28 Oct 2018

Politics, sex and the media

From Mediawatch, 9:41 am on 28 October 2018
TVNZ's Q + A panel discussing politics, sex and the media.

TVNZ's Q + A panel discussing politics, sex and the media. Photo: Screen shot: TVNZ

On last weekend's Q+A programme on TVNZ, political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards declared the media and politicians "sort of have to" start reporting "what's going on beneath the bed sheets" of politicians. Mediawatch asks whether that's really the case and delves into some of last week's coverage of the Jami-Lee Ross affair.

Last Tuesday RNZ's Checkpoint programme lead with the story of a text believed to have been sent from a National Party MP who had an affair with National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross.

It was a scoop of sorts – no other serious media outlet had reported it but the existence of the text had been flagged on Cameron Slater’s Whaleoil site over the weekend.

Checkpoint presenter Lisa Owen said  RNZ had decided not to mention the name of the MP concerned or to repeat the exact words of the text but did report that: "It is not clear what prompted the message. However, it was sent to Mr Ross at 1:19 on a Saturday morning and concludes by saying: 'You deserve to die.'"

Nasty and desperate stuff. But it wasn’t clear why it was the lead story on Checkpoint or what the public interest in knowing about the text was.

Was Jami-Lee Ross, who had only just been discharged from a psychiatric hospital, really in a fit state to decide whether releasing the text was in his or the public interest? Did the existence of the text fundamentally change anything?  What are the ethics of releasing the text without the permission of the sender?

And what was the motive of the “supporter of the Botany MP” who leaked the texts to Checkpoint?

None of those questions were addressed by Checkpoint. It gave listeners a glimpse under some parliamentary bed sheets and then failed to explain why.

Political commentator Ben Thomas was one of a number of people on Twitter to criticise the decision to run the story.

Yesterday media trainer and commentator Janet Wilson told Newstalk ZB's Jack Tame that Checkpoint had made a bad editorial decision. "Where was the public interest in running the story?" She asked.

And she was in no doubt as to its source of the text. 

"Cameron Slater, whilst expressing concern for his friend Jami-Lee Ross - it has to be him - gave to Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint a text from the National MP that Jami-Lee Ross was allegedly having an affair with which was basically a late night rant," she told Jack Tame. "Checkpoint chose to run this story - interestingly no other media outlet picked it up which I think goes to show that Checkpoint was very happy to do the work of Cameron Slater."

Earlier in the week when asked about the origins of the leak by the New Zealand Herald an RNZ spokesperson said it would not comment on whether Cameron Slater was the source of the text and that its story was based on information from “multiple sources”.

As if the authenticity of the text was the crucial issue not the decision to report it.

RNZ also said: "The story went through normal editorial approval processes. There is no reason to review those processes."

Political scientist Edwards had made some dire warnings of the likely fallout from the revelations around Jami-Lee Ross's personal life a couple of days earlier on TVNZ's Q+A programme.

"There's this concept of the mutually assured destruction that stops them firing the nuclear missiles at each other about corruption, about sexual harassment or private lives." Edwards said. "But in this case because it's an internal civil war that's happened all those old informal agreements have broken down."

If what Edwards said is true and politicians on both sides of the house are aware of cases of corruption and sexual harassment by their opponents but remain silent out of fear their own side’s criminality will be revealed – then there is a real crises of democracy. It's the opposition's job to hold governments to account.

The programme went to an ad break just after the comment and nothing more was said about politicians colluding to keep the public in the dark about cases of corruption and sexual harassment. So it’s probably safe to assume that Edwards was just getting a bit carried away with his nuclear Armageddon metaphor.  

Usually when the slightly hackneyed 'mutually assured destruction" phrase is rolled out by pundits it’s in relation to the private lives of politicians. And later in the programme Edwards made some pretty startling comments about that as well.

"We used to have a very strong delineation between reporting on politics and personal lives of politicians. The media did not go there, the politicians didn't go there. They didn't really use to bring up what's going on beneath the bed sheets but of course now that Jami-Lee Ross has been in this situation, they sort of have to in a sense," he said.

Former National Party president, and regular pundit, Michelle Boag, was quick to point out there's a difference between exposing abuses of power and sexual harassment and reporting on people’s sex lives.

"It's not about lifting the bed sheets, as Jami-Lee Ross says, it's actually about how you use the power that you have as a politician," Boag said.

And there seemed to be general agreement among that day's panel that politician’s private lives – as long as they didn’t involve abuses of power – should remain out of bounds.

So are we seeing an erosion of that convention? Checkpoint's decision to run the angry text story suggests we might be.

And on Wednesday RNZ Morning Report presenter Susie Ferguson ended her interview with National Party leader Simon Bridges with this question: "Have you done anything that wouldn't pass Paula Bennett's test of 'behaviour acceptable of a married MP?"

Simon Bridges' replied "No". And the interview ended. It was an unfair question. If he had refused to answer the question on the grounds that MPs' private lives should be just that - listeners would have been left wondering what he had to hide.

The National Party leader had publicly criticised his deputy for that comment so it's hard to argue he was simply being asked to live up to standards he had been actively promoting.

Earlier in the same interview Ferguson had asked Bridges whether the involvement of Simon Lusk and Cameron Slater in the Jami-Lee Ross crises was a sign that dirty politics was at play. The opposition leader replied that: "viewers would draw their own conclusions."

Nicky Hager, the author of Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand's political environment, seems convinced it never went away.

Writing on the Spinoff, Hager said the Jami-Lee Ross controversy was classic dirty politics:

"It started with a typical attack: leaking embarrassing information about Simon Bridges’ travel spending to a journalist, which was published without revealing the identity and motives of the leaker. This is reminiscent of the way that Cameron Slater used to hand out scoops attacking opposition politicians to willing journalists."

And Nicky Hager had a warning for the media.

"Journalists of course need to find stories. There is constant pressure to produce scoops. But I believe media should not take politically motivated attacks (Slater called them “hits”) from political people and allow their identities and motives to remain hidden from the public. Otherwise the journalists are just being used."