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Friday, 4 September 2009

It’s breathtaking. John Della Bosca, king-hit by The Daily Telegraph, resigned and is now being aided by colleagues and sensitive journos like The Punch editor David Penberthy back into the public’s good graces.

The attack is also a twin breach of journalists’ code of ethics.

All this within a few days. Kate Neill, the blonde, “glamorous” Newtown chick who stabbed the pol in the nuts has now been outed. The pattern of blame and counterclaim has come full circle. All that remains is for Della Bosca to be rehabilitated. He may still be premier.

It’s none of our business who a man sleeps with, regardless of his position. There is no conflict of interest. Instead of this kind of sensational guff, respectable journalists should be concentrating on writing stories that people really want to read. Feeding prurient appetites should not be part of the code of conduct.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s (MEAA) code of ethics includes this:
Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives ...

The Daily Telegraph did not question the validity of Neill’s outburst and, instead of filing it away under ‘revenge’, published and then put editor Garry Linnell on The 7.30 Report to soft-pedal the issue.

The code also includes this:

Respect ... personal privacy...

The newspaper clearly did not do this, as Della’s privacy was infringed in a blatant and disingenuous way. Neill’s motives have been questioned by a psychologist. She has handled the situation badly and will probably regret what she has done. She says she was misled but at 26 she’s old enough to know better. The MEAA’s code of ethics also includes this:
Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context. Only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden.

How is the public interest advanced by shaming a 53-year-old guy who had a fling with a younger woman?

“What is the convention about politicians and their private lives?” asks Julia Baird in her 2004 book Media Tarts.

It has been described in the same way for decades, but broken for different, often subjective reasons. Perhaps it is not as strong as the press has thought or claimed it to be. Historically, it has meant that journalists pride themselves on not reporting the sexual liaisons or ‘indiscretions’ or politicians, including affairs, alcoholism, and broken marriages, in the belief that personal affairs should not spill into the public domain unless there is a significant public interest. The convention has long been used to protect men who cheat on their wives, attempt to seduce journalists, drink heavily, or even take drugs. It appears an underlying assumption has been that when men do these things, the way they think or work is not affected – that politics remains untainted by their personal predilections, the distractions of lust, the heartache of relationship break-ups, the struggle with addictions. Men can separate work and play, their loins disconnected from their brains.

Baird goes on to assert that journalists have “with great reluctance” moved into the “more tabloid’ style of American reporting. Clearly, The Daily Telegraph was anything but reluctant. Baird also says that reticence is driven by a fear that “once someone throws stones, rocks will be thrown back”.

But perhaps we’re living inside a different dynamic from that which characterised the 1980s and -90s. Maybe we’re now in a position where bad boys are not in cabinet any more. Maybe the world has shifted on its axis and pollies really are squeaky-clean exemplars of a type, rather than flawed human beings.

Or perhaps the celebrity mode of reporting, so ubiquitous, has taken over other areas of the trade, so that even politicians are liable to have their faces splattered over YouTube, just like any drunken or violent Hollywood celeb.

Maybe.

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