This morning The Daily Telegraph splashed with a story that’s been political gossip for months: Barnaby Joyce’s ex-staffer and now-girlfriend is pregnant with his fifth child. This comes months after another story, which also ran on the front page, about the unspecified “personal crisis” that was spilling into the Deputy Prime Minister’s public life in the lead-up to the New England byelection.

The story has brought to the fore the age-old debate for political journalism: when is a politician’s personal life in the public interest? So we did a whip around of some interested observers on the ethics of publishing this story.

Chris Dore, editor, Daily Telegraph 

How is it not in the public interest? Would it be in the public interest if we were talking about the prime minister or the opposition leader? He’s the Deputy Prime Minister. Of course it’s public interest. We ran it the very first day we were 100% sure of the facts. Until yesterday we could not categorically write the story.

Lots of journalists are suggesting everyone knew. Well did they? How? And are they really suggesting the leader of a major party and deputy prime minister living with a former adviser and expecting a child is not a story? What would they have done when he started pushing a pram around Lake Burley Griffin or Parliament House. Its an absurd argument.

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Truth is it was merely a rumour until we confirmed it and had enough information to publish.

Bernard Keane, political editor, Crikey

I’m Barnaby Joyce’s harshest critic in the press gallery. But this story about him is shameful non-journalism and debases public life. There is zero public interest in Joyce’s personal life, despite the efforts of News Corp columnists like Caroline Overington, and left-wingers on social media, to confect one.

Because a politician has mentioned their family at some point in their career — which they all do — does not magically create a “family values hypocrite” justification for revealing their personal lives. Because some other public figure on your preferred side of politics has suffered the same fate does not justify it happening to a figure you dislike. Joyce has not used taxpayer resources inappropriately; he has not behaved in a way that opened him to the risk of security breaches, there is no allegation of misconduct.

What he does personally with a consenting adult is no concern of ours, let alone a matter for our judgement. Who among us has behaved perfectly in our personal lives? There certainly aren’t many journalists — a profession notoriously antithetical to domestic bliss — who are in a position to pass judgement about anyone, but this is what such a story amounts to.

Margaret Simons, associate journalism professor, Monash University

The test here is whether Barnaby Joyce’s personal life was relevant to his public responsibilities. That is, does his personal conduct expose him as a hypocrite, involve some compromise of public responsibilities, or suggest he is unfit for his post and so on.

It seems to me the only things that might bring this into the sphere of legitimate public interest are:

1. The suggestion that due to his Catholicism he has in some way been a hypocrite

2. The fact that the woman apparently bearing his child was a former staff member.

However, on 1, I would have thought the case was weak, and on 2, so far as I am aware there is no suggestion of harassment or coercion or improper favouritism or improper expenditure of public funds. (if any of this did emerge, then that would make the fact of the relationship of legitimate public interest).

On balance, and without knowing all the circumstances, I would have thought the relationship was nobody’s business but that of the people involved. I can see that there may be an argument on the other side, though. It’s a marginal case.

Mark Day, former media columnist, The Australian

Of course the media is entitled to report on Barnaby’s baby and the circumstances surrounding it.

The Canberra Press Gallery has a rule that declares the private life of politicians is off-limits, unless it becomes a matter of public interest. In my view there’s a lot of humbug and hypocrisy surrounding this rule, but even if we ignore that, the Barnaby Joyce case clearly is in the public interest.

He has been the subject of rumour and scuttlebutt before, during and after his citizenship by-election (including one of his family denouncing him by loud-hailer in the main street of Tamworth); he has confessed to a marriage breakdown in the parliament and he advocates strong family values as a politician, including opposing same-sex marriage. He is also Deputy Prime Minister and as such, what he does sends signals, wanted or not, to the electorate.

The media has a duty to tell it like it is. Barnaby could have avoided this by not taking the course he has. He has no option other than to let the cards fall where they may.

Julia Baird, journalist and presenter, The Drum

For my PhD on the history of female politicians and the Australian media, I tracked how the convention regarding not reporting on the personal lives of politicians was most spectacularly broken for women, from Margaret Guilfoyle to Cheryl Kernot.

If Joyce were female, and having an affair — let alone carrying the child of a staffer, it would have been huge news, justified on the grounds that it would have impacted her work, and also her capacity to work, as it was for Kernot. This is very rarely argued of male politicians who have frequently had public, well-known affairs that have gone without reporting.

Barnaby Joyce was taking a big risk with some of his rationale for SSM being based on healthy heterosexual marriages while he was breaking his own vows, so it is strange it did not become a bigger story.

Rob Stott, managing editor, Junkee

A politician’s private life should remain private until their public words don’t live up to their private actions. Given Joyce’s very vocal opposition to marriage equality and defence of the sanctity of marriage, I’d say his affair with a staffer fits that bill.

I’m generally not a fan of the media acting as gatekeepers and deciding when an “open secret” is ready to be made fully public. As news spreads more and more on social media, the time has long passed since the press gallery was able to hold back information that was being widely circulated in the community.

My only question is why now? If the story is newsworthy now, surely it was newsworthy months ago when the entire Canberra Press Gallery knew about it. 

I subscribe to Crikey because I believe in a free, open and independent media where news and opinions can be published that I can both agree with and be challenged by.

As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.

Jess
Singapore

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