Barnaby Joyce was probably the last politician average Australians would expect to be embroiled in a sex scandal. A comparison to Mike Pence isn’t so far-fetched: They’re both second in charge of a conservative government led by a flashy businessman, and standard-bearers for family values, tilled in the nation’s agrarian heartland. For most of the Australian public, Mr. Joyce was a bumbling farm boy who meant well.
Last week, though, a story broke that turned public sentiment against him. Following investigations by two small websites last year, the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph reported that the deputy prime minister was having a child with a former staff member, Vikki Campion. A photo on the front page of the tabloid showed Ms. Campion, pregnant and unwitting, crossing the street. (“Bundle of Joyce” said the headline.) That this story, like so many others, involves personal hypocrisy is hardly surprising. Mr. Joyce has been a strident opponent of gay marriage, basing his opposition in part on what he has called his four daughters’ right to a “secure relationship with a loving husband” and the right of every child “to know her or his mother and father.” What is more noteworthy is the degree to which the Joyce affair has sparked a long-overdue debate about the deference Australian media still accords politicians when it comes to their private lives.
Mr. Joyce’s relationship with Ms. Campion, we’ve learned in the past few days, was an open secret among the Canberra press corps. Back in October, Sharri Markson, the reporter who eventually got the print scoop, wrote a piece alluding to a “deeply personal crisis” in Mr. Joyce’s life. Now that the story’s out there, it’s very easy to read between the lines about “vicious rumors” and “personal pressures” in dozens of media clips from last year. The deputy prime minister’s private situation was well known enough that he got into a pub brawl with a constituent about it last year and apparently knocked the man’s hat off.
Did the media choose not report on Mr. Joyce because they didn’t have all the facts? Perhaps in part. As the national broadsheet The Australian has reported, repeated inquiries about Ms. Campion’s multiple job titles, let alone her taxpayer-funded salary, were met with stonewalling. Mr. Joyce would refuse to talk about the relationship when they asked. (This week, he released a statement denying that the relationship, and Ms. Campion’s employment in the government, breached ministerial rules.) Another major consideration is that Australian journalists face extremely strict libel laws, the kind Donald Trump would appreciate.
And yet The Telegraph wasn’t congratulated by its peers for nailing down a tough story — if anything, it was condemned, with concerns raised about hurting the feelings of Mr. Joyce’s daughters (as if their feelings had not already been hurt); the tawdriness of a long-lens picture of a pregnant woman (undeniable, but perhaps an unfortunate byproduct of those stringent libel laws, which demand absolute proof); and the sentiment that “we’re no saints ourselves.”
It was suggested that readers should be more interested in energy policy than Mr. Joyce’s affair, or that we should instead focus on inconsistencies in Mr. Joyce’s stance on eliminating the government deficit, because that wouldn’t “embarrass, hurt and humiliate the people caught up in a marital breakdown.” (News reports, it seems, must never embarrass anyone.) Weirdly, one editor seemed to back away from the business of journalism itself: Parliament, he wrote, is “full of rumors,” and “to chase them all down would be a full-time job”.
This seemingly strange reluctance of Australian media to report on what in most other countries is by now a no-brainer is in part cultural. The media in the land of Rupert Murdoch has traditionally taken great pride in differentiating itself from the tabloid press of Britain, which it views as grubby for its obsession with politicians’ sex lives. In the 1990s, a multi-year affair between the Australian foreign minister and the leader of an influential third party who eventually defected to the minister’s side was kept under wraps. It was long after the affair had ended and neither was in politics — and only when one of the parties published an aggrieved memoir complaining about her treatment by the press — that a highly respected journalist made what he called the agonizing decision to air what had long been known by insiders.
This time around, however, the public was much more interested than the press had decided it should be: By the weekend, the conventional wisdom was that Mr. Joyce’s career was “probably finished.” And there have been signs that media outlets are getting the message. Since the initial story, other newspapers have changed their stance and begun reporting more aggressively on Mr. Joyce’s behavior. This week, for instance, Fairfax Media reported on his “alleged misconduct” at a 2011 awards ceremony.
Could the Joyce affair finally prompt Australian journalists to decide that the affairs of politicians are questions of public interest? At issue is whether voters have a right to know that a candidate espousing traditional values, and specifically the sanctity of marriage, has not been upholding them in his own life. An election took place while the affair, we now know, was going on. It’s possible this wouldn’t have made a difference — Mr. Joyce’s margin of victory was substantial, and voters are an unpredictable lot these days. But to point out that it was widely known in his district anyway, as some journalists have argued with a shrug, goes against the notion that it was too hard to find proof, as others have maintained.
What about the “two consenting adults” defense, which even Mr. Joyce’s political opponents have trundled out? For starters, Mr. Joyce, as a strident opponent of gay marriage, has made it his business what other consenting adults do. We also don’t yet know whether or not public money was used to facilitate the relationship.
Most important, though, we’re in the midst of a complicated and charged debate about workplace gender dynamics. This story is being received in a different way than it would have been even two or three months ago. Are journalists sufficiently confident in how readers think in these fluid days of 2018 to make the judgment that a powerful man’s relationship with a woman who works for him is not significant? In other words, is the media keeping up with the culture?
Perhaps what journalists are really saying about why they didn’t report this story is that it’s not the decent thing to do. It’s not in the spirit of giving someone “a fair go,” a posture of laid-back egalitarianism highly prized in Australian culture. And perhaps, too, it makes them uncomfortable because it compromises working relationships they’ve built up over years and which have granted them access to report on important stories they believe are more firmly in the national interest. There are valid arguments to be made about the way this story was presented. But greater transparency, not less, is what readers now expect from public figures, and from news organizations, too.
Amelia Lester is an Australian editor and writer based in Japan.