When former Age editor turned media academic Michael Gawenda opened the latest edition of Fairfax’s magazine insert Good Weekend, he quickly turned to a profile of Warren Mundine. He was eager to learn why the former national Labor president switched sides to become Tony Abbott’s top indigenous affairs adviser and how he planned to use the powerful position. It augured well that Stuart Rintoul — a writer with decades of experience covering indigenous affairs — had written the piece.

But anticipation quickly turned to anger. Rather than policy, the profile focused on Mundine’s bitter 2008 divorce from indigenous academic Lynette Riley. There were details of Mundine’s alleged affairs, stinging quotes from Riley’s friend and New South Wales Labor MP Linda Burney, and, most spectacularly, claims from Riley that Mundine told her she was “too Aboriginal”. Mundine — who married his third wife, Elizabeth Henderson, in February — denies saying it.

“I was surprised by the piece. I was shocked really; I thought what is this about?” Gawenda said. “Why is it important that he had a messy divorce? The stuff about how many affairs he had I found intrusive and I don’t see how it was relevant to the story. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out his wife is [conservative columnist] Gerard Henderson’s daughter, but the rest of it I think crossed a line.”

It’s not unusual, of course, for gossip magazines and tabloid television programs to pry into people’s private lives. But Gawenda thought this went too far for a venerable magazine such as Good Weekend.

He was more shocked to discover The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald had run Riley’s “too Aboriginal” claims as a news story. “There are real ethical problems with the idea there’s a news story in a contested statement from a difficult marriage break-up.”

The entire exercise, Gawenda concluded, was “an invasion of privacy for no good public interest”.

Indigenous activist Gary Foley was also incensed when he read the article. Foley is no fan of Mundine’s politics; only weeks before he had written a widely read piece “The White Sheep of the Family?”, examining Mundine’s emergence as “the new Aboriginal darling of Australian right-wing politics”.

“I was fairly disgusted,” Foley said of the Good Weekend article. “I thought it was a nasty, brutal little piece … I haven’t exactly had a reputation of being civil, but there is a level of civility that should be upheld. If you are going to attack someone, you should do it on the basis of their politics and ideas, not their private life.”

Rintoul, formerly a journalist at The Australian, is adamant a “warts and all” profile is better than one with the warts airbrushed away. “The intention was to give a fuller view of who Warren Mundine is — something that is a true portrait even if it is not a comfortable one,” he told Crikey. “Good portraits aren’t always comfortable; in fact, the most comfortable portraits aren’t usually very good. There have been plenty of portraits of Warren Mundine that have been less revealing [than mine].

“I originally wrote a piece that was heavily policy-focused and the reaction I got from [Good Weekend editor] Ben Naparstek was: I’d like to know more about what makes him tick, I don’t feel I understand him. So I started asking around and speaking to people who had known Mundine for a long time and came to Lynette Riley. I thought it was important her voice be heard.”

Rintoul stresses he fully supported Naparstek’s call, and that the final profile was more revealing as a result. And he disputes the argument Riley’s contested “too Aboriginal” claim is irrelevant to Mundine’s public role. “His intention is to introduce a new world, to radically change Aboriginal communities and to introduce values that are not traditional values. For someone in that position to say a woman is too Aboriginal is remarkable.”

Greg Callaghan, acting editor at Good Weekend, said: “The reason people talk about Good Weekend profiles for weeks after they’re published is because they look at people in all their complexity. You can’t do a profile of Warren Mundine and leave this stuff out … It would have been censorship, pure and simple, to deny Lynette Riley a voice when she had been Mundine’s partner and advocate for 26 years.”

The debate over Rintoul’s piece raises questions as old as journalism itself. To what extent are the personal lives of public figures fair game? Who should control what stories get told: the reporter or the public figure? Where does prurience end and public interest begin?

“You have to think what is the relevance of the story beyond a sort of prurient interest? Unless you have a clear answer to that you shouldn’t do it.”

It’s the type of terrain Janet Malcolm famously covered in her book The Journalist and the Murderer. Her conclusion: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Denis Muller, a media ethicist at the University of Melbourne and former assistant editor at The Age and SMH, says there are three factors to consider when asking how deep and how personal to go in a profile. The first is consent: how willing is the subject to talk about the experience? The second is salience: how important is it to the person’s life? The third is public interest (a different matter entirely, he emphasises, to curiosity).

Muller does not believe the Good Weekend profile passes these tests. “I think the intrusion involved is disproportionately high compared to any public interest justification,” he said. “It is clear that Mundine did not consent to making this the main story; the salience of the divorce from Ms Riley was high in his personal life but low in his public life; and the effects on his public duties were non-existent, at least as far as we can tell from the story.

“So for me the biggest question of all is: why profile Mundine through the prism of his marital experiences in the first place when, ostensibly at least, he is being written about because of his political life?”

Michael Gawenda stresses there are times when the media should expose infidelities. He supported Laurie Oakes’ decision to reveal Cheryl Kernot’s affair with Gareth Evans because she was defecting from the Democrats to Labor at the time. If morals campaigners such as priests misbehave then their hypocrisy should also be exposed, he says.

“In the course of researching these sorts of profiles, you often uncover information that is private and personal. As a journalist, your instinct is to think, ‘this is interesting, I want to write about it’. But the journalist — and the editor — have to check themselves. You have to think what is the relevance of the story beyond a sort of prurient interest? Unless you have a clear answer to that you shouldn’t do it.

“For example, if Bill Shorten wins the Labor leadership there will be profiles of him. Should they focus on his own messy marriage break-up? Is it relevant to him as a Labor leader? I don’t think so.”

And the audience doesn’t necessarily want to know everything. For example, polls found the public were overwhelmingly opposed to Channel Seven’s 2010 decision to air footage of Labor minister David Campbell visiting gay bath houses.

Mundine has not spoken out against the profile, a decision that doesn’t surprise Rintoul. “He probably learned from Bob Carr a long time ago that the best way to handle something you don’t like is not to react to it,” he said. “In the end, I think he formed a view it was a hatchet job, but that wasn’t the intention … He’s a public figure, he has an important job to do and we should know as much as we can about him.”