Crossing the public interest divide

This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin March 2015

The destruction of presidential hopeful Gary Hart in what became known as the Monkey Business Affair is a 27-year-old American political scandal that most of us had consigned to history as a momentary episode with little or no enduring significance.

Now political columnist Matt Bai’s new book All the truth is out: The week politics went tabloid contends that the 1987 scandal in fact represented a turning point in political coverage, a watershed moment after which the news media determined that aspirants and holders of high office had no right to privacy where moral issues were concerned. Hart’s extra-marital affair (the consummation of which is ‘unproven’) with an attractive blonde called Donna Rice was judged a matter of abiding public interest and its exposure ended his chances of presidential nomination.

The public scandal stood in stark contrast to President John F. Kennedy’s multiple liaisons that had gone unreported at a time when journalists were expected to turn a blind eye to politicians’ private affairs. Of course, it had not always been so. The 1884 presidential campaign between James Blaine and Grover Cleveland saw newspapers trading claims of not only corruption but also illegitimate children and shotgun weddings. The ‘blind eye’ was a product of the determination by media to rid themselves of muckraker odium by projecting an image of a responsible press.

Bai says that during and after Monkey Business (editors thought Monkey Business – the boat on which the liaison took place – was a gift from heaven) the media convinced themselves that they were not interested in politicians’ sex lives but in their judgement. However, he adds that this requires “an acrobatic contortion of logic” because carrying on an illicit affair in private was not necessarily stupid or self-destructive. After all, lots of people – and I would include journalists – do it.

Internationally, the watershed moment is not a fixed point in time. Press speculation about Jim Cairns and Junie Morosi and Robert Muldoon’s accusations of homosexual activity made against a New Zealand Labour MP in the 1970s marked boundary shifts in Australia and New Zealand. Since then editors regularly have been faced with deciding whether or not to publish stories on public figures that straddle the public-private line. And increasingly they decide to print.

A former associate editor at The Age, Dr Denis Muller, in Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age published last year says the line is conventionally drawn at the place where private conduct or relationships begin to impinge on the person’s public duties. Sometimes that point is self-evident as in the cases of Liberal politicians who admitted claiming accommodation allowances for affairs in the 1990s. On other occasions it is literally a line call.

When I put down Bai’s book I began to wonder how often my justifications of editorial decisions on the private lives of public figures and their families may have been “acrobatic contortions of logic”.

I recalled an occasion where I published a young man’s cannabis conviction on the basis that his father was an MP who had campaigned against smoking (and who subsequently called for marijuana to be decriminalised). Was that flimsy logic?

A former colleague and I remain divided on my decision to spike a story that would have revealed, more than a decade after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, that a political candidate had a conviction under the old law. My colleague took the view that voters had a right to know he had a criminal conviction while I believed the conviction was redundant, had no significance in relation to his intended role, and could undermine years of civic contributions. There are arguments for both viewpoints, so which of us was right?

Were current New Zealand editors right to splash coverage of the son of the Maori King being discharged without conviction on charges that would otherwise not merit a paragraph? In that case, I think the decision to publish was right because the discharge was based on the effect it might have to his right to accession and was later overturned on appeal. The real judgement call was on how to play the story.

Editors need to ask themselves tough questions to ensure that their justification for the decision to publish the private affairs of public figures is not self-serving acrobatics to arrest that circulation slide irrespective of consequence.

At the core of those tough questions is the manner and degree to which, to paraphrase Denis Muller, the situation affects a public person’s ability to do the job the community would expect. In the case of sex-for-favours the answers are self-evident but if an editor clutches at the convenient “judgement” rationale, she or he should ask: How do these private decisions reflect the public figure’s judgement on public issues and, if it is a moral judgement (say, cheating on a spouse), should the public figure be judged on standards that I, as editor, do not apply elsewhere? Lurking in the background will be the matter of proportionality: Does the effect of disclosure far outweigh the indiscretion?

Maybe if those questions had been rigorously traversed Gary Hart would have had a crack at the presidency after all. Or maybe the world had already changed and declared open season on public figures to satisfy its need to be entertained.

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