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Hype and scandal

Nick Bryant | 21:10 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010

So it is that time of the year again when Queensland beats New South Wales at rugby league in the ritualistic hype-fest known as the State of Origin - a forerunner of another NSW/Queensland showdown later in the year, when Kevin Rudd takes on Tony Abbott in the federal election. Perhaps both contests will be a little more competitive and unpredictable than we had all previously assumed - although the odds of a Queensland victory in both still look pretty good.

Fear not, this is not a blog about rugby league, or Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. But I do want to talk about hype, because it appears to have been much in evidence during the last eight days or so while I have been out of the country and observing a near total news black-out. Just after I headed off, there was the media extravaganza surrounding the made-for-television climax of Jessica Watson's round the world solo voyage, which Deirdre Macken in The Australian Financial Review said had been turned into a "major marketing event". Young Jessica appears to have got a very hard time in some quarters, by the way, with Brendan Shenahan writing in The Punch that her epic voyage was "nothing more than a dangerous narcissistic indulgence", which seems a harsh thing to say of a 16 year old who has just spent months on her own in the most challenging and dangerous of seas.

There's also been a lot of hyperbole in the battle over the mining super-tax - "hype and scaremongering", according to Paul Howes, the head of the Australian Workers' Union, an increasingly influential voice and, I suppose, another name who could have been added to the Australian Power List. The mining industry, meanwhile, has accused the Rudd government of a campaign of misinformation by underestimating its current tax burden.

But the story from last week which appears to have generated the most hype is the resignation of the New South Wales transport minister, David Campbell, following the revelation, first aired on Channel Seven News, that he had visited what is being described as a "gay sex club" in Sydney. Mr Campbell is married with children, and resigned, minutes before the report went to air last Thursday night, "for letting down" his family and colleagues.

Whenever I leave the country, it seems, a New South Wales minister resigns over some scandal or other. And I'm not sure how this story has been playing out in other parts of Australia. After all, one of the things that dilutes the national impact of these kind of stories is the absence of a nationwide tabloid, along with the states-based focus of most early evening news programmes, which are presented from the respective state capitals.

But was the hyped-up media response - "a beat-up", in Aussie parlance - commensurate with the alleged "misdemeanour", if it can even be called that? No crime was committed. There was no breach of any of his ministerial responsibilities. He did drive a ministerial car to the club, but the guidelines set down say ministers can take their cars wherever they want.

And what of the political response? The NSW premier, Kristina Keneally, originally said that Mr Campbell's actions were "unforgivable", although she later apologised for that remark.

Channel Seven has defended its decision to broadcast the story by arguing that Mr Campbell's public persona was at odds with his once-secret private life. Here's the channel's news director, Peter Meakin: "In the case of Mr Campbell, here was a guy who had been minister for police, which is a very sensitive portfolio, who had been presenting himself and gaining re-election as a happy family man - sending out Christmas cards with his wife and sons pictured on the card and portraying himself as a loving father and husband.
"Now all this time and apparently for the last 25 years he has been acting otherwise. I think the electorate have the right to know that."

But others in the media vehemently disagree. Here's Andrew West, a transport reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald: "Once again, we have seen a political career end in a scandal that is manufactured by the media, based on a series of so-far thin justifications. Campbell had never set himself up as a 'family values' campaigner. A photograph of himself with his wife and sons is merely that - a family photograph - not a morals crusade. But even more obnoxious than the faulty justification is the self-righteousness of journalists and TV executives who set themselves up as arbiters of public morals."

Mark Day, a veteran reporter and editor who writes a column for the media section of The Australian, has an interesting take: "Until recently, I'd say the story of former NSW transport minister David Campbell's gay secret life would have fallen at that hurdle. But I think the times are changing and with them the rules and conventions of publicly dealing with personal issues. The increasingly open nature of public debate - the product of easily accessible and vigorous online commentary - is eroding the walls around ancient no-go zones."

Once a seldom-go-there area for most Australian journalists, the private lives of politicians now appear to be fair game. Is the media to blame, or is it simply meeting the demands of an increasingly voyeuristic reading and watching public?


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