Barnaby Joyce has come (no pun intended) and Barnaby Joyce has gone, but one issue that is intimately connected with the circus that surrounded him for the last three weeks has yet to be subjected to any scrutiny.
And that is the highly incestuous relationship that exists between Australian journalists and politicians and often results in news being concealed from the public.
The Australian media examined the scandal around Deputy Prime Minister Joyce from many angles, ever since a picture of his pregnant mistress, Vikki Campion, appeared on the front page of the The Daily Telegraph on February 14.
Various high-profile journalists tried to offer mea culpas to justify their non-reporting of the affair.
This is not the first time that journalists in Canberra have known about newsworthy stories connected to politicians and kept quiet.
In 2005, journalists Michael Brissenden, Tony Wright and Paul Daley were at a dinner with former treasurer Peter Costello at which he told them he had set next April (2006) as the absolute deadline “that is, mid-term,” for John Howard to stand aside; if not, he would challenge him.
Costello was said by Brissenden to have declared that a challenge “will happen then” if “Howard is still there”. “I’ll do it,” he said. He said he was “prepared to go the backbench”. He said he’d “carp” at Howard’s leadership “from the backbench” and “destroy it” until he “won” the leadership.
But the three journalists kept mum about what would have been a big scoop, because Costello’s press secretary asked them not to write the yarn.
There was a great deal of speculation in the run-up to the 2007 election as to whether Howard would step down; one story in July 2006 said there had been an unspoken 1994 agreement between him and Costello to vacate the PM’s seat and make way for Costello to get the top job.
Had the three journalists at that 2005 dinner gone ahead and reported the story — as journalists are supposed to do — it is unlikely that Howard would have been able to carry on as he did. It would have forced Costello to challenge for the leadership or quit. In short, it would have changed the course of politics.
But Brissenden, Daley and Wright kept mum.
In the case of Joyce, it has been openly known since at least April 2017 that he was schtupping Campion. Indeed, the picture of Campion on the front page of the Telegraph indicates she was at least seven months pregnant — later it became known that the baby is due in April — which means Joyce must have been sleeping with her at least from June 2017 onwards.
The story was in the public interest, because Joyce and Campion are both paid from the public purse. When their affair became an issue, Joyce had her moved around to the offices of his National Party mates, Matt Canavan and Damian Drum, at salaries that went as high as $190,000. Joyce is also no ordinary politician – he is the deputy prime minister and thus acts as the head of the country whenever the prime minister is out of the country. Thus anything that affects his functioning is of interest to the public as he can make decisions that affect them.
But journalists like Katharine Murphy of the Guardian and Jacqueline Maley of the Sydney Morning Herald kept mum. A female journalist who is not part of this clique, Sharri Markson, broke the story. She was roundly criticised by many who belong the Murphy-Maley school of thinking.
Chris Uhlmann kept mum. So did Malcolm Farr and a host of others like Fran Bailey.
Both Murphy and Maley cited what they called “ethics” to justify keeping mum. But after the story broke, they leapt on it with claws extended. Another journalist, Julia Baird, tried to spin the story as one that showed how a woman in Joyce’s position would have been treated – much worse, was her opinion. She chose former prime minister Julia Gillard as her case study but did not offer the fact that Gillard was also a highly incompetent prime minister and that the flak she earned was also due to this aspect of her character.
Baird once was a columnist for Fairfax’s Weekend magazine and her profile pic in the publication at the time showed her in Sass & Bide jeans – the very business in which her husband was involved. Given that, when she moralises, one needs to take it with a kilo of salt.
But the central point is that, though she has a number of platforms to break a story, Baird never wrote a word about Joyce’s philandering. He promoted himself as a man who espoused family values by being photographed with his wife and four daughters repeatedly. He moralised more times than any other about the sanctity of marriage. Thus, he was fair game. Or so commonsense would dictate.
Why do these journalists and many others keep quiet and try to stay in the good books of politicians? The answer is simple: though the jobs of journalists and public relations people are diametric opposites, journalists have no qualms about crossing the divide because the money in PR is much more.
Salaries are much higher if a journalist gets onto the PR team of a senior politician. And with jobs in journalism disappearing at a rate of knots year after year, journalists like Murphy, Maley and Baird hedge their bets in order to stay in politicians’ good books. Remember Mark Simkin, a competent news reporter at the ABC? He joined the staff of — hold your breath — Tony Abbott when the man was prime minister. Simkin is rarely seen in public these days.
Nobody calls journalists on this deception and fraud. It emboldens them to continue to pose as people who act in the public interest when in reality they are no different from the average worker. Yet they climb on pulpits week after week and pontificate to the masses.
It has been said that journalists are like prostitutes: first, they do it for the fun of it, then they do it for a few friends, and finally they end up doing it for money. You won’t find too many arguments from me about that characterisation.