From the very first day after I’d finished my term in the Senate in July 2008 – in fact for many weeks before I’d even formally finished – there would be no question I have been asked more frequently that the one about whether I miss being in politics and whether I’m enjoying being out of it.  Even months after having announced I was getting formally involved with electoral politics once again by joining the Greens and contesting the House of Representatives seat of Brisbane, I am still being asked whether I’m enjoying being out of politics and whether I miss it.

Regardless of the context or the precise question, I can always honestly answer that there are some aspects of being out of parliament that I enjoy, some parts of it that I miss, and some aspects of politics that I loath and detest.

One part of politics I dislike is the pathetic standard of some political ‘debate’, which I was reminded of again by this story of some pathetic parliamentary taunting being directed at NSW Nationals MP Adrian Piccoli.  Even though it is only occasionally reported on, this sort of juvenile rubbish occurs on virtually every sitting day of Parliament.  I don’t pretend to be a saint on this – there are a few MPs I find it hard to muster much respect for, (which only seems fair, as they have done so much to earn my contempt) – but while robust debate is fine with me, juvenile name calling,  especially in the parliamentary chamber, is pathetic.

But a far more loathsome aspect of politics is the lynch-mob mentality which arises from time to time when some in the media decide to go after a politician’s private life.  I accept public figures bear greater responsibility, and there can be cases where it can be hard to decide what crosses the line between private life and public interest.

Regardless of where you might feel that sometimes very fine line should be drawn, it certainly isn’t anywhere near the completely gratuitous media stalking – by a so-called ‘political reporter’ from Channel 7 – and outing of NSW politician and now former Transport Minister David Campbell for visiting a sauna for gay men in Sydney.  

There is no suggestion at all that the Minister did anything illegal and, as far as I know, he hasn’t made a point of campaigning on ‘family values’ or engaging in the sort of gay bashing rhetoric which clearly makes it justified to reveal the rampant hypocrisy of destructive hatemongers like George Rekers.

Writing about the Campbell saga in the Sydney Morning Herald, Andrew Stephenson said

“the chapter of Australian history in which politicians’ private lives were their own to live – secure in the knowledge no journalist would report their nocturnal behaviour – ended long ago.”

Whilst he’s certainly right that all politicians know that these days they could never be completely secure in such knowledge, I didn’t realise it was quite so cut and dried that politicians’ private lives are now no longer their own to live. There are still plenty of aspects to the private lives of many politicians that journalists know about – or strongly suspect – but choose not to reveal or even to verify.

According to Andrew Crook, writing in Crikey, Mr Campbell’s “private life had been an open secret in state government and media circles for years”.  If this is the case – and I have no reason to doubt it- then clearly the media collectively chose for quite some time to let Mr Campbell’s private life be his own and not report on his “nocturnal behaviour”.

The trouble isn’t so much that politicians must now accept all bets are off when it comes to public reporting of private matters.  Rather it is that the vague conventions as to what determines something is off limits or not are constantly shifting, and it’s the media – or each individual media outlet – which decides where the line is drawn on any given matter on any given day.

In an era of YouTube, instant Twittering and the like, where every phone is a camera, voice and video recorder, all of us have to accept that privacy isn’t what it used to be, and the more of a public figure you are, the more you have to lose if you just happen to be one of the unlucky ones who end up in the glare of a public spotlight.  But that doesn’t make it any more justified for the mainstream media to be joining the fray as peddlers of tabloid trash and perpetrators of prurient and egregious breaches of privacy.

As Jonathan Green has written at The Drum

A line has been crossed here. Is it now fair game for TV news crews to stalk politicians in the hope of catching the MP concerned engaging in entirely legal, though undoubtedly embarrassing, activity? Where might this end?

He also says that

This is one of those moments when it seems the media mistakes public interest for public amusement. They are not the same.  The risk is that politicians, fearful and badgered, might legislate to protect one and diminish our democratic right to the effective, responsible reporting of the other. That would be a true scandal.

For a variety of reasons, I don’t think it’s very likely we’ll see that sort of legislation appear in response to this – although each instance such as this certainly weakens the credibility of media campaigns about the importance of free speech and the public’s “right to know”.

I think a more likely consequence of this episode will be even fewer people wanting to get involved in politics, or indeed other forms of public life, deciding that the potential negatives outweigh the possible positives.  And that would be a great shame.

I know it’s too much to ask – not least because despite any high minded rhetoric, most of us in the community usually prefer gossip and scandal to debates about public policy, so we can hardly be surprised that this is what the media often feeds us – but it would still be nice if the media, or surely at least the political reporter, could keep the spotlight on the significant issues which directly affect peoples’ daily lives and futures, rather than getting diverted into gutter trawling gossip.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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