Bryce Edwards: Have the rules of the game changed in media and politics?

Bryce Edwards: Have the rules of the game changed in media and politics?

Is it really time to “move on” from the Jami-Lee Ross mega-scandal? Certainly, that’s what National leader Simon Bridges has been saying over the last week. There are others outside of the National Party who also have an interest in “moving on”.

Some in the media have been sympathetic to Bridges’ plea to stop focusing on the saga. Last week The Press newspaper published an editorial expressing horror at how the scandal had consumed us all: “this is cheap entertainment, delivered in bite-sized, episodic morsels. But now we are potentially actors, not just observers, in a slow-motion train wreck” – see: Turn away from the train wreck.

The newspaper suggests the scandal has become a tragedy, and Bridges’ call should be heeded, for the good of everyone: “it may be good advice for the rest of us to consider. How far down do we want to go in following one man’s descent? Ross and whoever is behind him have had the stage, they’ve had their 15 minutes of infamy. Now it’s exit stage right. And not just for Ross’ sake.”

This is not a view shared by all media. The Southland Times proclaimed bluntly in the weekend that ‘Moving on’ is not acceptable.

The hard-hitting editorial states: “There’s nothing worse than politicians who are hypocrites, and right now the National Party falls right into that category. If you ever wanted to read about a cop-out, here’s a cracker one for you. The National Party, it seems, is ‘moving on’. Well, surely the public deserves more than the glib response that came from its chief press secretary on Friday.”

Stuff journalist Martin van Beynen raises concerns that both journalists and the public likely have about how the media should continue to cover the story, asking: How do we handle a mentally unwell MP?

Here’s his main point: “Journalists are now in an invidious position. Let’s assume Ross, looking poised and comfortable, calls a press conference to announce more revelations about his former friends in the National Party. Do we ignore him because of his underlying illness and advise him to seek help or do we treat him as a flawed individual, assume his mental illness in under control, and report what he has to say, based on its merits? According to some of the pundits, journalists apparently have to be politically correct social workers as well as reporting events and their background.”

What should journalists and politicians leave out of the public sphere?

We have learnt a lot more about politics and politicians from the scandal. And now there is the question about whether we have learnt too much. This is something politicians and journalists have always had to grapple with – having to decide what to make public, and what to leave hidden.

Early on in the scandal, Danyl Mclauchlan wrote an excellent summary and discussion of what the whole episode meant, in which he pushed the point that it was very significant, because “So much of what happens in politics never makes it into the media” – see: The uniquely damaging betrayals of Jami-Lee Ross.

Many people argue, Mclauchlan says, that “Politics should be about policy and values”, when in fact “for professional politicians ‘values’ are mostly just a form of marketing”. Therefore a focus on policy and values can just be a disingenuous way of avoiding the reality of what politics is really about. That’s why the particulars of this scandal are important: “We’re learning a lot about some of the people who run our country, or who aspire to, because we’re – briefly – seeing them as they really are, not as they want to be seen.”

I also discussed some of this in an opinion piece, explaining how politicians generally have an informal pact of silence, which journalists also abide by, when it comes to certain topics – especially the “no go zones” of allegations of sexual improprieties and political finance corruption – but on occasions such as this there is a breakdown of those norms and conventions – see: The dangerously escalating political scandal wars between Simon Bridges and Jami-Lee Ross.

It can be both democratically useful and dangerous when these conventions breakdown, allowing the public to see much more of what goes on behind the scenes, including in politicians’ private lives. This was discussed further by RNZ’s Jeremy Rose, who suggested that if such a code of silence does exist, “then there is a real crisis of democracy” – see: Politics, sex and the media.

Is the delineation between the public and private lives of politicians breaking down?

The above article also quotes me from an appearance on TVNZ’s Q+A, about the media’s traditional boundaries between public and private lives: “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 used 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.”

In response, Rose asks: “So are we seeing an erosion of that convention?” And he points to various examples from his own employer as evidence that perhaps this is the case: “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.”

Also at RNZ, Colin Peacock continues to ask questions about how much journalists should be reporting on the details of the scandal – see: Meltdowns, blow-ups and blowback as MP goes rogue, in which he argues newsrooms will have to work out what is in the public interest as the scandal continues.

Peacock’s audio Mediawatch item from Sunday, JLR’s greatest hits keep coming, deals further with different opinions on what should be covered.

It includes a vivid statement from Newshub’s Duncan Garner who argues that both Ross and Bridges deserved scrutiny from the media and public: “It’s unbecoming, isn’t it, of the national’s representatives? And both men look simply ridiculous. But that’s what happens with the dance of the desperates turns to rolling around in the mud – fighting for their careers in the gutter, where the truth struggles to exist… I’ve never seen so much dirty, filthy laundry, and tawdry secrets dragged into the public arena before. This is most certainly unprecedented. It’s not some unseemly struggle over the direction of the party or the policies, it’s about twisted ambition, promises, dirty digging, and careers going nowhere fast.”

Allegations by and about Jami-Lee Ross have changed the game

Certainly, Jami-Lee Ross believes that conventions over keeping private lives out of politics and the media have been destroyed. After the Newsroom story was published with allegations from four women about their experiences with Ross, he hit back, saying: “A scab has been picked on the parliamentary personal issues. It has long been a case where personal matters are kept private, but the rules of the game have changed” – see: National MP Jami-Lee Ross admits to affairs with two women, vows to stay in Parliament.

Furthermore, he said: “There’s a lot of bed-hopping that goes on down in that Parliament. There’s a lot of behaviour that a lot of people would want kept secret and has been kept secret until now. But the way in which we now play politics is that we lift the bed-sheets.”

In an interview with the Herald’s Kirsty Johnston, Ross warned that, with the breakdown of conventions, more would now come out: “Half the Beehive were having inappropriate relationships, he said, but until now, that aspect of political life had been off limits… But those rules have changed in Parliament now. Things that were previously never discussed are now being discussed” – see: Volatile but not abusive: National MP Jami-Lee Ross speaks out about affair with fellow MP.

The charge of hypocrisy is now clearly one that Ross feels entitled to use in outing other MPs: “If the standard is that behaviour is no longer such that someone could continue as an MP then I’d suggest … that one out of three maybe one out of two MPs would have to question their behaviour as well.”

Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins also argues that an important line in politics and media has been crossed, and a return might now be impossible: “The bombshell Newsroom story that two women alleged they’d had had toxic sexual relationships with Ross pushed the nuclear button on their release. Ross accuses National of feeding Newsroom the story, alleging that one of the sources was an MP and two of them work for the party. The story certainly sent shock waves through Parliament. Labour MPs were just as rocked as their National counterparts. There was a feeling that a line in New Zealand politics had finally been crossed. And a fear that there may be no going back. Parliament is never short of gossip about affairs between MPs, between MPs and their staffers – and, yes, journalists as well. The parties all have dirt files. But they rarely use it. It’s called the nuclear option for a reason. All that has changed” – see: The Jami-Lee Ross saga – dirty, ugly, nasty politics with no end in sight.

Undoubtedly there will be many who see this breakdown of convention as a welcome development. For example, conservative blogger Ewen McQueen says: “MPs and journalists alike much prefer the code of silence that keeps the rest of us in the dark. We are told the reason for the secrecy is to protect MPs’ families. It is a reason that appears noble but which is merely self-serving” – see: Time to break Wellington’s code of silence.

So, are the media playing the role of “morality police” when they don’t report on the behaviour of politicians? McQueen seems to think so, arguing the public should be the judge: “The code of silence also insults the public of New Zealand who have a right to know the true character of the people they are being asked to vote for… The Wellington establishment arrogantly assumes we have no need to know and such matters are not relevant to public life. This is a lie.”

Finally, for the best discussion on questions of the delineation between public and private lives of politicians, see Tim Watkin’s blog post, Don’t give me culture – the question of character. He argues that the Jami-Lee Ross controversies raise the question, “how much does character and integrity matter?” Watkin suggests “Maybe we just want the right to know what our leaders are really like and for it to be up to us whether or not we want to vote for them – flaws and all.”