The Barnaby Joyce saga has given a great boost to what might be called “shake-the-tree” journalism: you shake the tree by running a sensational story and see what falls out.
The Daily Telegraph’s original public-interest case for publishing the first story of Joyce’s relationship with ex-staffer Vikki Campion was weak when weighed against the privacy intrusions on Joyce, his estranged wife, his daughters, and Campion.
However, that story has resulted in the emergence of three genuine public-interest justifications.
The first is whether Joyce breached the ministerial code of conduct by employing his partner in his office. On this he has prevaricated, saying that his partner was not so employed. Here he was clearly referring to his wife, not Campion. In the circumstances, this was a distinction without a difference.
The second matter of public interest concerns the expenditure of public money on jobs said to have been found for Campion when her presence in Joyce’s office became untenable. Her salary is reported to be about A$190,000.
The third is whether the Prime Minister’s Office was informed of this or whether Joyce misled them by omission.
Once the story came out in The Daily Telegraph, the media as a whole piled into a story they had all known about for months. And they have done so with a kind of shamefaced gusto, making up for lost time.
How much better it would have been if someone – anyone – in the Canberra gallery had succeeded in establishing at least one of those substantial public-interest justifications and broken the story framed around that.
Instead, the story that broke was coloured by the salacious moralism beloved of tabloid newspapers since time began.
It featured a large picture of Campion, heavily pregnant, a gross violation of privacy if ever there was one.
Here it was: the fruit of sin. The impregnated mistress, to borrow some of the vulgar moralising language that has disfigured the coverage.
The photo has been defended by The Daily Telegraph’s editor as proving the truth of the story that Barnaby Joyce had got his staffer pregnant. It proves nothing of the sort. It shows a woman pregnant. It says nothing about paternity.
Then on Valentine’s Day, The Daily Telegraph was at it again, this time with a page-one picture taken in 2016 in which Joyce and Campion are sitting next to each other at an official function.
Campion is in the foreground and Joyce, according to the caption, “eyes off” his media adviser. The headline says: “Bad look”.
There are many ways of interpreting this picture and headline. One of them is that Joyce had sexual designs on Campion back then, which from the caption is clearly the main message The Daily Telegraph wished to convey, regardless of truth or context.
But the picture is also about Campion. Although she is oblivious of the glance from Joyce, the reader is given the opportunity to inspect her as the “other woman”: we get a good look at her face, her figure and her legs.
Put the “bad look” headline with that, and the reader is invited to draw negative conclusions about her appearance and her character.
This judgemental tone, redolent with sexual possibilities and consequences, is a throwback to the busybody moralising of the 1950s and 1960s.
Then – before the sexual revolution and the rise of second-wave feminism – it was a staple of middle-class morality to take a gossipy and often hurtful interest in marital breakdowns and pregnancies out of wedlock.
So why is this throwback happening?
Professor Alison Dagnes, a political scientist at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and editor of a textbook on sex scandals in American politics, proposes a theory that goes like this: there is a well-documented loss of trust in institutions, one consequence of which is that the public is inclined to regard all politicians as scumbags.
Digital technology has equipped everyone with a camera and social media has provided everyone with the means of publishing. This has created a competitiveness of unprecedented intensity among media.
Scandals pique everyone’s interest, even among those who are not usually interested in politics. So any scandal that shows politicians to be the scumbags we suspect, guarantees lots of “likes” and “shares” on social media, generating a frenzy in traditional media and opening up the scandal to instant and reiterative public judgements.
This, in turn, adds to public distrust in institutions.
To this theory might be added two more possible factors.
The first is the shift in norms of privacy induced by social media and the ubiquity of mobile phones with cameras. Old understandings of the boundaries between private and public have been obliterated and new ones have not yet taken their place.
The second is people’s sense of entitlement to pass judgement on matters of which they have personal experience: intimate relationships, the primary school curriculum, the quality of driving on the roads. This is not new, but it is a powerful driver of attitudes.
Doubtless there are other factors, but whatever they are, Western society does appear to be in the grip of a new moralism, and the tabloid media are adept at making the most of it.