Living in the public eye means living under public judgement

Former footballer, broadcaster and TV fisherman Rex Hunt’s entanglement in a scandal of his own making may not engage everyone’s sympathy and interest. Tabloid-fodder, we might sniff, before returning to the more serious business of sipping lattes and cracking open expensive bottles of chardonnay.

But Hunt’s story (extra-marital sex with three women, hush-money paid, embarrassed wife standing by her man, yada-yada-yada) has engendered the same debate that often accompanies media decisions to headline the misadventures of the rich and famous. A debate about whether such stories are in the public interest, or simply of interest to the public.

It would be a mistake to think that Hunt’s marital infidelity is what’s drawn the attention of the press. Recent Australian history suggests that it is not infidelity per se, but hypocrisy that often goads the press into running with a story. Infidelity is often the incident that exposes such double standards, but it’s not the only one. Remember the huff-and-puff photos of Shane Warne that gave lie to his claim that he’d quit smoking?

The Kernot affair also shows the critical role hypocrisy plays in journalists’ decisions to take a story public. Cheryl Kernot’s affair with former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans was well-known to the Canberra press gallery. Reporter Laurie Oakes only spilled the beans – and set the media frenzy in train – in the wake of Kernot’s decision to exclude this information from her memoir. Free in apportioning fault to everyone else for her political downfall, Oakes objected to what he saw as the hypocritical omission of information that might have pointed at least one of the fingers of blame in her direction.

It is said that every culture has prohibitions against hypocrisy. In all likelihood, this is because hypocrisy can indicate significant character-flaws like hubris, dishonesty and an inability to take personal responsibility. While we probably wouldn’t mind being notified about the presence of such qualities in all those we deal with (I’d opt for a Logan’s Run-esque blinking palm light myself), we feel entitled – rightly I think – to get the skinny on such matters when it comes to public figures.

This is because the stature of public figures like Hunt give them privileges the rest of us don’t enjoy. Small perks like the wielding of power to shape the world in which we live, either through the implementation of policy, or the use of media platforms to influence health, fashion or lifestyle trends. When AFL footballers are condemned for their shabby treatment of women, it’s not just because such behaviour – no matter who does it – merits our disapproval, but also because they aren’t anyone. They are the blokes our kids, particularly boys aged 6 to 20, admire and seek to emulate. They speak and we listen. I mean, d’oh! That’s why our so many Fortune 500 companies are after these fellas to promote their products.

This means two things. Firstly, that the public may be justified in expecting a higher standard of behaviour from public than they do from Joe and Judy Blow. Some people might argue this is unfair. They did when Wayne Carey was being pilloried for simultaneously doing the dirty on his best friend and his own partner Sally by sleeping with Anthony Stevens’ wife, Kelli. “He’s an athlete,” they cried. “Just because a bloke can kick a football doesn’t mean he was first in line when they handed out basic human decency.”

Perhaps less controversial is the contention that public figures with the stature to command column inches and television time – be they politicians, radio shock-jocks, or entertainers – need to put up or shut up when it comes to how the rest of us live. If powerful people use their capacity to command an audience to outline their moral view about how we should all run our marriages, manage our health or rationalise our citizenships, it seems only fair to expect them to practice what they preach, or to suffer the pain of being outed as a hypocrite. It was former Liberal politician Ross Cameron’s choice to gallivant around his electorate preaching family values, and plastering photos of his four children and smiling wife across his promotional materials. When he also chose not to keep his pants buttoned, the media was perfectly entitled – if not obliged – to let the public know.

With benefits come costs; with license comes responsibility. Should this responsibility not be met, the public has a right to know. The judgements we make from there is up to us. We may shrug, and run the “to err is human” script in our head. We may decide our hero still deserves our worship or the politician our vote, or then again we might not.

Yes, public figures live in a fishbowl, but for most of them – and certainly for Rex Hunt – that’s their choice. Other jobs with lower profiles and salaries are available; one’s where the mismatch between what one says and does are more likely to be overlooked.

Then too, there’s always the option of just keeping one’s one mouth shut.

Publication history

Living in the public eye means living under public judgement  The Age