Has a line been crossed by the reporting of Len Brown's affair? Are the private lives of all politicians now fair game?

There's another word to be had about the Len Brown affair. And that's 'the unwritten rule' that has been discussed as existing between journalists and politicians in this country. The question is whether it is in the process of being re-written.

The unwritten rule is that a politician's personal life – if it does not intrude into his or her public duties or break any laws – is their own business. End of. When it comes to cheating on a spouse, well, that's nothing to do with the public.

To be honest I've always held some doubts about that. As we know, no such rule exists in America where a politician's cheating is considered fit to print and worthy of public examination. It stems from that society's widespread Christian beliefs and its puritanical origins; but it also speaks to the high standing in which its leaders have long been held and the people's high expectations of those in public office.

We have every right to debate the character and morals of those we elect to lead us. Some may find that distasteful and can ignore such debate. But if it matters to Voter A, then Voter A has every right to vote on his or her moral values. Many of us in some spoken or unspoken way do employ our morals when it comes to casting a vote.

Character, judgment, trust... these are important virtues when it comes to electing someone to lead us and to represent us. It may not matter when choosing a dentist who he or she is sleeping with, but politicians are held to a different standard.

On the other hand, politicians have a right to a private life, they have a right to be imperfect. And maybe they will be better, more compassionate leaders for that. I remember once talking to a 20-something American who wanted to run for office some day and so had spent his young life doing nothing at all controversial or impolitic. Do we really want such sanitised and carefully packaged leaders? Or rather someone who has tried, erred, and learnt?

And we all know that if political leaders are opened to extensive personal and moral scrutiny that we will miss out on some able, even brilliant, representatives. We could name many, but consider Franklin Roosevelt alone if you want see what could be lost if we condemn people on their private lives and not their broader skills and genius. Maybe our rule is just fine.

Then again look at how John Kennedy could have compromised the office of the presidency and, more recently, how Anthony Weiner's private flaws revealed his public ones as well.

It's not a clear line. And of course we can't just assume that a revelation of infidelity would mean public condemnation and a loss of office. New Zealanders might show a practical and forgiving streak. Who knows?

Yet New Zealand journalists have been pretty consistent in staying well away from that line. Many a known infidelity has gone unreported, or so I've been told. I'd feel pretty confident in saying that includes relationships where, as with Len Brown, some form of power abuse has been in play.

Do we have a right to know? Or is it none of our business?

And how important is the source? Here we have a sworn affidavit from a young woman with National party connections. That probably should be acknowledged, but it matters little. Perhaps the greater issue stems from those telling the story.

Cameron Slater and Stephen Cook, well, their work speaks for itself. And it's often been vulgar or worse in my view. While they've clearly got this one mostly right, they've got other stories and judgments wrong in the past. In Cook's case it once came at great cost. That being said, journalists and bloggers (the latter's kindest description I can give those two) aren't standing for public office so can be as judgmental and hypocritical as they like. They can simply publish and be damned. Fair enough.

But I fear the crossing of a line here. And I fear that these two reprobates are the ones to cross it. I don't want to reward them or to work in an industry where they set the tone. I don't want the lowest common denominators in the media to be able to establish themselves as society's moral arbiters. I don't want them to be encouraged to find new ways to titilate for the sake of it and thereby lower the public's view of the media any more than it already has been. Further, do we really want to open our leaders to this new level of scrutiny? That would be something new. And if so, there must surely be MPs tonight sleeping very uneasily indeed.

One point that stands out in today's blog is the detail; the unnecessary, salacious, vicious detail. No credible journalist would have gone into such explicit depth about the sexual acts. Even if the story is of public interest, the explicit material is not and can only hurt the family more. It's clearly calculated to do maximum political damage regardless of the human cost, because readers will fixate on the demeaning, cheap specifics and Brown can't respond to them, can't even deny any that might be untrue, because he has to lie in the bed he made for himself. 

None of that is decent, it's just cruel.

Look at the comparison with John Banks and the comment made by Kim Dotcom in court today:

"He [Banks] said 'Kim, if I help you in the future it's better if nobody knows about your donation'."

I know I used it in my previous blog; it's worthy of repetition. Do we really demand the resignation of a man who cheats on his wife while a man who allegedly says such things wins national office and become a minister of the Crown?

The Brown revelation hurts him. But its longer-term legacy could be the rewriting of a rule, a re-writing that has taken place due to political gamesmanship and without any sense of consensus within the industry or society at large. The mainstream media has felt obliged to follow this story, naturally. And Bevan Chuang's role in Auckland Council perhaps makes it worthy. There's still more to learn.

But journalists need to step back and ask where the line is now in what we report and how personal our scrutiny becomes. And we need to hear from our audiences what they expect from us (which may be different from what they might want or buy from us). Because it's natural that we follow the breaking story... but it's only in more considered relfection that we can decide where the moral lines lie, for both our trade and the people we cover.

Comments (27)

by Steve on October 16, 2013

Don Brash's affair was exposed by that hypocrite Cullen.

by Maureen Jansen on October 16, 2013
Maureen Jansen

 I don't want to reward them or to work in an industry where they set the tone. I don't want the lowest common denominators in the media to be able to establish themselves as society's moral arbiters. I don't want them to be encouraged to find new ways to titilate for the sake of it and thereby lower the public's view of the media any more than it already has been.

 I like that bit. I heard Slater on Garner Live referring to Brown's "stamina in the cot". Totally irrelevant to his role as mayor! Garner said "Im with him on this one" (in relation to the whole interview) ... I'm glad that you have a different point of view from your Media Works colleague. It would be appalling if the likes of Slater could set the tone. Heck, he really WAS an appropriate editor for the now defunct Truth. They used to perform the sewer function back in the day. I remember their treatment of Marilyn Waring. 

It's very disappointing that Brown did what he did but well, to err is human. He's been the best mayor we've had since Dove Meyer Robinson IMHO. That's what matters. Let him have another three years to get the Plan up and running. Meanwhile the Right can develop their policies and prepare their candidate. 

by Tom Semmens on October 16, 2013
Tom Semmens

The proof of the pudding will be in the response. As far as I can tell from the anecdotal evidence of my quite wide range of work and personal colleagues and friends, there is a lot of giggling going on and there is no doubt that Len Brown's personal standing has taken a hit.

But most people don't really care. Assuming there is no revelation of inappropriate use of public money, this whole issue will be history next week. And what message will that send? It seems to me that the idea that any of us may be exposed to forensic panty-sniffing and salacious red-top muck racking by filth merchants like Slater and Cook in a society increasingly resigned to complete loss of privacy is re-setting public attitudes to revelations like this. More than anything, to a generation that puts all sorts of ill-advised stuff on public media, shame is becoming a luxury that few can claim.

by Eric Dutton on October 16, 2013
Eric Dutton

There is an elephant in the room.  The Herald today points out that adultery is not a crime.  The situation may not be that simple.  

In a christian marriage, consent is sought and granted by the exchange of vows, which involve, among other things, a lifetime commitment to exclusivity.  Consent is not sought prior to every single encounter, but is ongoing.  Consent may be withdrawn at any time of course.  However, the courts have, over recent years, clearly expounded the message that consent means informed consent.  The question then is "Does an unconfessed adultery invalidate the continuing consent implied by a christian marriage?" and therefore "Does a return to the marital bed after an undisclosed adultery constitute an unlawful sexual act?"

What this means for the Auckland mayoralty, or for that matter the Monarchy, is an open question for me.





by Graeme Edgeler on October 16, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

I think you've overstated the rule. I don't know how long it has been this way, but I understood it to be "it's private until it is public". They don't report mere gossip, or innuendo, or what "everyone knows" but when someone in the know speaks out, it gets reported. When Brian Connell speaks out about Don Brash, the gloves are off.

I don't think the understanding has been crossed. One of parties involved was talking. Even signed an affidavit. That it hasn't happened this way before doesn't mean it is inconsistent with what has happened in the past. When it's public, it's public.

by william blake on October 16, 2013
william blake

I quite agree; shoot this particular messenger.

and perhaps Len was seduced.

by Andrew Geddis on October 16, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Hang on. First you write:

As we know, no such rule exists in America where a politician's cheating is considered fit to print and worthy of public examination. It stems from that society's widespread Christian beliefs and its puritanical origins; but it also speaks to the high standing in which its leaders have long been held and the people's high expectations of those in public office.

And then you write:

Then again look at how John Kennedy could have compromised the office of the presidency ... .

So there's a disconnect there. The Washington press corp were well aware of what JFK got up to generally (even if not every single particular aspect of it). Just as they were aware of what FDR was up to with his private secretary (not to mention the fact he couldn't stand up, due to polio). And so on, and so on. Yet in all such cases, they remained silent.

So there certainly used to be a rule that the private was not public, even in the US. Then something changed. It wasn't that the US suddenly became more Christian and puritanical ... so what was it instead? 

by Graeme Edgeler on October 16, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

It wasn't that the US suddenly became more Christian and puritanical ... so what was it instead?

The simple answer is Watergate, and the loss of respect for the office and its holders that resulted from that, but I don't know whether there's any evidence at all to back this up.

by Tim Watkin on October 16, 2013
Tim Watkin

The thing Graeme is that it's not a passive process. It's whether a journalist goes looking for proof behind the gossip. I can think of various bits of gossip over the years that journos have chosen not to investigate.

I guess it's whether Chuang went to them (which, as you say is nothing new) or they heard a rumour and went after it. The Brash affair has been pointed out to me - he was hounded. So maybe not as clean cut as I was thinking last night. Still...

by Tim Watkin on October 16, 2013
Tim Watkin

Good question Andrew, and good point re Watergate Graeme. I'd also point to the religious encroachment into US politics, from around about Nixon and his harnassing of moral issues to win the South from the Democrats... and then Clinton et al.

by Tim Watkin on October 16, 2013
Tim Watkin

William, it comes back to power. Seduced or not, he's the one with the power in this relationship, Chuang said she wasn't thta keen except she was flattered because of who he was. Like a teacher or any other power figure, you have a certain responsibility.

I'm interested that I haven't seen much discussion of this as a feminist issue yet (not that I've read or seen everything). If it was a right wing leader I suspect that would have been noted by now.

by Graeme Edgeler on October 16, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

The Washington press corp were well aware of what JFK got up to generally...

Which US sex scandals have been broken by the Washington press corp?

by Andrew Geddis on October 16, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Which US sex scandals have been broken by the Washington press corp?

Gary Hart? Gary Condit?

by BeShakey on October 16, 2013

Like a teacher or any other power figure, you have a certain responsibility

Except in the case of a teacher the concern is usually that the other participant is somehow vulnerable. A better analogy is a lecturer. In that case the rule is usually, don't do it, but if you do manage it appropriately (e.g. by making sure key people are aware and avoiding potential conflicts). Unless there is actual evidence of abuse of power what responsibility should Brown have? It seems bizarre to me to suggest feminists should be lining up to say that a woman shouldn't sleep with someone in power because they are inevitably too feeble to be able to resist.

by BeShakey on October 16, 2013

I don't know how long it has been this way, but I understood it to be "it's private until it is public"

Sorry to double post, but this raises the interesting of issue of whether some blogs are being used to make issues public so the media can cover them, and what it means if that is the case. If that is what's happening and it becomes common practice, we're likely to be heading for a period of faux moral outrage before everyone gets sick of hearing about it and we return to normality.

by MJ on October 16, 2013

No one has mentioned Richard Worth- but the privacy and secrecy he was given was immense. This has been invasive, deliberate and nasty, and very tacky and sleazy.

There were complaints against Mr Worth, but about those we only know the complainant was a woman, and she wasn't friends with muckrackers. Or other stories about other policiticians which weren't even printed.

Let alone any number of other stories about power, betrayl and or potential conflicts of interests there are sloshing around the gossip of NZ political personal relattionships. But we don't really scandalise those.


by Matthew Percival on October 16, 2013
Matthew Percival

I want to take a slightly different angle on this.

Politicians from Barack Obama to John Palino use the media to paint themselves as family people. We all know the images, Barack, Michelle and the girls smiling and waving. John Key, Bronagh, Max and Steffi. Tony Abbott and family etc.

Clearly these politicians are showing themselves as family people because they believe they will secure more votes. So my question is why should the media ignore incidents that show these people are not/may not be family orientated individuals?

Is it any different to say false advertising on an election hording? Do the media not have a responsibility to report these sorts of incidents given the way politicians use the media to create a family orientated image of themselves?

by Tim Watkin on October 16, 2013
Tim Watkin

Shakey, you're welcome to post as much as you like! The point is sleeping with someone in power over them. Maybe I've been learning the wrong message all these years, but I thought men in positions of power weren't supposed to leverage that for sex. Then again, I've been told of other cases where politicians have done that without public scorn and can think of others where they ended up married, no complaint... So where's the line?

I'm not sure what you mean by blogs being "used to make issues public". Whaleoil did this all by themselves, not on behalf of other media. Indeed, if other media had this story and an affaidavity I'm sure they would have run it (in much less detail). There's no conspiracy here, but blogs of course want other media to follow up. I've broken stories on Pundit hoping that other media will report them and they have... just not ones of this fashion.


by Tim Watkin on October 16, 2013
Tim Watkin

MJ, my memory is different. The Worth story went on for ages... the woman was finally named, but she hardly swore an affidavit, which is the difference in this case. Brown's had a pretty light run, really, and it's only two days old! This one's more blatantly politically motivated than most and the detail's foul as I've written, but no more invasive and deliberate than others.

Remember Brash? He was hounded more than Brown's been thus far. Though I can't remember how his affair was broken...

by Tim Watkin on October 16, 2013
Tim Watkin

It's a question of degree Matthew. Sure some say it's absolutely none of our business, but as I've written I'm not sure it's that simple either. But most people haven't argued that the story shouldn't have run. And for pretty much for the reason you give. Plus the broader questions re trust, character, power etc. The criticism has been the way it's been run and the detail that went well beyond public interest to downright nasty... the blatant political power play involved... and the call for Brown to resign.

It can be a legitimate story to hold to account a mayor who parades his family and faith (somewhat), but that doesn't necessarily make it a job-losing story. That's open to debate.

by BeShakey on October 17, 2013

This story annoys me so I haven't read every article, so maybe I missed something, but is there any suggestion that Brown leveraged his power to force Chuang into a relationship? I thought you were simply saying that someone with any kind of power over someone should never have a relationship with them. My point was that, while that might sound like a nice idea, it isn't practical and seems to take an overly paternal approach to the person without power.

I also wasn't clear about my suggestion re: blogs. There has long been a suggestion that some blogs are being used to put items on the news agenda. Maybe the Herald would have covered this, but as you point out, without all the salacious details. By putting it out through WhaleOil the Herald gets licence to run the story and the salacious bits. My suggestion wasn't that the media was using blogs but that others were (the Herald's articles today make a strong case that Palino's campaign team played an important role in this all getting run through WhaleOil). My broader point was that if this becomes common (e.g. right wing politicians' misdeeds get a run on the standard) I suspect we'll see an awful lot of this stuff until people finally get sick of hearing about it all.

by MJ on October 17, 2013

I guess Worth was a lesser political figure- but yeah, my memory was that he was allowed to step down without anyone saying what he'd done and why he had to step down exactly. We didn't know if he was potentially a crook- and the way the government was happy to play along with Banks doesn't help us trust Key's judgement there- or if he was just a bit foolish and embarrassing to the government. The situation and consequences were of a minor soap, not a major political power play to boot I guess.

This is much more explosive, and will be interesting from a whole lot of angles. It certainly takes a facade off public life and makes some it more visible and human. 

There certainly weren't 3 or 4 websites updating intrusive details and with language designed to personally attack and insult. It didn't seem to be calculated campaign the way this one is. 

Again I think Brash's affair was more pertinent as he had cuddled up to groups such as Family First and the religious right and he was a repeat offender. But again that spoke to character not any suggestion of misuse of office IIRC.

Seems highly unfair on our Booker winner, WC equivalent, that she is drowned out by bad boy mayors, Banks and Brown, but that's how it is I guess. If it was a quiet news week she might have got a parade...

by Tim Watkin on October 18, 2013
Tim Watkin

Shakey, yep I can imagine if you want all the crap out there, a blogger is your go-to guy. Mainstream wouldn't stoop so low, except for a handful of exceptions. But as we've seen, there's blowback from that and it can hurt those trying to cause the pain.

My point around power was initially that her position on the Ethnic Advisory Council was at the mayor's appointment... now we have allegations around the job reference at the art gallery. But even more broadly I've heard many people over the years - mostly from a feminist stand-point - arguing that powerful men have no right starting affairs with younger women because of the power imbalance.

by Peter Matthewson on October 19, 2013
Peter Matthewson

I'm not sure what I think on the question of whether the old unwriiten rule should apply or whether there is a legitimate public interest in the fact that Len Brown has had an affair. However I think the amount of publicity in the media has been outrageous. I totally agree with your comments regarding the nature of the material on Whaleoil. But the mainstream media picked it all up and were not much better. Tim I undestand you work for TV3? On the TV3 News website on Tuesday night, Len Brown's affair had 3 minutes 11 seconds video, and 530 words of text, plus a further 11 minutes video and 304 words text on Campbell Live. On Wednesday morning there was a further  7 minutes 20 seconds of video, featuring an extended interview with Cameron Slater who you rightly describe as "the lowest common denominators in the media", and 533 words text.In contrast, the US govt fiasco had 56 seconds video and 683 words text. The earthquake in the Philippines which had killed 32 people at last count at the time had no video and 147 words text. This coverage of Len Brown's affair on national television seems grossly disproportionate, especially given its lack of relevance to anyone south of the Bombay Hills. Indeed I believe the coverage on TV3 breached the Broadcasting Standards and have complained accordingly.

Similarly in Wednesday morning's New Zealand Herald a full five pages were devoted to the Len Brown affair, presented in the sensational style of a British tabloid rather than a moderate and responsible newspaper. In contrast the Philippines earthquake got half a page, and the US government shutdown got half a page in the business section. There were four more pages on Thursday and so it has continued.

I consider that if smething like this should be reported at all, it should be one brief factual report without all the sensationalism.

by Tim Watkin on October 22, 2013
Tim Watkin

Peter, I think you're being a little willfully naive there. I work for TV3, but I think you'd find the same sort of coverage on TV1 and, as you noted, in the Herald... and elsewhere. RNZ has also given it extensive coverage, which continues this morning.

The journalists covering the story have never reported the sordid detail Whaleoil did, to their credit. So I think it's wrong to characterise that as "not much better". To compare it to world events is disingenuous. Big local news always trumps big international news. And whatever you think of the issue itself, significant numbers of voters are disaffected and arguably the third most powerful politician in the country is at risk of losing his job in an unprecedented fashion. Of course there's going to be extensive coverage.

In the US, Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner were much less household names than Len Brown prior to their sex scandals, but the stories were widely covered. It is, intrinsically, sensational news. There have been lies and cover-ups and people in hiding and political factions at play. All of that needed to be exposed and explained for the public good, so to expect a short factual report, well, I think you're kidding yourself. 

by Lynn Williams on October 22, 2013
Lynn Williams

It seems to me that the only issues relevant to Brown's mayoralty are whether he abused his authority by overtly or covertly coercing this women to have sex with him, and whether he misused Council resources at any stage. People of integrity in the media - there are some - need to report only on that and to keep the personal detail under control. It's hard though because, like Kim Dot Com,  it's the gift that keeps on giving.

There's no dispute - Brown behaved foolishly and in so doing he put his family in the line of fire. But the bullets came from the guns of Slater and Cook and the men whose interests they were serving. To continue the military analogy - they chose to use bullets that would inflict maximum collateral damage. 

I'd normally support the woman where there are traditional power imbalances in play - but I find it hard to see Chuang as a passive victim of an older, more powerful man who abused his authority.  There's no doubt that Brown was useful to her in achieving her goal of a career in local government and politics and when a better prospect came along she happily switched allegiances. She's a game player - you keep text messages either out of sentiment or as insurance and I seriously doubt that it was the former.

However, it can be very hard for women in politics - because it's so often so horribly blokey - and even harder for ethnic minority women. Chuang learned the hard way that being young and attractive is just not enough; staying safe in the minefield requires staunch allies. Having a clear ideological position also helps. She behaved opportunistically and got burned. They both behaved foolishly, possibly badly, and they both hurt innocent parties as a result - but Slater and Cook behaved dishonourably. I'd have expected nothing else.

by Siena Denton on October 24, 2013
Siena Denton

Kiaora. There is a "written rule" and it bears no relevance to that unsavoury and revealed sex scandal of Mayor Len Brown and Ms Chuang.

Cameron Slater is not someone I could ever befriend but he does raise a relevant issue when it comes to the Local Government Act 2002.

Specifically Section 41.4 of the LGA 2002

How about these rules Len? Do these apply to you?


Appointments of Justices of the Peace

Set out below is a statement on the procedures and general policies in respect of Justice of the Peace nominations, as issued August 2012 from the Associate Minister of Justice, Hon Chester Borrows.

"Although the office of Justice of the Peace does hold a status, the position is not an "honour" but one involving serious duties and responsibilities. Justices have the important responsibility of assisting to preserve the rule of law".


Personally, being raised to embrace my Māori culture, I'd like to see another room appointed as the Ngati Whatua Room.

Brown and his ladder-climbing concubine who is 32 years old, not 2 years old have defiled a relationship that was built-up between the Ngati Whatua ki Orakei Iwi and the Auckland City Council going back to the late 1990s.

The history of the fight by Ngati Whatua against government forces for the return of their whenua, Bastion Point is part and parcel of our history books and Brown and that concubine just trampled all over the mana of that long-hard fought for relationship of peace, undestanding and cooperation.

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