Friday, 24 February 2012

Truth and detraction in the Rudd rumpus: the delicate line

David Marr (not someone I often agree with!) has an interesting essay in the Sydney Morning Herald today on the ALP leadership crisis basically arguing that the current descent into deeply personal attacks on former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd are in the public interest.

Marr's argument

Marr argues that a more candid approach at the time of his unceremonious dispatch as Prime Minister would have gone a long way towards improving current Prime Minister Julia Gillard's credibility.

I think he is basically correct.  Still, given the strictures on the sin of detraction, one can certainly understand the hesitation of all those involved at the time.

Marr puts the case as follows:

"No Kevin. This isn't a breakdown in civility. Your colleagues are at last telling us why you were sacked. And here the political is inescapably personal: you couldn't run the place. The result was, as Julia Gillard said yesterday and every newspaper and television station has been repeating since, ''chaos and paralysis''.

"...we weren't told it was Rudd but the Labor government that had lost its way.  Whether this was kindness or funk, the voters were left without a narrative; Gillard was left without legitimacy; and Rudd, with his depthless self-belief, was left to portray himself as a martyr and to campaign for his resurrection.

Think how different the political landscape would be today if on the morning of June 24, 2010, the new Prime Minister and the Treasurer had explained themselves with the candour they have shown in the past 36 hours.

Had Gillard said then, ''I did everything I could to salvage the situation . . . to try to get the government functioning'', we would have liked her more and doubted her less. The narrative would have been about rescue not sabotage..."

He suggests that most of the problems were already in the public domain:

"Had she spoken the truth, she wouldn't have broken any news. For months before his execution the media had been reporting Rudd's dysfunctional dealings with ministers, the relegation of his cabinet, and the ceaseless difficulty of getting the man to sign anything."

And he also points out that it would be a different story if Rudd's agonising delays and micromanagement resulted in good policy outcomes.  But in fact that was very far from being the case.

So should they have spoken out back then?

Marr's view is they should have dumped on Rudd more thoroughly when he was deposed as Prime Minister.  It certainly might have helped distance the current Government from some of the serious administrative failures of the previous Government, such as the pink batts fiasco.

It could easily have backfired on them though - there are obvious problems in attacking a government you were part of!

All the same, the real issue here, it seems to me, at least from a catholic perspective, is about detraction, or the revealing to third parties the faults or crimes of others. 

The right to a good reputation

People have a right to a good reputation, and there have to be very good reasons indeed  to override that right - one of the reasons that certain bishops have been allowed to resign for reasons of "ill-health" for example.

The right to a good reputation is not an absolute however. 

If the issue is already 'notorious' for example, or the subject of a court decision, then detraction is not an issue.  Marr's point notwithstanding, while there were certainly reports about Rudd's behaviour around back then, they were mostly second-hand; mostly rumours and innuendo, often sourced to known enemies (such as his opposite number in the Foreign Affairs portfolio, Alexander Downer), rather than credible witness statements.

The public interest case

The second exception, though, relates to the public interest. 

Here is the 1919 Catholic Encyclopedia's exposition on the topic:

"Finally, even when the sin is in no sense public, it may still be divulged without contravening the virtues of justice or charity whenever such a course is for the common weal or is esteemed to make for the good of the narrator, of his listeners, or even of the culprit. The right which the latter has to an assumed good name is extinguished in the presence of the benefit which may be conferred in this way.

...Journalists are entirely within their rights in inveighing against the official shortcomings of public men. Likewise, they may lawfully present whatever information about the life or character of a candidate for public office is necessary to show his unfitness for the station he seeks. Historians have a still greater latitude in the performance of their task..."

The claims of subversion of the 2010 election campaign and subsequent white anting by Mr Rudd of the Government of which he was, until Wednesday, a member, would, together with his aspiration to reclaim the PM's job, would, on the face of it, justify the kind of frank speaking on the part of Government ministers, journalists and others that we have seen in the last few days.

But could his behaviour have been predicted in advance?  Perhaps. 

We always hope for the best in a person though, and I imagine his colleagues hoped the rather abrupt 'fraternal correction' he received back then might have some positive impact.

And even if his alleged behaviour could have been predicted, I'm not sure that the kind of storyline Marr's suggesting would have been a proportionate response to the situation as it was back then.

And herein lies the dilemma in dealing with such situations...

The journalists dilemma

In reality one could argue that the reaosn we are now witnessing this unedifying battle at all lies in the failure of journalistic ethics and integrity.  As a former editor of the Age, Michael Gawenda, wrote on the ABC's The Drum a few days ago:

"...I fear that some journalists covering the Rudd-Gillard title fight are, in essence, lying to us.

Are there journalists who have been briefed by Rudd and his supporters, for months now and perhaps even going back to 2010, about Rudd's long-term strategy to win back the prime ministership?

Are there journalists - and for that matter newspaper editors and television and radio senior executives - who have been briefed by Rudd and his supporters over the past six months or more, about Rudd's so-called 'campaign of destabilisation'?

Did he viciously disparage Gillard? Did he viciously disparage the Government of which he was a senior member? Did his supporters do all that? Did Rudd tell journalists that he would eventually challenge for the leadership when the time was right - and when that time might be?

It seems to me that on the evidence publicly available and the evidence of gossip amongst journalists, the answer to all these questions is: yes.

Rudd and his supporters deny that they have run any campaign of destabilisation. Rudd and his supporters deny that they have regularly briefed journalists, editors and senior media executives. At his two bizarre press announcements in Washington, Kevin Rudd spoke as if he was a total innocent, as pure as the driven snow, morally virginal, having never ever been involved in the grubby politics of undermining, white-anting, wounding and ultimately destroying an opponent.

...And reporters, some of whom knew that none of this was true, reported it all without comment, without letting us know that they knew, personally, that it was untrue.

This is 'he said, she said, they said' journalism. It is meant to be 'straight' but what it is in reality is timid and ultimately dishonest."

The numbers...

Meanwhile, back to watching the number crunching live on the social media sites. 

And in this fascinating social media first, the numbers for Ms Gillard appear to be firming up this afternoon.  A few hours ago the Australian has the numbers almost evenly split with a lot of undecideds; now they give it as 66 for Gillard, 31 Rudd, 6 undecided.  The SMH gives Ms Gillard 68 votes and rising...


A Canberra Observer said...

too late now ...

PM said...

One of the tragedies of this is that the opportunity some of us hoped Rudd would offer for a reassertion of Christian influence in the Labor party has been wasted; he has, if anything, set the cause back.

A Canberra Observer said...

re what PM said, if as a previous post here and the media say, Rudd intervened to scotch preselection of a solid christian candidate I am left with the feeling, on top of everything else, that despite all his forelock tuging to Bonhoefer that the christianity was also skin deep, or at least not at the core of his convictions.
Remember he apostasised to become an Anglican. And I think there is evidence that Anglicans (some of them anyway) can reconcile anything with their faith.
I am left wondering if he is just the better thespian.

R J said...

David Marr, whatever nonsense he might write on occasion, is no fool. I well recall his accurate aphorism on John Howard's Methodist upbringing: to the effect that the Howard family members "were at the bottom of the heap, but it was the right heap."

A Canberra Observer said...

ooh, getting real mean now. Rudd is at least accused of calling Gillard an atheist.