Media Salivates Over Kernot
July 4, 2002
Some Observations On The Media Frenzy
- The Packer organisation has played this issue with an eye to maximising publicity, sales and advertising. Australian Consolidated Press owns The Bulletin and the Channel Nine network. On Tuesday night, word began to circulate that Laurie Oakes would be referring to a "big secret" concerning Kernot in his weekly column in The Bulletin due out the next day. On Wednesday morning, Kernot appeared on Channel 7's Sunrise program, discounting suggestions that her book left out relevant information. Channel 7 competes with the Packer-owned Channel 9.
The article appeared on the newstands and online, immediately attracting attention. This website published the substance of the story around 10am, and Stephen Mayne of crikey.com.au circulated an email to his subscribers around the same time. After a day of muted, but suggestive coverage, on talkback radio, Laurie Oakes gave the issue new life with details withheld from The Bulletin story. He led the 6pm Channel 9 news with "proof" of the allegation that Kernot had an affair with Gareth Evans, revealing an email from Gareth Evans in which Evans refers to his "grand consuming passion" for Kernot and says he lied to Parliament about their relationship. Oakes was then interviewed on A Current Affair, an interview repeated on Thursday morning's Today program.
The story was ignored by the ABC until the Lateline program examined the media's role through an interview with Kernot's publisher and a forum with Margo Kingston from the Sydney Morning Herald and Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institue. By this stage, the publicity program for Kernot's book had been cancelled and Kernot withdrew from an appearance on Channel 10's The Panel. She also cancelled radio appearances scheduled for Thursday.
Thus, in 24 hours of superbly managed publicity, the Packer organisation has ensured maximum publicity for their flagship magazine and stolen a march on their television competitors. All of the nation's daily newspapers, apart from the Northern Territory News, have the Kernot matter on their front pages. Most of the daily papers are owned by Packer's great rival, Rupert Murdoch's News Limited.
- Simon Crean has fuelled the controversy by calling for Evans and Kernot to explain themselves. Is this a strategic mistake by the Opposition Leader? Speaking in London, Crean said: "You have to be honest with your dealings with the public. In politics your word is your bond. If the story is true and the Parliament has been misled then it is a serious matter."
Whilst it can be argued that Crean is only adding to the controversy involving two former members of parliament, his call for honesty in politics is probably the more substantive message he wishes to portray. But it is also likely to prolong the life of the story until Kernot and/or Evans make some kind of public statement.
Refusing to comment on the matter in Germany, John Howard would be delighted that even whilst he is out of the country the pressure remains on the ALP and the Democrats. Both parties have been on the political ropes in recent weeks. Crean's leadership capacities have been questioned over a range of issues from Mark Latham's "arse-licker" comments to interal ALP reform. The Democrats have been embroiled in a bitter dispute between the current and former leaders, Natasha Stott Despoja and Meg Lees.
- Is there a real issue here of relevance to the political process? Laurie Oakes argues that it matters because Kernot's relationship with Evans, apparently unknown to Kim Beazley and other ALP leadership figures at the time of Kernot's defection to the ALP in October 1997, helps explain Kernot's erratic and "flaky" behaviour subsequently. In her book, Kernot talks of Beazley distancing himself from her, an attitude that may now be understood as a reaction to learning of her affair with Evans.
Alternatively, commentators such as Gerard Henderson, speaking on the ABC's Lateline program, argue that it is impossible to know what motivations were at work in Kernot's defection. It is also argued that the same standard does not apply to male politicians and that it is only women who have their behaviour portrayed as influenced by their personal relationships.
- Australian political history may have been different had this story been published in 1997. It is difficult to imagine that the generally positive reaction to Kernot's move would have been quite the same had her relationship with Evans been known at the time. Nevertheless, the salient fact is that Kernot did leave the Democrats for the ALP and few people saw it as ideologically inconsistent with her core beliefs, notwithstanding her record on such issues as the industrial relations changes she negotiated through the Senate with Peter Reith.
The record shows that Kernot struggled to win the seat of Dickson in the 1998 election. On election night that year, she began the process that led to her unlamented departure from the ALP caucus three years later, by attacking the ALP over its treatment of her compared to that accorded Mary Delahunty in Victoria. Throughout 1999, 2000 and 2001, it became ever more apparent to even the most casual observer that she was unable to withstand the pressures of major party politics. She sought a change of shadow ministry. She was defended and protected by the ALP when she was hospitalised. It is simply not credible for Kernot supporters such as Joan Kirner to assert that Kernot has been targeted because she is female.
The ALP's then leader, Kim Beazley, spent much of his political career as a minister and Opposition Leader struggling to retain a marginal seat. It is unlikely he had much sympathy with the preciousness so often displayed by Kernot. Her behaviour in the ALP demonstrated that she had almost no understanding of its forms, tradition or culture. Whilst there is truth in the allegation that ALP culture is 'blokey', it is surely clear that Kernot never managed the transition from a minor Senate party to representing a major party in the lower house. Nothing said in recent days alters that.
- The Australian media remains as trivial and hypocritical as ever. They have salivated over this issue, although very few outlets had the courage to spell it out the way Oakes did.
Tabloid television only covers politics now if there is something salacious like this to "report", or if it presents an opportunity to denigrate politicians. A Current Affair and serious political coverage have been strangers for much of the time since Michael Willesee left the program he founded. Today-Tonight is simply a joke. Talkback radio is boorish, ill-informed and artificial.
Whilst there are worthwhile issues, such as whether Evans misled Parliament, or whether Kernot's historical account is accurate, these are far outweighed by the sorry questions that have now been raised about the media's right to publish stories about the private lives of public figures.
Furthermore, the coverage of two former politicians and their behaviour five years ago points to the media's inability to give serious and sustained coverage to matters of real public importance. We saw this in the lightweight coverage of Mark Latham's criticisms of Howard's foreign policy. The focus on personalities, simplicity, and the either/or, black/white approach to issues is only getting worse in Australia. There are notable exceptions, mainly on the ABC and commercial television on Sunday mornings, but even the traditional so-called "serious" broadsheet press, enslaved more than ever to the financial demands of a diminishing market, is letting us down.