What’s in the ‘public interest’? Why the ABC is right to cover allegations of inappropriate ministerial conduct



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Alexandra Wake, RMIT University

Immediately after ABC’s Four Corners aired allegations about the conduct of government ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter, questions were raised about whether the report was in the “public interest”.

The Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, said on Q&A that Porter was “trashed” by the program, adding

What the ABC has done tonight is that it’s crashed through some media barriers and created new media barriers. How far do we go in terms of our definition of the public interest?

We need to be very careful about the damage we do to people’s reputations here and ask ourselves is that an accurate portrait or was it a caricature?

Asked about the story in a Senate committee before the story aired, ABC managing director David Anderson defended it as “absolutely” being in the public interest.

It goes to conduct of ministers, ministers of the Crown, to be held to the highest standard in society. That’s the nature of the story.

Porter has denied the claims made against against him. He had earlier discussed considering legal options against the ABC, but played that down in an interview yesterday.




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Even tawdry stories are in the public interest

Despite Porter’s protestations, the ABC clearly had an obligation to air a story that contained allegations of ministerial misconduct (however tawdry).

News reports about politicians, sex and booze are as old as time and have brought shame to many a politician, from the former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce to Deputy Labor Leader Gareth Evans and the UK Secretary of War John Profumo.

The one clear duty of journalism is to hold those in power to account, and that appears to have been lost on those members of government as they reportedly attempted to pressure the ABC, its managers and journalists, over the broadcast.

Barnaby Joyce became embroiled in a scandal over his affair with his former media adviser.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Standards for those in government

Many ethical issues arise from the broadcast, the attempt to pressure the ABC and the legal threats that have followed.

Even before the program had made it to air, the ABC’s management found themselves under attack, with an excruciating Senate Estimates Committee hearing a couple of hours before the broadcast.

But it certainly wasn’t a quick piece of “gotcha” journalism with a blurry photo at its centre. The Four Corners team have an exacting process to their work. For this story, the ABC said they interviewed 200 people over several months. They also contextualised the story beyond the two central politicians to raise real concerns about the place and safety of women who work in Parliament House.

Anderson also said the allegations had been thoroughly sourced and checked legally. Those named in the story were given “ample” opportunity to respond.

Moreover, while the so-called “bonk ban” on ministers having sexual relations with their staff was only introduced by Prime Minister Malcolom Turnbull in 2018, Cabinet ministers have had rules governing their behaviour since John Howard first established a public ministerial code in 1996.

Turnbull says he warned Porter about ‘unacceptable’ behaviour with a young female staffer.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Members of the Morrison Cabinet now sign up to a code of conduct which says they will “act with integrity” and be “open to public scrutiny and explanation”.

Specifically, there is no grey area in these ministerial standards on the point of sexual relationships with staff:

2.24. Ministers must not engage in sexual relations with their staff. Doing so will constitute a breach of this code.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison pointedly said this week that neither Porter nor Tudge were in breach of his code of conduct.

But allegations of sexual misconduct and power imbalances, even historic ones, are still clearly a cause for community concern, and cannot not be ignored by journalists or political leaders. Such matters are no longer private affairs between consenting adults.

Just ask the complainants at AMP, the former CEO of Seven in WA, or even former US president Bill Clinton.




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Action should be taken

Regardless of the salacious allegations made on the Four Corners program, there is also a point to be made about the hypocrisy of politicians who market themselves as having “family values” and demand others follow “Australian values”.

Certainly, it is not edifying to watch details of alleged impropriety by politicians broadcast on television, and it’s uncomfortable that such stories inevitably impact those who are innocently caught up in the furore (particularly partners and children).

Tudge did issue a statement saying he regretted his actions “and the hurt it has caused my family”.




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But with this story, Four Corners has not only produced a program that has interest from the public, it is also in the public’s interest.

There are many questions to be answered from the ministers named in the story and also those who knew about the allegations and did nothing (or even worse, promoted them).

The real outcome of this program should not be a defamation case, but rather action from Morrison. Questions over ministerial conduct are important. This is certainly a matter of public interest.The Conversation

Alexandra Wake, Program Manager, Journalism, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: When Australia’s first law officer is in the dock of public opinion


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

It’s quite a moment, when the country’s first law officer is asked on his home town radio station, “So you don’t think you’re a sleazebag or womaniser or someone who’s drunk in public too much now?”

Overnight, Christian Porter had been reduced from high-flying attorney-general to a man forced to publicly confront a nightmare episode of “This is Your Life” delivered by Monday’s Four Corners.

“No, it’s definitely not indicative of who I am now,” he told interviewer Gareth Parker.

Parker did not resile from going to some of the worst of the confronting claims in the program. “Did you ever say you wouldn’t date a woman who weighed over 50 kilograms and preferred that they had big breasts?‘

“Absolutely not. I mean, like, give me a break.”

But Porter – who’s having to turn up on the House of Representatives frontbench all week under the eye of colleagues and opponents – was given no breaks in this long-distance grilling. His regular Perth 6PR spot became akin to a courtroom, with him in the dock.

First up: had he ever had an intimate relationship with a staffer?

Well, certainly not the staffer he’d been seen drinking with at Canberra’s Public Bar in December 2017, in the (details disputed) incident that led to then-PM Malcolm Turnbull telling him to watch his ways.

Indeed, Porter said, the woman in question had categorically denied to Four Corners (which said she worked for another cabinet minister) the slant put on the story or that it indicated any relationship. But (unfortunately for him) her denial had been “off the record,” he said. It was not reported.

Porter was lawyerly when quizzed about whether he’d ever had a relationship with any other staffer. He wasn’t going to be pushed down byways. “Is there another allegation?” he countered.

With the nose of the experienced prosecutor he once was, Porter smells political payback.

The program’s biggest punch was delivered by Turnbull, with whom Porter had a major falling out just before the former PM lost the leadership.

In a heated dispute Turnbull argued the governor-general should refuse to commission Peter Dutton, if he won the leadership, because he might be constitutionally ineligible to sit in parliament. But Porter insisted Turnbull’s suggested course would be “wrong in law” and threatened to repudiate his position if he advanced it publicly.

“I often suspected that there would be some consequences for that,” Porter said in the 6PR interview.

“I don’t think that Malcolm is a great fan of mine, I’d say that much,” he told Parker, when asked whether he was suggesting Turnbull was motivated by revenge.

Porter’s strategy is to own and regret his distant past – “I’m no orphan in looking back on things that I wrote and did 25-30 years ago that make me cringe” – but strongly contest the construction put on his more recent life.

He’s threatened legal action, but his Tuesday tone suggested he’s more likely to suck up the damage rather than take the distracting, expensive and risky course of going to a real court.

He and fellow cabinet minister Alan Tudge – whose affair with his then staffer the program exposed – retain the support of Scott Morrison.

Morrison relies on the “BBB” defence. That is, these incidents were Before the Bonk Ban – specifying no sex allowed between ministers and their staff – imposed by Turnbull early 2018 in response to the Barnaby Joyce affair.

Morrison was at the time, and is now, an enthusiastic supporter of the prohibition. He’d like to see it embraced by Labor, who’d “mocked” it when it was announced. (One of the government’s many gripes about the Four Corner’s program is that it didn’t poke around to find Labor’s dirty washing.)

“I take that code very seriously and my ministers are in no doubt about what my expectations are of them,” Morrison told a news conference.

But please, can people keep the language more delicate? Terms matter to this PM, who once lectured the media against using “lockdown”.

When minister Anne Ruston was asked (at their joint news conference on another matter) to reflect as a woman on whether the parliament house culture had become better or worse since the “bonk ban”, Morrison interrupted her.

“How this ban is referred to I think is quite dismissive of the seriousness of the issue,” he said.

“I would ask media to stop referring to it in that way. We took it very seriously and I think constantly referring to it in that way dismisses the seriousness of this issue, it’s a very serious issue.”

We can’t know whether the Porter story will fade or there’ll be some fresh spark.

Porter was asked if he could “go to bed tonight, comfortable in the knowledge that there isn’t a woman out there who’s going to come forward and give a truthful account of her interactions with Christian Porter that would further embarrass you or damage the government”.

Porter said: “I haven’t conducted myself in a way that I think would lead people to provide that sort of complaint about me”.

Whether the story goes somewhere or nowhere, one thing seems clear. The hopes of 50-year old Porter – who switched to federal politics after an impressive state career – of ever reaching prime minister are in the mud.

In under an hour on Monday night, a red line was likely struck through his name on the list of future Liberal leadership prospects.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Turnbull slams Porter for “nonsense” advice


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull has accused Attorney-General Christian Porter of providing advice to him that was constitutional “nonsense”, as the divisive events around the former prime minister’s removal are revisited.

Turnbull launched his acerbic Twitter attack following reports that the day before he was deposed last August, he clashed with Porter over trying to involve Governor-General Peter Cosgrove in the leadership crisis. Turnbull was seeking to ensure Peter Dutton did not become prime minister if he won the leadership.

Meantime, Dutton has revealed that before the May election he removed himself from involvement in a family trust – an involvement that last term had raised doubts about his eligibility to sit in parliament. The trust received money from his wife’s child care business, and child care receives government subsidy.

Dutton always maintained he was on safe constitutional ground and his spokeswoman on Thursday reaffirmed that he had had legal opinions saying he was not in breach of section 44. During the leadership crisis the Solicitor-General provided advice, taking the view Dutton was eligible, though he left some doubt.

“Nonetheless, to silence those who are politically motivated and continue to raise this; prior to the minister’s nomination at the May election, he formally renounced any interest in the trust in question,” she said.




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Accounts of the contretemps between Turnbull and Porter were published in Thursday’s Australian and by Nine newspapers.

Turnbull argued Cosgrove should refuse to commission Dutton, if he won the leadership, on the grounds he might be constitutionally ineligible to sit in parliament.

Porter insisted Turnbull’s suggested course would be “wrong in law” – that the eligibility issue was not a matter for the governor-general – and threatened to repudiate Turnbull’s position if he advanced it publicly at an imminent news conference.

The Attorney-General had a letter of resignation with him, in case he needed to provide it.




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The events of last year will be extensively raked over in coming weeks in books by journalists Niki Savva and David Crowe. They featured in a Sky documentary this week.

Turnbull refought his battle with Porter on Thursday, tweeting: “The discretion to swear in a person as PM is vested in the Governor General. The proposition advanced by Mr Porter that it is none of the GG’s business whether the would be PM is constitutionally eligible is nonsense. The GG is not a constitutional cypher.

“During the week of 24 August 2018 there was advice from leading constitutional lawyers Bret Walker that Dutton was ineligible to sit in the Parliament and thus ineligible to be a Minister, let alone Prime Minister. I ensured we sought the advice of the Solicitor General.

“I took the responsible course of action, obtained the necessary advice, published it and the Party Room was informed when it made its decision to elect Mr Morrison, rather than Mr Dutton, as leader.”

Porter, speaking on radio on Thursday, confirmed the accuracy of the media reports, including the tense nature of the meeting. “Sometimes meetings in government aren’t all potpourri and roses,” he said.

Porter said an attorney-general’s role was to provide advice they considered accurate and legally correct.

“Sometimes that advice is not always what people want to hear. But I’ve always taken very seriously the role and the fact that the role requires to give advice to the best of your legal knowledge and ability you think is accurate and correct.

“And that’s what I’ve always tried to do, that’s what I did during the course of that very difficult week.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.