If you’re going to out an irrelevant but embarrassing secret of a public figure, you’d better make sure they react badly.
Reacting to a devastating breach of privacy is what makes it public interest. That seems to be ACMA’s circular logic in yesterday’s report clearing Channel Seven of breaching television standards when it outed former NSW transport minister David Campbell on the evening news last year.
How badly? Well resigning in Campbell’s case apparently. Perhaps taking a swing at the reporter. I guess killing themselves would also suffice for ACMA’s purposes.
Most queer folk can tell a story about trying to keep their private life secret … and someone else ripping that illusion from them.
For me that was high school, late ’90s, when Ricky Martin’s bon-bons were ostensibly for women only. A friend broke into my locker, stole a compromising letter and stuck photocopies on noticeboards around the school.
Duty of care required the school to inform my mother that her kid was a fag and may try to kill himself. It took the better part of a week to convince my classmates I was still alive after I failed to turn up to class. Just in case anyone missed the whole affair, the school held a special assembly while I was gone.
For teenagers today the risk is from Facebook and YouTube. The suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi in New Jersey last year warned the world of online bullying and sparked the global It Gets Better campaign.
For public figures the risk isn’t just social media but the evening news. Campbell’s outing wasn’t so different from Clementi’s; both filmed unawares, doing nothing illegal and aired for all to see.
It doesn’t matter what age it happens, being outed is traumatic for anyone. And wholly unjustified.
Perhaps if Channel 7 reporter Adam Walters or his bosses had shared the trauma queer folk experience at the hands of vindictive breaches of privacy they might have re-evaluated their decision.
I and countless journalists are regularly given information about the swxuality of public figures. Sometimes we start to think there could be public interest, like the “family values” conservative clergy and politicians so frequently outed in the US and Britain. Certainly it’s a topic of popular debate in the gay press, like when Out magazine put Anderson Cooper and Jodie Foster on its cover for a story on the glass closet.
A few years ago a Liberal staffer came to visit me at the gay-community newspaper Sydney Star Observer for an interview. Afterwards we chatted about the unexpected number of gays and lesbians inside the Liberal machine. Only after describing a Coalition MP’s homosexual peccadilloes in excruciating detail did the staffer realised I hadn’t turned off my recorder. Even though the tape was no evidence at all, it could have provided enough ammunition to go on an undercover hunt such as Channel Seven did with David Campbell, or even provide ACMA’s requisite public interest reaction all by itself.
Likewise, often were the times I wondered what reasons Campbell, then police minister, was wandering by himself in the streets of Darlinghurst and Kings Cross. Obviously, none of them related to his work or public profile. So it ended there. As a gay journo I won’t out a fellow gay to further my career.
Others in the news media business must take the same view, as several NSW ministers managed to stay “open-secret” gays throughout the ’90s and early 2000s.
ACMA went to pains to insist its decision was not intended to set a precedent. Chairman Chris Chapman said Channel Seven’s own justifications for the public-interest test were “incorrect, ill founded or irrelevant”. But public interest is not a fixed definition. Social expectations have changed as a result of Channel Seven’s broadcast and public interest will adapt from that. Australia is at risk of adopting US-style definitions of privacy as it absorbs the rest of its cultural exports, and our own boundaries get pushed with examples such as this.
ACMA’s decision to create a loophole for sufficiently vindictive breaches of privacy will live with us forever now, unless the laws are changed. Unchanged will be the burden every gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and intersex person carries until they too face this difficult rite of passage.