The former NSW Transport Minister David Campbell is â€“ by all accounts â€“ a patriot. A long-serving lion of the once mighty NSW ALP Right, he is considered to have done a mostly good job in a very difficult situation.
Many Australians felt sorry for the man when Adam Walters on Channel 7 showed surveillance vision of the minister visiting a gay sex club. It was a sleazy story, to be sure.
A good number of those concerned Australians have told me this week that they thought the report was â€œwrongâ€, â€œwasnâ€™t newsâ€ or was â€œan unacceptable invasion of privacy.â€
These smug news-consumers looked less certain when we asked them â€œBut what if it was Kevin Rudd visiting this club and his wife was suffering from cancer? Thatâ€™d be news wouldnâ€™t it?â€
Make no mistake, a stateâ€™s Transport minister is a public figure and a role model of sorts. Certainly if semi-educated AFL footballers are held up to be community role models, so too should democratically elected Ministers of the Crown.
NEWSWORTHY DOESNâ€™T MEAN WORTHY
But thatâ€™s not even the reason why itâ€™s news.
Itâ€™s news because it is ultimately an extremely unusual event for a married prominent politician to be a regular at a gay sex club. And because itâ€™s unusual, itâ€™s interesting.
Prominent people doing unusual things sells more newspapers and magazines than probably any other category of news. Ever heard of Lindsay Lohan?
We can recall many other stories where politicians have had their private lives dragged out in public view. Married people having affairs. Divorces. Domestic violence. Even their kids going rogue. Or running around work in their undies. Drink-driving. You name it.
That level of scrutiny is what you sign up for in public life. But in the minds of many Australians â€“ including everyone we read on the issue in the commentariat that comprises the slow-grazing sheep of Australian journalism â€“ Adam Walters and Channel 7 crossed an imaginary line by reporting on David Campbellâ€™s private life.
So whatâ€™s the difference.
IF ITâ€™S GAY, CHEATING IS OK?
The only difference that I suspect built a tremendous groundswell of sympathy for Campbell was simply that he had visited a gay sex club. If it had been a straight brothel, we doubt heâ€™d have won any sympathy at all.
Weâ€™d probably have to check with Bruce Atkinson to be sure, but we understand that in these â€œclubsâ€ it is frequently the case that people of David Campbellâ€™s age pay young adults to gratify them.
But of course, after the backlash about Sevenâ€™s report, no-one was game to ask the ex-minister the age of the chaps he was having sex with or the nature of the arrangement. If they had, an honest answer might have shifted opinion a little.
And consider who felt for him. It wasnâ€™t just the trendy left.
Sydney Morning Herald conservative columnist Miranda Devine sympathetically referenced the fact Campbell had married young in blokey Wollongong:
And at 19, perhaps he loved Edna so much he could not bear to lose her despite any conflicts he might have felt sexually. No one knows what personal temptations he has had to overcome in his life, and that is entirely his businessâ€¦
Even Andrew Bolt, a very decent man in our view constantly demonised by the Left, wrote:
Campbell fathered two children with his wife and raised them in a stable, and we presume loving, family. Waters, however, has fathered three children with three women and has not stayed with any of them. That, in my opinion, is much more reprehensible than Campbell sneaking off to a gay bathhouse, and of far graver consequence.
Perhaps it is. But we suspect these two usually very sensible conservatives were blinded by the rage of a very sleazily presented, breathless tabloid news report that tied itself up in knots to justify why they were running the story in the first place.
The inconsistencies in all that made them an easy target for MediaWatch.
TELL IT HOW IT IS LOUD AND PROUD
With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that rather than keeping the story secret, Seven should have just told the yarn for what it was, an unusual and even rather sad situation involving a prominent person in the community.
Is it news or newsworthy? We consulted the great minds of journalism and communications to define it:
When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.
Charles Anderson Dana, American journalist, 1819-1897
News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.
Lord Northcliffe, British publisher 1865-1922
Well, news is anything that’s interesting, that relates to what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in areas of the culture that would be of interest to your audience.
Kurt Loder, American journalist, b. 1945
The real news is bad news.
Marshall Mcluhan, Canadian communications theorist, 1911-1980
Journalism is often simply the industrialisation of gossip.
Andrew Marr, British journalist, b. 1959
News is anything that makes a reader say, `Gee Whiz’!
Arthur MacEwen, American editor,
By those and any other reasonable measure, Sevenâ€™s reporting on David Campbell was certainly newsworthy.
There is no legitimate case for a gay exception to invasions of privacy of the prominent. Thatâ€™s patronising nonsense.
Adam Waltersâ€™s report wasnâ€™t pretty but it was news and Seven were well within their rights to report it.
And if they were being a little judgmental in their reporting then thatâ€™s OK too. We donâ€™t think that itâ€™s so radical a position to take to be at least slightly disapproving of the conduct of a bloke who has been married for thirty-three years, to a woman who has recently survived a brush with cancer, going to a sex club where he has most probably paid for a cheap, anonymous and meaningless thrill. We donâ€™t like to judge these things, each to their own, we say. But there has been remarkably little discussion about the victims of Campbellâ€™s actions: his wife, his kids and the bloke he probably paid to gratify him.
Amid all the tut-tutting about it, the NSW Premier Kristina Keneally has got off rather lightly for her flip-flopping on the issue.
On the night he quit â€“ pre-backlash â€“ Campbellâ€™s conduct was â€œunforgivableâ€ and she gave the distinct impression she would have sacked him for it if heâ€™d not resigned.
Post-backlash, Campbell was forgiven. And could possibly return to the front-bench.
Government by weather-vane is perhaps how it works these days but Keneallyâ€™s display did seem remarkably unprincipled and inconsistent.
Of course, he should never have resigned in the first place. And should not have been expected to do so.
And nor should have former NSW Education Minister John Della Bosca.
In September last year, the married minister was accused by the Daily Telegraph of having a fling with a twenty-six year old woman.
He immediately resigned his position as Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council, Minister for Industrial Relations and Education and Training because of the story.
Hardly a word of sympathy or concern for the invasion of privacy involved could be found in the mainstream press. A sensible NSW Liberal chap reflecting on these things from far away bravely spoke the truth about it but very few others did.
The failings and surprising conduct of the prominent is always going to be news. Shooting the messenger doesnâ€™t do much to diminish the already significant number of secrets in public life.
David Campbellâ€™s salacious story was news.
Adam Walters didnâ€™t handle it perfectly, he felt he had to invent a public interest justification for a story that was purely salacious and no less a story because of it. Nor did the minister who felt the need to resign for what he correctly described as a purely personal matter. Nor did his otherwise well-performing boss who accepted the resignation without hesitation and initially slammed him. But the blame for all this cannot be solely left at their doors.
Seven broadcast the story because you were interested in it. Campbell resigned because he thought you would expect it and his boss initially declared his deeds unforgivable and then forgave him purely because of what she thought you wanted.
Donâ€™t shoot the messenger. If you werenâ€™t interested in stories about prominent people, about seemingly dull middle-aged Transport ministers gone wild at Kenâ€™s of Kensington or Britney Spears in rehab, then theyâ€™d never see the light of day.
We report. You decide. More than a tag-line for our favourite cable news channel, itâ€™s the simple truth.
And, you watch, powerful and prominent people are keen to impose a radical change on news reporting if they can. In England, we have seen the laws of privacy develop, as a more easily established claim to make out than defamation.Â These laws have already been used to punish a newspaper that published a report detailing the Nazi S&M bondage fantasies of a prominent man running Formula 1 car racing. Including costs, the newspaper lost a million pounds as a result of the successful Â legal action.
We have little doubt, privacy laws designed to prevent journalists from revealing the secrets of the powerful will come to Australia.
The reaction to the David Campbell saga makes it likely itâ€™s coming sooner rather than later.