Jones took on the role of publicist for the convicted murderer Andrew Kalajzich, forcing two public inquiries into his conviction, at a cost of about $5 million, when there was no evidentiary basis to doubt the conviction. At the time, Jones was using research paid for by Kalajzich, although he denied having discussions with the defence team.

Both political parties in New South Wales have regularly run policy past Jones before adopting it, and his influence has distorted policy and public life on numerous levels.

Jones has been paid, not only to advocate the interests of his commercial sponsors, but also to remain silent on development matters that might otherwise have been justifiably controversial.

Jones’ influence has blighted, and in some cases ended, the careers of many public servants whose advice went against the course he was urging on politicians.

Jones has repeatedly lied about his past, from exaggerating his academic qualifications to falsifying his birth date.

All this before we even touch on the findings of the cash-for-comment inquiry, which were already in the public eye, and which established Jones as a liar.

The book is not a single headline – which is presumably why the s-x got such a run. Rather it is a portrait not only of Jones but also of his city. Masters says: “Alan Jones was Sydney and Sydney was Jonestown: brazen, extrovert, smug and amoral.” It is a well supported conclusion. Masters’s previous best known work was The Moonlight State which was a picture of the undertow of life in Queensland. This is an equivalent work – the undertow of our most populous city, and therefore to some extent of the nation. What does it say about us that a man already so publicly discredited still holds such influence?

So what about the s-xuality? First, sources. Masters has first hand attributed interviews with many of the young men who have, over the years, had intense emotional relationships with Jones. Masters establishes a pattern. Jones becomes intensely attached. Often his patronage is beneficial. Often it becomes oppressive. His conduct as a schoolmaster was clearly inappropriate, and was the main reason he had to leave two teaching jobs, the second time after a letter to the principal signed by the majority of his fellow housemasters. There is no evidence of s-xual impropriety, but there is plenty of evidence of worrying behavior. He wrote a love letter to a student (Flint is wrong when he says there is no evidence of this) and he had a habit of “parking” with his students outside their houses into the small hours of the morning. All this supported by named sources including the objects of his affections.

Is Masters justified in trawling this material and “outing” Jones? I have worried over this all week, and debated it with many friends, including some gay friends. Various commentators have alleged that if a hero of the left was being treated in this way – Justice Michael Kirby, perhaps, or Bob Brown – then the left would be up in arms.

But Kirby and Brown are not useful comparisons. Both are already “out”, for starters. The allegations made against Kirby a few years ago were false and based on fabricated evidence, and so far as I know there is no evidence that their s-xuality has impinged inappropriately on their public roles.

The closest comparison I can think of is Don Dunstan, the former Premier of South Australia who was “outed” as bisexual in a book It’s Grossly Improper by journalists Des Ryan and Mike McEwen. They exposed Dunstan’s relationship with John Ceruto, who was a restaurant owner, and a heroin addict with underworld links. Dunstan employed his lover in the Premier’s Department and found him other jobs on the public payroll. The book is long out of print but details of some of its content can be found here. At the time Dunstan was indeed a hero of the left, and of most of establishment Adelaide. Ryan and McEwen were reviled.

Many people still don’t believe what was said about Dunstan. But what Ryan and McEwen did was gutsy, difficult but justifiable journalism. I have always thought so, even though there was a time in Adelaide when this opinion was enough to ostracise one from politically correct society. Dunstan was in many ways a good premier, but he crossed the line, allowing his personal relationships to intrude on his public role. Had he not done so, his s-xuality would have been his own business.

So what about Masters’s work? Masters’s book is not only a piece of journalism but a conventional, in depth biography. We learn a lot about Jones’s parents and grandparents – things that even he might not know. The s-xuality material is very much part of the story of his early life. In broad terms, I think what Masters has done is justified.

But I do think he oversteps the line. There are sentences and paragraphs – David Flint catalogues several of them – where I think the line between justifiably public and properly private is breached. Where the tone is wrong, where Masters is more prurient than proper. But this is a matter of line by line, paragraph by paragraph judgements. I acknowledge they are difficult to make.

It is also clear that Masters has a great deal of material that he chose not to use. He never once takes us into the bedroom and only once describes a s-xual encounter. It is hard to know how the material below the waterline influenced what is now visible. But I don’t want to excuse Masters too much. I think the outing is justifiable, and I also think he oversteps the line.

But it isn’t Masters who has buried the lead. It is the public debate, fuelled by the Fairfax extracts and the self-interest of Jones’s friends and cronies.  It suggests something truly scary – that we are unable fully to absorb, let alone wrestle with, this terrifying and dispiriting portrait of the pathologies of Australian public life.