I was going to refrain from commenting on the John Brogden situation, but I was called by a couple of journalists for comment, so I may as well put up some thoughts here too.
You tend to be on a hiding to nothing making comments when these sort of situations blow up. Either you join in the feeding frenzy by endorsing the criticisms, or you risk being seen as condoning the behaviour if you suggest any mitigating factors or that things might be being taken out of proportion. There is always a risk of getting sucked into the firestorm, so no comment is often a judicious approach. However, with John Brogden reportedly engaging in an act of self-harm, there is now a lot of comment on a range of aspects of the situation (including heaps of comments throughout the blogosphere – a range of links are at the end of this post)
That said, I do have a personal interest in the broader issue of the way the media chooses to report incidents such as this one which makes it a bit hard for me to be totally objective, so I’d be interested in any comments readers might have on this incident or the wider issues it raises about the nature of media reporting and political debate.
This incident again shows that we are still very unsure about where the line is between public and private situations, and what circumstances justify off-the-record becoming on-the record. I believe the trouble isn’t so much getting the judgement wrong about whether something should be reported – I don’t think there will ever be a cut and dried answer about where the line is – it’s that people seem incapable of keeping things in perspective once something does get into the public arena.
The effect is a bit like a dam wall bursting – journalists may want to say things at various times but decide not to, then in circumstances where it is assessed as OK to report one incident, it immediately becomes a free for all. The initial issue which may have been appropriate to report and to criticise or condemn gets quickly subsumed by a full-blown assault on the person’s character. Often the chance is taken for every other piece of unsourced gossip that anyone feels like throwing in to be given an airing. Allegations and suggestions that would not be justifiable to report at other times are seen as OK to publicise for as long as the feeding frenzy lasts.
Another analogy is of a lot of people dipping their toe in the water, wondering if it’s OK to swim, but once one person decides to dive in, everyone else will.
This isn’t just taking potshots at the media or journalists. People in political parties are often just as complicit. In many cases where politicians find themselves under personal attack in the media, it is other politicians or political operatives who have pedalled the allegations to journalists, presenting things in the most damaging form possible. Even worse these people are often from the same party as the person they are trying to stich up, including (reportedly) in the Brogden case.
Even where the original source of the allegations may have come from another party or from an outside situation, there is usually at least one source in the person’s own party happy to pour more fuel on the fire once it’s started burning.
There are any number of problems that happen as a consequence of this whole dynamic. The first and most immediate is obviously when individual people suffer major damage. Sometimes this is tragically obvious, such as John Brogden’s act of self-harm, or Nick Sherry’s similar circumstance many years ago. Other times the immediate harm might not be so apparent, or it may be ‘collateral damage’ to relationships or to family members – such as the person’s children copping with the fall out at school.
A wider consequence is that many people will be further discouraged from getting involved in politics. Many people say to me there is no way they would get involved in politics because they don’t want to have their private life at risk of being splashed all over the newspapers. For most politicians that never happens in an overly intrusive way, but everyone knows that ill-judgement can combine with bad timing or bad luck and then things can get very unpleasant.
Another effect which is often not explored is what this does to the ‘natural selection’ process of politicians. Whilst you obviously don’t want a bunch of jellybacks and delicate petals in leadership positions, you also don’t want a bunch of empathy-free sociopaths with skin ten feet thick running the country either. Peter Coleman, a former MP and journalist says the ‘first rule’ is “Never relax with a journalist. Or better still: Never relax, ever, with anybody.” It is not hard to imagine what sort of human being is created who never ever relaxes. Nor is it unreasonable to suggest that they may not be the ideal type of person to have dominating our political processes.
Whilst it’s certainly true that people can recover from a ‘firestorm’ incident – unless it is a serious criminal offence, rather than a personal indiscretion – it is also true that the (allegations of the) incident will not be forgotten. It will be brought up forever more – especially whenever another sufficiently frenzied situation erupts. You just have to accept that that will always be part of the way the media will present you, even when the public would otherwise have long forgotten or cared (assuming they actually cared much about the ‘controversy’ in the first place which occasionally I am somewhat sceptical about).
None of this is to say that John Brogden’s original comment was anything other than appalling, opening him up to public criticism. Most other politicians who have found themselves subjected to severe personal criticism have had to take some blame for leaving themselves open to attack through their own actions
Which brings up the ‘politicians are human beings too’ argument. Nobody wants a bunch of cardboard cut outs or a parade of saints as their politicians, but unless we get a more balanced perspective on each other’s common human failings, that’s what we’ll get. I think most people can imagine a comment they’ve made at some time or other which would mortify them if it was taken out of the private context they said it in and blown up on the front page of a newspaper.
Of course politicians choose to be public figures and they know it opens them up to the likelihood of public criticism and general opprobrium. You do have to be responsible for your public actions and it is not unreasonable to expect a higher standard of behaviour from people who seek to be community leaders. But there is a difference between being subjected to appropriate criticism and having your personal character and private behaviour subjected to a tabloid style media flamethrower.
One of the journalists I was interviewed by today asked me what I thought could be done to try to reduce the ferociousness of the attacks that occur on political and public figures from time to time. I have to say that, realistically, I can’t see any way it will change without the way politics itself is done changing significantly. The practice of many in politics to get on top through personal attacks and denigration of their opponents (inside as well as outside their party) means there is never any shortage of scuttlebutt and gossip being fed to journalists, most of which is not reported. Additionally the media’s propensity for reporting on politics as sport or entertainment rather than policy will always tend toward emphasising controversy.
Until politicians change the way they operate, there’s not much chance of the media changing the way they report politics. Maybe one small thing politicians could do is to speak up for each other a bit more when their opponents are under attack, rather than either go for the jugular themselves or keep their head down out of the line of fire.
I suppose it’s expected that one might publicly defend colleagues from your own party (although that certainly doesn’t happen in every case), but I have sometimes tried to give some defence to politicians from other parties when I think attacks might be unfairly personal. I did speak out in defence of Liberal MP Trish Draper when she was under attack last year for allegedly misusing parliamentary entitlements to take a boyfriend with her to Paris. I didn’t defend (or condemn) her overseas travel, as I wasn’t in a position to assess the nature of her relationship. What I did say was that legitimate questions about use of entitlement should not be used as an excuse for doing a tabloid style ‘expose’ of a person’s private life. I also criticised the decision to publicise details about the private life of Labor MP Cheryl Kernot – although I understood the ‘public interest’ justifications that were given, I don’t really think they were strong enough in that instance.
I remember in my own circumstance when I was copping a lot of criticism over allegations about my behaviour, some people who had seen the alleged ‘incident’ contacted me to commiserate at how distorted and exaggerated the public portrayal of it was. However, I appreciate that it was impractical to expect them to say so publicly, given the politics of the situation.
I guess in the end, people will say it’s just the way the game is played and probably always has been. Maybe so but unless we change the way it is played – and even better if we could realise that politics is not a game at all, but something which affects the lives of millions of people directly and sometimes dramatically – then we’ll just keep having the same old debate over and again each time another ‘Brogden’ incident occurs.
PS: Not surprisingly, there have been mentions of this incident on many blogs.
Tara’s Mum writes from her perspective as someone who knows Brogden through her previous work on the Manly Daily, a local paper which covers his electorate. Andrew Landeryou has some interesting reflections, while Dani is fairly forgiving, and MachineGunKeyboard is rather less so. Larvatus Prodeo has a very short posting, but a long and intermittently interesting comment thread. Many other commentaries make their varying feelings clear enough with short statements, such as WSA Caucus, The Naked Flame, Crystal Storm, The Pen, Is the media to blame?, The CEBK, Just a Few Things, Plu Runs.
I also thought this comment from the email The Daily Briefing sends to their subscribers was worth noting – mainly because the person who I presume wrote it is a journalist:
“Journalists and media outlets talking about ethics are like pedophile priests talking about the precious innocence of children – their comments are most likely to be entirely self-serving; and anyway they are so corrupted that they no longer truly know what they are talking about. (There are honourable exceptions though.)”
Finally, a piece on Global MoveOn is reasonably sympathetic towards Brogden, while managing to link his treatment to the “dogmatic beliefs of market-based economics” (while I can see where they are coming from, I think they draw a bit of a long bow).
In amongst all of the pieces in the mainstream media, I thought this piece by the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald gives a reasonably measured look at some of the issues raised by this saga.