ArticlesJournalism and media
|When is a private life not a private life - the case of sex and politics|
From Lady Di to Queensland's own Trevor Perrett, it has been quite a year for the perennial debate on how far the media can properly intrude into the private life of a public personality.
Popular mythology would have us believe that there is nothing more private than sex and perhaps this used to be the case before self appointed or otherwise annointed "celebrities" employed agents to peddle stories on their sexual dalliances and prospective or failing alliances.
But politicians would usually like to have us believe they are not in the crass celebrity business. They too employ press agents, but in efforts to become known for a commanding grasp of the issues rather than a frequent grasp of the opposite (usually) sex.
Sometimes, as in the clear case of Bill Clinton, a history of sexual escapade is not a fatal handicap to a political career.
However, in most cases it is politically best if the explicit detail emerges when the risk of having to directly face the electorate has ended. Bob Hawke, for instance, might have lost the Prime Ministership a little earlier if he had made an earlier choice to run off with biographer Blanche.
And former ALP right wing head kicker Graham Richardson, didn't choose to stay in power much beyond the time he became aware that alleged dalliances with Gold Coast prostitutes were attracting some law enforcement attention.
Richardson, of course, left politics suddenly for other reasons. Or he says he did. But since he left the stage, it has become almost as commonplace for a politician to be caught out in a sexual scandal as it has been to be caught fiddling travel allowances.
Indeed, it has almost sparked a new genre of photography - the meaningful politician and spouse shot - with Senator Bob Woods snapped in unhappy discussion with his wife after revelations of his extra-marital activities and Queensland minister Trevor Perrett being photographed plodding glumly along home from church quite some distance behind his grim looking wife after allegations of links to prostitutes.
Believe it or not, there is a convention that the private lives of politicians should in general remain private, even when salacious. Although there is some relevant notation in the entirely voluntary code of journalist ethics, this is one of those mainly unwritten conventions.
It is extensively underpinned by the common comprehension that we all, to some extent, live in glass houses. For every sexual pecadillo a member of the opposition might raise, the government might have three, and worse cases at that, in return. Similarly journalists wouldn't want to encourage a climate where their intoxicated or amorous antics were regularly blurted out to the nation by some disaffected politician during a grievance or adjournment debate.
So, at any one time, there are any number of politicians whose gayness, extra-marital flirtations, lack of sexual control or unusual preferences are relatively widely known within the media yet never revealed to the public. Sure, some of the "knowledge" is in fact rumour and could be wrong - however, much is potentially publishable but safely kept from public knowledge..
The thorny ethical issue is what factors are sufficient to bring this knowledge out into the open. Out of the closet, so to speak. In what circumstances is a political figure not entitled to a private life?
It's a very grey area naturally, but two tests and one hurdle can be identified which are significant to making a private sexual life very public.
The first test, and possibly the most defensible, is when there is an element of hypocrisy involved. For instance, there was a Queensland minister years ago who was widely known to have virtually abandoned his wife for the attractions of his electoral secretary. Not a word was said in public in this regard until the same minister decided that some Queensland women who had had abortions should not continue to enjoy the normal privacy attached to medical records.
All bets were then off, and the scurrilous satirical rag Matilda, with the extensive help of some in the Queensland media, let loose on the Minister's affairs of the heart.
Similarly, the domestically violent and prostitute-visiting exploits of backbench Liberal Tony Smith were probably primarily published because the media came to know about them and they were juicy news. But some justification for publication was derived from the honourable member's opinion, expressed unfortunately shortly before he resorted to an alleged apartment of ill repute, that juvenile offenders should be publically shamed for their misdeeds.
The second test is when there are public policy implications to the sexual behaviour or misbehaviour - misuse of public funds to engage in the affairs, the finding of cushy public jobs for lovers and mistresses, the possibility of blackmail.
If Senator Richardson was in the habit of visiting prostitutes, he would be far from the only middle-aged male politician to be so stupid. The justification for making it all public was in that the Senator's alleged amorous activity was fully funded by others with long-standing connections to prominent Sydney organised crime identities.
Senator Bob Woods would also seem to have fallen foul of this requirement. In his case, his alleged lover among the army of identikit Liberal staffers dobbed him in for taking her tripping and claiming for his wife, something alleged to have been not at all uncommon.
The risk of blackmail is the justification underpinning the search by some in the media to reveal just which now very senior Queensland political figure demonstrated that he wasn't entirely straight by visiting a male brothel more than a decade ago. Work on this story in various media outlets has at times approached the frantic level, and even the CJC has had a go. But it isn't yet clear that there are necessarily public policy implications to revelations about possibly variable sexual preferences.
Publication might interest the public, but might be difficult to defend as in the public interest.
However, the reason that this story hasn't yet hit the decks may be more related to publishing hurdles rather than considerations as to whether it is in the public interest. These mainly relate to the possibility of the pants being sued off any media outlet which publishes without cast iron material.
There is an informant floating around willing to attest, for a suitable sum, to his very personal knowledge of the political figure's sexual preferences. However, the informant is not generally known for reliability and could well be a risky proposition in a witness box. (He had previously starred in a women's magazine's list of "sexy, single and straight" eligible bachelors - at least one of these tags didn't fit the informant, who had also enhanced his biographical detail).
The story of the political figure and the male brothel is said to be more strongly based than this, but as yet no media outlet has done any more than allude to the story.
This is the trouble with stories that are common knowledge around the gossip circuits. They might very easily not be true. When I was poking around the gutters of Fortitude Valley, doing the investigations that helped lead to the Fitzgerald Inquiry, my incognito persona heard quite a lot from police and criminal sources about this troublemaker Phil Dickie.
I learned I frequently visited brothels (I did but in connection with my profession not theirs), that I was gay (I'm not), that my wife had left me (I didn't have one) and that I was in the habit of hypnotising street kids (I wasn't and couldn't anyway). And, of course, the old perennial that I was a paedophile (I wasn't, and neither was Chris Masters of the ABC Four Corners program). None of this muck, which started from a member of a family with well known criminal tendencies and a certain police officer in difficulty over his inability to find brothels and casinos on Brisbane main streets, seems to have stuck to anything.
But denials of such fanciful rumour mongering can be difficult. Endless rumours circulated about a senior political figure of the former Goss Labor government - including him leaving his wife and having a love child by, take your pick, a secretary, a press secretary or a journalist. I can't categorically scotch any of these rumours but I can do in the one about him being seen dancing with schoolgirls at a nightclub; the schoolgirls in question were some awfully flattered members of the Parliamentary press gallery.
Who spread the rumours in this case? Why members of the political figure's own party of course, and within hours of the dancing.
Richardson, on the way out, inadvertently caused two inquiries into who leaked the detail of the highly confidential police operation which had stumbled across his alleged amorous adventures with young ladies of negotiable virtue on the Gold Coast.
One of the inquiries has been inconclusive - indeed it may have been designed to be just that - and the other, the inquiry into the inquiry so to speak, was found to be fatally subject to bias against the CJC. But an educated guess about the source of the leaks would probably be right.
Primary Industries miniser Mr Perrett would also seem to be the victim of leaks from the investigators, in this case the investigators of the murder of a fairly wealthy and exclusive prostitute. They'd early on called for associates of the woman to come forward and assist. Perrett, who was at least some sort of associate - a "family friend" it has been said - didn't come forward to assist.
What is interesting, and so far unremarked in his case, is the contempt with which senior police seem to be treating the coalition government. Even assuming they weren't the source of the leak in the first place - possibly a bold assumption - they really threw down the gauntlet in providing ready confirmation of the leaked information.
So far, the government has chosen to let that insubordination pass - running the risk that the police will see the way open to leak a little more salacious detail on public figures.
The media stance on discussing these issues in cases of rank hypocrisy or genuine public consequence can be defended. Sometimes, indeed, the media has been silent when perhaps it should have spoken out. The clearest case is that of former Queensland opposition leader Keith Wright, now in jail for child sex offences.
Wright was well known among the parliamentary press gallery for both his high level of sexual activity and his preference for younger targets. As a lay preacher in one of the more fundamentalist Christian sects he would seem to have failed the hypocrisy test with flying colours. Nothing was said until, once again, the police were about to lay charges. Publication beforehand would have been a brave enterprise, but not an impossible one.
Still there is almost nothing to be said for the London model of covering the explosive mix of sex and politics - the only test there seems to be salaciousness, with no respect for any privacy rights.
The argument for the defence here - the old line about "the public right to know" - is mostly hogwash. It will remain hogwash until an equivalent effort is put into ferretting out serious corruption and government malpractice and incompetence. And until the media cheque books are just as open to serious whistleblowers as they seem to be to ex-madams, girlfriends, boyfriends, photographers with grainy shots of celebrities with or without their swimsuits or even just nubile young things who want to take their clothes off on page three.
Sex sells. And it also distracts the media from its real job, which is to tell the punters what is really going on. Sexual beliefs and attitudes are quite often an important influence on public policy; sexual acts, strange or depraved though they may be, are much less often of significance.
We probably shouldn't too surprised at what some of our politicians get up to - our party and political systems have an evolutionary tendency to select for gargantuan egos, glibness, shallowness and callous disregard for the effects one's actions have on others. Obsessive and deeply flawed personalities abound in the political hothouse.
History shows that deeply flawed personalities can still be capable of great achievement for the public good. And history also shows that mediocre men of impeccable character and nothing but good intentions can be responsible for a great deal of social harm.
In the long run we are better off if the privacy of public figures is respected, unless there are quite compelling reasons to do otherwise. It could be said that in general our focus on individuals often gets in the way of developing an understanding of how our various social and political systems are actually working (or, as is more usual, not working).
But it's very hard work to develop that understanding and even harder work to make it of general interest. Most of us media types find it much easier to look at politics as some larger version of a football game and focus on the players.