ABC reporter Leigh Sales is rethinking staying away from politicians’ personal lives following revelations of sexual violence in Parliament.
Speaking to the Sydney Media Club on Wednesday, Sales said she had been doing a lot of “soul-searching” on the issue in recent weeks: “Have I been educated in, and almost brainwashed, into a system that has protected powerful men at the expense of women … like their wives, or their staffers?”
It begs the question: in a post-Me Too era, when politicians’ poor behaviour — especially to young female staffers — is being called out more and more, what right to privacy do politicians have?
Who benefits from a curated private life?
It’s now routine for politicians to put their private lives on display to appeal to voters — but they do it on their own terms, posting carefully curated images on social media.
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Catharine Lumby, a professor in media and ethics at Sydney University, says this has led to an expectation of greater transparency.
“People have a right to their private lives, but we now live in a society where the private and the public are very blurred,” she told Crikey. “[Now] when people vote they expect to know more about who they’re voting for as a human.”
Blair Williams, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, points out there’s also an important gender split here. While the prime minister wheeling his wife and children into the spotlight has led to a positive “daggy dad” persona, women’s choices are often scrutinised.
“Male politicians use their families to be more relatable to the electorate to help their image,” Williams said.
“Media coverage on women politicians’ private lives often opens up judgement to their choices and their relationships — whether they don’t have children and therefore can’t relate to their electorate, or whether they should be at home with the kids.”
What’s in the public interest?
If we’re only presented with one side of a politician’s life, is it up to journalists to do some digging to see what’s hidden behind the scenes?
Sexist comments that Attorney-General Christian Porter allegedly made throughout his schooling and early career have repeatedly been brought into the spotlight. And Williams argues that this sort of coverage, while encroaching on the personal sphere, is important to highlight.
“A lot more focus is being put on to comments these politicians have made throughout their lives because it does indicate either how they felt or hopefully how they’ve changed. It’s important for people to know that,” she said.
“It’s important to try to have a gender-equal parliament and a parliament that represents all Australians. How can you have that when there are politicians that have expressed racist or homophobic or misogynistic views?”
Lumby said while she didn’t think affairs between two consenting adults needed to be made public, a pattern of politicians dating younger staffers did.
“That’s in the public interest [because] it’s a form of sexual harassment,” she said.
Even if the staffer is consenting, the thinking goes, the power balance between the pair throws that off.
“That’s where it gets difficult because there can be relationships where there’s an age gap and where it genuinely is consensual, but that’s very different to a man who hits on young women to whom he has a duty of care.”
What does all this mean for Sales’ journalistic dilemma? Perhaps that journalists should keep tabs on politicians’ personal lives — but not necessarily report on them unless there is an obvious power imbalance or patterns of inappropriate behaviour.
Of course, these days, journalists like Sales aren’t the only gatekeepers. Lumby said social media not only blurred the line between private and public but also helped women in calling out unacceptable behaviour.
“In the past, women told their stories in single file to each other, to friends and family, to counsellors and sometimes the police and the courts,” she said.
“Social media has allowed women to find a collective voice.”