By now, you will have seen the picture on the front page of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph featuring (for the moment at least) Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party Barnaby Joyce “eyeing off” his then media adviser, now partner (but why get hung up on how we “define” the relationship… oh wait, that’s actually quite important) Vikki Campion. “Bad Look”, the headline blares.
— Christopher Dore (@wrongdorey) February 13, 2018
If a picture says a thousand words, this one certainly says a lot. But what exactly? What, precisely, is the Telegraph’s choice to make a splash with this kind of photo saying? It’s how some might interpret the message, whether that was The Telegraph’s intention or not, that concerns me.
There’s the obvious reaction when you first see it. Okay, when I first saw it. This is pretty classic slut shaming. Campion is wearing a form fitting outfit, short skirt and (gasps for breath – all feminist now being retro-Victorians in need of smelling salts) make-up! How dare she? “Gosh corporate attire standards have certainly changed since my day,” is a pretty typical comment on Twitter.
Yes, there has been a divide in the countless hot takes on the Joyce affair about whether Campion is a grown woman who should weather the consequences of her consensual office affair that broke up a marriage, or whether it’s Joyce, the public figure, who deserves the scrutiny and publishing photos of a “vulnerable” pregnant woman on the front page of a national newspaper is fair.
Is re-branding the “vulnerable” pregnant women into a on-the -job sex kitten the Telegraph’s answer to its critics?
Then there’s the running debate about whether this whole sordid affair should have been exposed by the media in the first place, violating the long-held convention in the Australian press gallery that politicians’ “private” lives are private. What will happen now?
With photos like this accompanying the story, will we go down the path of America, and may I just add Britain (sorry, not at all defensive) and force our political journalists to divert their attention from important policy issues to become, in the words of the Guardian’s veteran political reporter Katharine Murphy, Canberra’s reluctant “sex correspondent”?
It’s an important question that has divided the media and turned into a story within this story. I personally, side with those who believe it was absolutely in the public interest. And I hold this view for all the obvious reasons: Joyce’s gross hypocrisy, given his past moralising on LGBTQI rights and women’s reproductive health, questions about the misuse of public funds, the double-standards applied to men and women in public life, and the abuse of power in conducting a workplace relationship, even a consensual one, with a much younger, more junior woman on his staff.
On the latter, I know I’m in a relatively small minority and likely to cop yet more flack for being the “moralising American”. But in the #MeToo era, many are reflecting again on the abuse hurled at Monica Lewinsky, and asking why, at the time, more questions weren’t asked about the power differential between the President of the United States of America and a very young intern in his office. But I digress.
To my mind, one of the most important cul-de-sacs the publication of this sensationalistic photo might send us down is the tendency to excuse men and hold women accountable for men’s behaviour, because, well, men really can’t help themselves. In that regard, this photo might actually help the besieged Joyce win sympathy, even if that was not the Telegraph’s intention. “My God, if she goes to work dressed like that, what’s a man to do?” a not insignificant number of people will ask.
How do I know that? Because they already do when it comes to rape. According to the 2014 VicHealth Community Attitudes survey, under the section entitled “attitudes excusing violence”, 43 percent of the Australian public believe rape results from men not able to control their need for sex. And the percentage of Australians who hold that attitude has increased 10 percent since 2009. When women report sexual assault, “What was she wearing,” is still a pretty common response.
I am by no means suggesting rape is the same thing as conducting a consensual office affair. But what this tells us about broader society’s view on who bears responsibility, in this case for rape, is telling. And it’s not too long a bow to draw to suggest that broader society also hold similar views in relation to who bears the responsibility for an extra-marital workplace affair that leads a good “fun-loving” Catholic, as Joyce is now being referred to, down the garden path.
If we continue to view male sexuality as uncontrollable, we will not make progress in tackling sexual harassment, rape, or violence against women more broadly. As Jessica Valenti recently wrote in the Guardian, “We cede something crucial: the belief that things can be better.”
So yes, I do want to read more about Joyce’s hypocrisy and his alleged misuse of public funds or abuse of power. All things Barnaby, and let’s keep our focus on him here, should carry the can for. And I take my hat off to the Telegraph for defying convention and running the original story in the first place. But I don’t want to see photos of a woman not so subtly implying Joyce, like all men, just can’t help himself.
Kristine Ziwica tweets at @KZiwica.