Is today’s press coverage relating to Andrew Wilkie’s behaviour as a senior Duntroon cadet in 1983, on balance, in the public interest?

Wilkie himself, in a thoughtful and forthright performance at his press conference today to respond to the claims, dismissed a direct link between this matter and the club industry’s expensive, if barely literate, campaign against him. Beyond that, it is a fine judgment to make.

The get-out clause for the media is that Wilkie himself has placed issues relating to his behaviour at Duntroon on the public record, thereby, arguably, inviting scrutiny. Moreover, the matter relates not to Wilkie’s personal life, but to his chosen profession.

Nonetheless, what is the public interest in raising Wilkie’s behaviour 28 years ago? Is the full past of any politician automatically open to scrutiny? Should journalists go digging through the personal histories of each member of Parliament for anything of interest — rather than being in the public interest — simply because they’re politicians? To do so would be to further tilt the scales against the participation in public life of non-career politicians — that ever-diminishing breed of people who had a real career, and a life, before deciding to enter Parliament.

Rather, it would encourage the very people we already have too many of — the professional politicians who plot a career from student to apparatchik to adviser to MP to post-political life on a board or as a consultant.

Or should such ancient history be raised only when there is a public interest in a past action or statement? Wilkie hasn’t been involved in the fallout of the ADFA scandal before now, indeed appears not to have commented on it until today. This undermines the public interest case for revealing the details about his own participation in the then-prevalent culture of bastardisation, either as a victim or as a perpetrator. And will the military discipline records of other former ADF personnel like the Liberals’ Stuart Robert, or Labor’s Mike Kelly, be subject to similar scrutiny by the media?

At first glance, Wilkie’s alleged participation in such practices is newsworthy. But try to pin down exactly why we are being told this now, and to what public interest it relates, and the case starts to look weaker.

If the media want to adopt this approach, it’s on for everyone. As media outlets jockey for influence, and commentators consider themselves players in the political process rather than observers and reporters, why shouldn’t we be asking what inappropriate behaviour, or worse, they were guilty of as young men and women?

Peter Fray

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