John Brogden

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.

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10 Comments

  1. I think part of the problem is professional politicians. John Brogden has never had a career outside of politics, so if his political career is over he probably considers his life to be over.
    If he’d had a successful career before politics he might have just quit and gone back to whatever he was doing previously.

  2. This has been a great cover for Bishop, Nelson and co to whip up their hate for muslims.
    What Brogden did really was to state clearly that because Helena Carr was Asian by birth she was not fit for any white person to marry so he must have ordered her in the mail.
    It was the same with Vivian Alvarez. Some pathetic little tosser in the public service decided she was a sex slave and acted accordingly.
    Would either circumstances have flourished if they were Anglo? Even Cornelia was not deemed to be a sex slave.
    Most of the media coming unstuck now are the ones who willingly jumped into bed with Ruddock and Howard in their campaigns of vilificaiton.
    MacManus and Harvey are being sued but Bolt is not because he did the government’s dirty work instead of embarrassing them.
    Brogden clearly wasn’t fit to run a country dunny let alone be the Premier of any state anywhere in the world.
    in vino veritas as they say. If Brogden didn’t have those appalling beliefs about Helena Carr he would never, ever have voiced them.
    But Vanstone, Ruddock and others should be sacked for sent to prison for the crimes they have committed and the media stooges like Russell Skelton who helped them should be in the next cell.

  3. Thank you for a well thought through and articulate commentary. I too felt the need to make a comment on my blog and my blog is about running.
    All the best
    Martin

  4. I perceive politics to be rather like the harassment and bullying foisted on high school kids by their peers, only in much greater quantities and with nationwide news coverage. It’s a very tough game.
    If you’re to be a politician, you need self confidence, maturity and wisdom in sufficient measure to be able to qualify and quantify criticism for what it is, yet be able to reach out to a constituency to provide them the representation which is part and parcel of the position.
    I don’t think reasonable people necessarily hold politicians to a higher standard of personal behaviour than that expected of those in private life. However, when politicians behave in ethically questionable manners, the recourse available to a constituency is nominally limited to raising the issues in the press.
    I’ve been a voter for 25 years. My general experience over that time with trying to raise matters directly with politicians is that complaints discussed directly and privately with them are either fully ignored or dismissed until sufficient numbers of voters register the same complaint for the politician to believe that not addressing the issue will be an electoral liability in the future. Accountability is shockingly hard to come by.
    Consequently, if it was my brother who was accused of drunken womanising, it would be appropriate for me to have a word with him in private. If my respect is important to him, he’ll change his behaviour. If it’s my local member accused of the same, I’ll have that word in the letters to the editor section of the paper. It is the respect of the constituency who put that person in office that must be of import to elected leaders. To be elected, the faith of the constituency must have been earned in sufficient measure to convince people to allow that candidate to represent them in government. That faith is earned by promises and other representations made by the candidate in the course of campaigning for office. If a politician abandons concern for the respect of a constituency (and thus accountability), that faith earned from a constituency has been betrayed- and it’s time for the pollie to resign from the office.
    A free press exists to enforce accountability from government. The news media has been the traditionally appropriate means to raise topics of concern within a large group of people. Only relatively recently has the phenomenon of blogs allowed individuals to raise the matters directly to a large audience without conduiting the matters through the mainstream press. As long as Brogden remains in service as an elected representative, he must expect that his behaviour is a valid topic for reportage.

  5. To be honest, I feel no sympathy. He must have been in a true state of stress and trauma to even consider suicide, then to actually try to carry it out! Rather irresponsible. He is married, with kids. Suicide in his case is an act of pure greed. How can he be so self centred to not think of his family. Sure he has embarrassed them and put them in the public eye, but that is no justification to attempt suicide.

  6. I find it disgusting that people are giving him sympathy as soon as he cuts himself up a bit (arguably it was self harm but not a suicide attempt). He is obviously an extradinarily racist and sexist man and therefore unpaletable to the electorate, regardless of his ability to lead. He was rightfully hounded from all quarters, it was public, he is a public man and journalists should never be taken for granted.
    The circumstances of his self harm to me only emphasise his character flaws. Andrew, you mentioned the idea of only being human, Brogden certainly doesn’t consider Helena to be an ‘ordinary human being’, he sees her as ‘mail order bride’. Very racist and sexist and also an attack on Bob by way of saying that ‘he couldn’t get a real sheila’.

  7. Self harm, suicide and depression however are complex issues and should never be generalised about (ok, they can occaisonally be generalised to make me a non-hypocrite). Should be taken on an individual basis before value judgements are made. I would prefer a Prime Minister who occaisonally suffers depression than one who never or rarely does.
    Before you give Brogden sympathy stop and think: why sympathy? why sympathy? why sympathy?. WHY? Why guilt? Would you feel these same things if Brogden got on with his life and pulled himself together? No, you wouldn’t? Then you are a disgraceful hypocrite without a moral compass.

  8. “Suicide in his case is an act of pure greed. How can he be so self centred to not think of his family?”-Apollyon
    That assumes that people who are suicidal are capable of rational thought. Severe depression and anxiety are no light problems. Things that seem straightforward to someone of sound mind can seem hugely out of proportion to someone suffering from severe depression. something that normally would seem insignificant could be a cause for unbearable anxiety.
    As for JB’s comment’s and resignation, i really can’t see why so many people seem shocked to find out a politician could be human like the rest out us.

  9. “That assumes that people who are suicidal are capable of rational thought”
    I guess you are right, I didn’t really think of it that way. Nevertheless, I still fail to see any plausible reason as to why I should feel sympathy

  10. Apollyon, its very unlikely that Bogden made his attempt solely over his resignation, I think he was likely already depressed or something. You cant say this was an act of greed. He is deserving of sympathy.

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