Has a line been crossed by the reporting of Len Brown's affair? Are the private lives of all politicians now fair game?
There's another word to be had about the Len Brown affair. And that's 'the unwritten rule' that has been discussed as existing between journalists and politicians in this country. The question is whether it is in the process of being re-written.
The unwritten rule is that a politician's personal life – if it does not intrude into his or her public duties or break any laws – is their own business. End of. When it comes to cheating on a spouse, well, that's nothing to do with the public.
To be honest I've always held some doubts about that. As we know, no such rule exists in America where a politician's cheating is considered fit to print and worthy of public examination. It stems from that society's widespread Christian beliefs and its puritanical origins; but it also speaks to the high standing in which its leaders have long been held and the people's high expectations of those in public office.
We have every right to debate the character and morals of those we elect to lead us. Some may find that distasteful and can ignore such debate. But if it matters to Voter A, then Voter A has every right to vote on his or her moral values. Many of us in some spoken or unspoken way do employ our morals when it comes to casting a vote.
Character, judgment, trust... these are important virtues when it comes to electing someone to lead us and to represent us. It may not matter when choosing a dentist who he or she is sleeping with, but politicians are held to a different standard.
On the other hand, politicians have a right to a private life, they have a right to be imperfect. And maybe they will be better, more compassionate leaders for that. I remember once talking to a 20-something American who wanted to run for office some day and so had spent his young life doing nothing at all controversial or impolitic. Do we really want such sanitised and carefully packaged leaders? Or rather someone who has tried, erred, and learnt?
And we all know that if political leaders are opened to extensive personal and moral scrutiny that we will miss out on some able, even brilliant, representatives. We could name many, but consider Franklin Roosevelt alone if you want see what could be lost if we condemn people on their private lives and not their broader skills and genius. Maybe our rule is just fine.
Then again look at how John Kennedy could have compromised the office of the presidency and, more recently, how Anthony Weiner's private flaws revealed his public ones as well.
It's not a clear line. And of course we can't just assume that a revelation of infidelity would mean public condemnation and a loss of office. New Zealanders might show a practical and forgiving streak. Who knows?
Yet New Zealand journalists have been pretty consistent in staying well away from that line. Many a known infidelity has gone unreported, or so I've been told. I'd feel pretty confident in saying that includes relationships where, as with Len Brown, some form of power abuse has been in play.
Do we have a right to know? Or is it none of our business?
And how important is the source? Here we have a sworn affidavit from a young woman with National party connections. That probably should be acknowledged, but it matters little. Perhaps the greater issue stems from those telling the story.
Cameron Slater and Stephen Cook, well, their work speaks for itself. And it's often been vulgar or worse in my view. While they've clearly got this one mostly right, they've got other stories and judgments wrong in the past. In Cook's case it once came at great cost. That being said, journalists and bloggers (the latter's kindest description I can give those two) aren't standing for public office so can be as judgmental and hypocritical as they like. They can simply publish and be damned. Fair enough.
But I fear the crossing of a line here. And I fear that these two reprobates are the ones to cross it. I don't want to reward them or to work in an industry where they set the tone. I don't want the lowest common denominators in the media to be able to establish themselves as society's moral arbiters. I don't want them to be encouraged to find new ways to titilate for the sake of it and thereby lower the public's view of the media any more than it already has been. Further, do we really want to open our leaders to this new level of scrutiny? That would be something new. And if so, there must surely be MPs tonight sleeping very uneasily indeed.
One point that stands out in today's blog is the detail; the unnecessary, salacious, vicious detail. No credible journalist would have gone into such explicit depth about the sexual acts. Even if the story is of public interest, the explicit material is not and can only hurt the family more. It's clearly calculated to do maximum political damage regardless of the human cost, because readers will fixate on the demeaning, cheap specifics and Brown can't respond to them, can't even deny any that might be untrue, because he has to lie in the bed he made for himself.
None of that is decent, it's just cruel.
Look at the comparison with John Banks and the comment made by Kim Dotcom in court today:
"He [Banks] said 'Kim, if I help you in the future it's better if nobody knows about your donation'."
I know I used it in my previous blog; it's worthy of repetition. Do we really demand the resignation of a man who cheats on his wife while a man who allegedly says such things wins national office and become a minister of the Crown?
The Brown revelation hurts him. But its longer-term legacy could be the rewriting of a rule, a re-writing that has taken place due to political gamesmanship and without any sense of consensus within the industry or society at large. The mainstream media has felt obliged to follow this story, naturally. And Bevan Chuang's role in Auckland Council perhaps makes it worthy. There's still more to learn.
But journalists need to step back and ask where the line is now in what we report and how personal our scrutiny becomes. And we need to hear from our audiences what they expect from us (which may be different from what they might want or buy from us). Because it's natural that we follow the breaking story... but it's only in more considered relfection that we can decide where the moral lines lie, for both our trade and the people we cover.