Days before the NSW Opposition Leader John Brogden would resign and attempt suicide, former BBC managing director John Birt criticized the British media for becoming too reliant on "easy cruelty" and the "desire to humiliate" (Guardian 27-8-2005). His words were prophetic about the Daily Telegraph's behaviour, which the following Wednesday brought its practice of hyena journalism to a new peak.
The reporting that led to Brogden's political downfall started in the Sunday Telegraph, with a column emanating from Canberra by Glenn Milne, based on sources in the Liberal Party. Milne described how at the end of the week when Premier Carr had resigned, Brogden, fuelled by beer and euphoria, behaved in poor taste after a function at the Hilton Hotel. His most important transgression was to describe Helena Carr as a mail order bride. In addition he behaved boorishly towards two female journalists.
The day after Milne's story, the Sydney media were full of Brogden's insult to the Carrs, and the reactions to it. Late that morning he resigned in front of a crowded press conference. The following morning's media naturally gave this political drama saturation coverage.
As the rest of the media were moving forward, the Telegraph, practising the well-established tabloid maxim that the best time to kick a man is when he's down, decided that Brogden's past life needed full exposure. Its first edition front page was headlined "Brogden's Sordid Past. Disgraced Liberal leader damned by secret shame file." Late Tuesday evening, however, Brogden attempted suicide, which of course again radically changed the media focus and tone.
The essence of hyena journalism is that they are scavengers rather than hunters; that they wait until a public figure has been politically wounded or worse before they become most aggressive; and that once that figure has lost power then standards of accuracy drop, and previous constraints are abandoned. It was after Brogden resigned as opposition leader that the paper went in hardest and most unfairly.
It is worth here cataloguing the transgressions alleged against Mr Brogden, which the Daily Telegraph thought deserved front page exposure. The original two, occurring on the evening of his slur against Helena Carr, and retailed by nearly all media following Milne's report, were that:
He pinched the bottom of a female reporter. with whom he has been friendly for 15 years, and apparently she did not take offence.
He propositioned a young woman in a bar, who turned out to be a reporter, by asking if she was available. She found his approach distasteful, and he retreated.
Then Wednesday's Telegraph included some more:
He proposed having a threesome to two reporters in the NSW press gallery at the end of a party, and said they were so attractive they should be in a nunnery.
He had an affair with a former staff member, such that his father in law told him to get rid of her.
He had been seen "in the company of a blonde woman" at a David Jones fashion launch.
The ABC's Media Watch program contacted the two press gallery reporters, who both emphatically denied the Telegraph's account, and were angered by it. Brogden and the former staff member had already denied having an affair, and Brogden's father in law denied to Media Watch that he had told Brogden to get rid of the staffer or that he had talked to the Telegraph. The blonde at the fashion launch remains unidentified.
Hyena journalism is manifested in this reporting firstly in the shifting and ambiguous boundary of what are matters of public interest. Decisions about what might remain unreported is different for those still in power from those in political trouble. One of the two incidents of Brogden's behaviour towards women on his fateful Friday night apparently caused no offence to the person concerned, but was still deemed worth publishing. The other incident was distasteful and inappropriate, but if all such incidents were reported they would fill the Daily Telegraph.
Beyond the shifting lines about what are acceptable topics for public reporting, a second aspect of hyena journalism is the radical lowering of standards of proof. Telegraph editor David Penberthy's only excuse for including the long account of the alleged affair with the former staff member was that it cleared her name of rumours, even though the paper's presentation of the story might lead one to believe the opposite. Again if all smutty unsubstantiated gossip about politicians were reported the paper might fill its pages just clearing people's names..
Rodney Tiffen is Professor in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. His books include Scandals: Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia (University of New South Wales Press, 1999)