The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about an item in The Australian Financial Review's "Rear Window" column on 9 March 2012. The item referred to “reality TV premier Kristina ‘Kim Kardashian’ Keneally”. This allusion to the US celebrity in connection with Ms Keneally had been made previously in Parliament by the current NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell, and the columnist thanked him for this “wonderful gag”.
Ms Keneally’s husband, Ben Keneally, complained that the column had not merely reported Mr O’Farrell’s comment but had endorsed it, thereby causing hurt and distress to him and his wife because of the celebrity’s negative reputation. He said the reference was deliberately offensive and hostile to women in politics, and it breached the Council’s principles precluding gratuitous references to gender. He also said that the columnist should have disclosed that, at least until recently, he was very active in the Liberal Party. Ms Keneally supported her husband’s complaint.
The newspaper responded that the reference was light-hearted and was clearly derived from widely-reported comments made in Parliament. It pointed out that Ms Keneally had responded in Parliament to Mr O’Farrell by comparing him to the same celebrity. It said the column's editor Joe Aston had ceased being a “political staffer” for the Liberal Party more than five years ago and had ceased to be a member of the party almost two years ago. It also said that the main point of the item in question had been to criticise a Liberal Minister.
Mr Keneally had unsuccessfully asked the newspaper for a private apology and undertaking not to repeat the allusion. The newspaper had offered to publish a reply by him, but he declined the offer as being insufficient.
The Press Council has concluded that this particular comment was not so offensive as to outweigh the very great importance in the public interest of allowing robust public discussion. It has also concluded that the allusion to Ms Kardashian did not constitute a gratuitous reference to her gender or that of Ms Keneally. Accordingly, these aspects of the complaint are not upheld.
In arriving at this conclusion, however, the Council did not adopt the view that politicians or other public figures should be regarded as “fair game” for personal abuse in the media. Indeed, it firmly rejects that view and notes the great importance in the public interest of people being willing to enter public life without fear of severe and repeated denigration on grounds which are not reasonably relevant to their public responsibilities. This consideration must be taken into account when weighing up various aspects of the public interest.
The Council has concluded that the columnist’s past political involvement was sufficiently substantial and recent that in some circumstances it would need to be disclosed. This could apply, for example, if the columnist made severe or sustained criticisms of a person who had been a political adversary (whether or not outside his own party). However, such circumstances did not apply in this instance and accordingly this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of the Council’s General Principle 6: "readers should be advised of any … potential conflicts of interest"; General Principle 7: "Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence"; and an aspect of General Principle 8: "Publications should not place any gratuitous emphasis on the ... gender ... of an individual ... Where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report and express opinions in these areas."