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Friday, May 21, 2010

Testing the limits of privacy and public office

The resignation of NSW Minister for Transport David Campbell after revelations about aspects of his private life once again raises the issue of what if any right to privacy those in public life can expect. The answer appears to be very little. Campbell is accused of no wrong doing, but having presented himself as one type of person presumably for political advantage, the argument is that the media have a responsibility to test such claims and to publish in the public interest information that shows deceit. Evidence of deceit by a politician raises broader issues of character and fitness to hold office. Even Campbell seemed to accept this, apologising in his resignation statement to his family and the community for letting them down.

However politics probably trumped all else when it came to Campbell's future. The  reality was that with the government already a basket case, the Premier couldn't afford to keep him  in the light of these developments. As a former Police Minister  who appears to have led something of a double life and with plenty of controversy about the Transport  portfolio during his term of office the Premier and Campbell obviously judged nothing to be gained and a lot lost by him staying on. Another name to add to the list of NSW ministers to come a spectacular cropper in recent years.

Further debate on privacy, public life and the media (hopefully the issue of journalistic standards as well-on this score Andrew Crook in Crikey raises some relevant points about the Seven Network and its report on Campbell ) is sure to follow- starting with that Sydney Writers Festival session tomorrow on Press Freedom and the Public Right to Know where David Marr who has been on the air today decrying media reporting on Campbell as an unjustified invasion of privacy gets a chance to elaborate.

Update: on journalism standards see also Andrew Bartlett drawing on his own experience in politics and Bernard Keane (subscription) both in Crikey. Keane comments:

"This whole line about such revelations being justified by the public interest in proper use of taxpayers' money is garbage. It's an excuse, and barely that, for exposing the private lives of politicians and humiliating them. The Seven Network and News Ltd (both of whom are members of the "Australia's Right To Know" coalition) should just drop the pretence that this is about the public interest, and be honest: they just love humiliating politicians and reporting their sexual activities.

Whether these politicians showed good judgement or not in their personal relationships is irrelevant. And for that matter, as the Hanson photos business showed, there doesn't even have to be an issue of personal judgement for the grossest embarrassment to be inflicted by the media. And quite why Premier Keneally felt the need to criticise Campbell for his personal decision about whether to reveal his sexuality is a complete mystery. It's none of her business any more than of ours, however often she felt the need to comment on his decision this morning.

There'll be more of these. So far they've been at the state level but there'll be a Federal one soon enough. Politicians are ordinary men and women and like journalists and the rest of us have relationships with work colleagues, act indiscreetly, behave with poor judgement and embarrass their loved ones. All that is now fodder for a media. The really funny part is that we all spend our time bitching about what poor quality politicians we have, particularly at the state level. And it's true - State politics is increasingly where parties put their no-hopers and time-servers, while the real action takes place in Canberra. The results in NSW have been plain to see. Campbell's effort to drive himself to Kensington is about the only successful transport policy he's implemented as Minister.

But making politicians and their families fair game will further drain the gene pool of state politics. Now it's clear to anyone interested in public office that once they pursue it, anything other heterosexual monogamy (and no photos, either, please) could end up leading the evening news bulletins or dominating a front page. Reckon that will encourage more people to run for office? Then again, the media benefits both ways. The worse the politicians, the more they can whinge about their incompetence. It's not merely unrelated to the public interest, it's directly contrary to it."

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