It doesn't take a genius to note that the media isn't particularly loved at the moment. Whether justified or not, the general consensus is that journalists are elite, out-of-touch and utterly untethered from the material concerns of regular people. Thanks to Trump and his regional wannabes, everyone has a working vocabulary for pointing out media deceptions and nepotism.
With that in mind: why do political journalists in this country make it so easy for them?
A debate kicked up over the weekend on Australian Twitter – truly the worst place online – in the wake of a 'bombshell' report about Barnaby Joyce, which dropped Friday night. To put it lightly, it wasn't really much of a bombshell at all. As per The Daily Telegraph:
Embattled Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is in the grip of a deeply personal crisis that has now spilled into his public life at the very time he is fighting to save his political career.
The popular Nationals leader, who faces being kicked out of Parliament next week over his dual citizenship, has for months struggled with issues that have affected his marriage of 24 years.
The personal drama has sent shivers of panic through the National Party and the Turnbull government. Senior figures are worried Mr Joyce’s private life could leave him vulnerable as opponents circle the story and prepare to use it against him should the looming High Court verdict on his citizenship result in a by-election.
You can probably read between the lines and assume the worst about what "issues that have affected" Barnaby's marriage might be. But the story doesn't tell us. This relatively unsatisfying 'exclusive' kicked up a debate about what the value is in reporting so obliquely something which affects one of the most powerful men in the country.
From the journalists' perspective, the general vibe aligned with these succinct tweets from The Guardian's Katharine Murphy:
To the average person, chummy mutual agreements between politicians and the press dressed as 'convention' – which curiously seem to benefit them both – probably seem a little bit off. Why should there be gentlemen's agreements between pollies and press which boil down to the withholding of information from the public? It's hard to understand why leaving a six-figure job in private law practice to get a six-figure job as an MP automatically inoculates you from personal scrutiny.
The relationship between the press gallery and politicians in Australia has been ossified over decades, to the point where every facet of the relationship is by default virtuous, because no one can remember it being any other way. Of course we don't report on personal matters. They are vessels of public opinion, and the only relevant matters are how deftly they administer the organs of the state – or, if it really comes down to it, what crimes they might have perpetrated in the process.
Of course, lives outside politics aren't entirely irrelevant. The personal lives of Australian politicians are an open book as long as it's glowingly positive – which is why shows like Kitchen Cabinet thrive, or weekend newspaper magazines can squeeze unimpeachably lovely profiles out of personalities as wholesome as Peter Dutton or George Christensen. You can allocate funds for a shipment for razor wire to one of our illegal offshore prisons in the arvo, and teach Australia how to make a simple but delicious potato bake in the evening.
Unfortunately, the strenuously maintained division between public and private lives is a courtesy really only extended to politicians. Everyone else gets the short end of the stick.
When Duncan Storrar had the sheer wherewithal to stand up on Q&A and ask why low-income earners weren't getting a tax break in the Federal Budget, sections of the press largely took it as a invitation to shred the bloke to pieces. Nothing about his life – from his tax returns to his days in court – were off the table. Somehow, a guy who asked a single question on national TV had his personal life become a vector through which the media argued either side of the budget debate.
Damon Johnston, editor of the Herald-Sun, who signed off on some of the most heinous front page stories about Duncan during this period, summed up his take pretty simply on Jon Faine's radio show:
Well, I think it’s a legitimate point of public debate. If you put yourself on the public stage, and in, particularly in the middle of an election campaign, questioning government policy, questioning this, I think that you’re entitled to be subjected to a bit of scrutiny.
There you go. He questioned government policy, so ultimately he consented to everything up to and including being tossed out of a black helicopter into international waters by masked News Corp agents.
I really don't need to delve into the specifics of the treatment of Yassmin Abdel-Magied here – her public excoriation by parts of the political media is well-documented, and was predicated on some of the absolute worst, most shameful and craven things about this country. But it stands to reason that by virtue of being alive and having the sheer temerity to make a seven-word Facebook post, her entire life was considered fair game.
Annabel Crabb, host of Kitchen Cabinet, wrote a very interesting op-ed for Fairfax after she copped flack for her episode with Scott Morrison. I'll point you to this particular passage (and I apologise for all the block quoting):
I don't think you can possibly separate what people are like from what they do. Political leaders – like every single one of us – are shaped by the things that have happened to them and to the people close to them. Those factors – what they're like – exert a considerable and usually invisible influence over the most important decisions a political leader will ever make. Namely: which issues they are going to choose to die in a ditch for, which they will pop in the too-hard basket, which they might compromise on. This is the stuff that realistically drives the political process. And fleshy, human, and deeply subjective stuff it is too. Knowing what a person is like is powerful. Why should it only be political journalists and insiders who get to see it?
Right here is an absolutely perfect articulation of why people might like to read something about a politician's private life. Why, for example, someone might be interested in exactly what is cooking under the surface of Barnaby Joyce – by any objective account one of the most powerful people in the country, and whose fall from grace would have a measurable effect on how things operate.
But it presumes that learning where these politicians keep their good silverware and how they add the right level of fluff to a pavlova is sufficient to understanding just how sweaty their grip on the levers of power might be. Yes, this passage might well justify the existence of Kitchen Cabinet. It also justifies reporting on who they're bumping uglies with extramaritally, or the grade and purity of the narcotics they stuff up their nose in the toilets of Canberra restaurants. The broad spectrum of human behaviour probably doesn't end at the kitchen threshold.
There's one primo example of when the solemn pact between politicians and journalists was broken. When it turned out that ultra-Christian family values MP Ross Cameron was fucking someone who was absolutely not his wife, it became a matter of public interest. But even that was stage-managed: he was given the opportunity to make his case parallel to the revelation itself, via a very buddy-buddy profile in Good Weekend.
(Cameron then lost his marginal seat in the election, though he has been gifted the opportunity to be very publicly unwell on Sky News since.)
I don't blame the culture of mutual backscratching in Australian media on any one journalist or publication. It's a culture which has outlived – and will likely outlive – many of them. At its core, it is a transactional relationship: the journalists provide a measure of discretion, and the politicians will provide them access. The bedrock for this relationship is Australia's defamation laws, which give the rich and powerful a mighty cudgel with which to prevent unsavoury information being published.
I'll leave you with this. Murphy also tweeted – and I absolutely don't mean to pick on her specifically, but she engaged most vigorously with the backlash on Twitter – a response to Meanjin's Jonathan Green comment that there was "a touch of the Weinsteins in the gallery's we-know-we-don't-tell approach to MP sexual conduct":
Who would turn a blind eye? More or less everyone, it turns out. The colossal abnegation of duty in the case of Harvey Weinstein literally relied upon the rejection of public interest reporting on the part of American media, who knew well the general flavour – if not the specifics – of the allegations for many, many years. They knew there was almost certainly criminality involved, and yet they did nothing. Gawker (for which there is and perhaps can be no analogue in Australia) published a report on Weinstein in 2015 which aligned almost perfectly with the revelations of the past few weeks. Yet nothing came out in the mainstream media for two years afterwards. It's hard to give the Australian press gallery the benefit of the doubt here, and I don't think they're naturally more likely to publish information dangerous to power than their American counterparts.
I'm not suggesting that there's absolute value in this kind of personal muckraking at all times. Quite the opposite: these considerations always need to intersect with a broader conversation about ethics in reporting. It just seems that in 2017, when public trust is at an all-time low and the snug relationship between the establishment media and the most powerful people in the world is increasingly being questioned, that perhaps mutually assured destruction isn't much of a virtue.