|Issue No 43||24 February 2000|
By Kath Kenny
The coverage of Jennie George's final days as ACTU President were a case study in the art of psycho-tabloid.
It is generally accepted that journalists' skills lie in being able to hunt out the days' news and put together adjectives and verbs and commas in roughly the right order. So why do so many behave as if they are a cross between a Freudian analyst, headmistress of an etiquette school and part-time career counsellor?
When Jennie George announced she was suddenly stepping down as ACTU president late last year, journalists worked themselves up into a minor tizz analysing her "fragility", her "ego" and her "emotional" personality.
Rather than record her past achievements or failures, or the future of the union movement, journalists were more concerned to describe in great detail George's tears and "unceremonious" back door escapade through a car park, apparently to "evade her biographer" - the Sydney Morning Herald's industrial editor Brad Norington. This latest bout of character analysis seems to have been brought on by the unsourced, but widely accepted, speculation that her earlier-than-.expected departure was a result of George feeling miffed by the attention that was being bestowed on her heir-apparent, Sharon Burrow.
The Australian's Michael Bachelard saw fit to devote much space to remarks by George's colleagues about her "lack of self-confidence" and "oversensitivity to criticism". The same colleagues apparently favourably compared Burrows, a teacher's union boss, as being in a "stable relationship with husband Peter, [with] two grown children" - in contrast to the single George. They pointed to Burrow's "powerful sense of her self-worth which will buffer her against the doubts that assailed Ms George". Burrow's sexuality, safely tethered to the home, apparently makes her a more easily known and domesticated force than the volatile, emotional and unpredictable George.
The feminist movement might have coined the term "the personal is political", but in this age of celebrity, it seems that all too often it is only the personal which is political. A woman in position of power is a fascinating thing, and some journalists seem almost obscenely obsessed with dissecting the minds of these beings. It's as if they need to find the fatal flaw that will lead to her eventual downfall, or the freakish gene that has seen them achieve what no other woman before them has achieved.
Readers are not blameless either - in a world where we want to know more and more about people we care less and less about, our appetite for reading the personal stories of those we have no personal relationship with is bigger than ever. Who could have blamed Norington for jumping at the offer to write the story of this singular woman? His biography of George was, as it turned out, an unofficial one, but she co-operated over many months of interviews and even launched the book last year at NSW Parliament House.
Tellingly, though, George told the launch audience that she regretted her story could not be told by a female journalist - citing how few women had reported on industrial relations for as long as Norington had. She suggested that a woman would perhaps have been more sensitive to how important her female friends and colleagues had been in her career and personal life. As it is, Norington's biography devoted a seemingly inordinate amount of time putting George's relationship to men under the scrutiny of his nascent psychologist's gaze. While he acknowledged the powerful influence of her Russian-born mother in her life, it is George's absent father, and her relationship with men, including the iconic BLF leader Jack Mundey, that are endlessly worked over and painted as crucial in her political and intellectual development. Her first kiss, her loss of virginity, whether she was still having sex with this one before she started to have sex with that one, are all laid bare with the seriousness of detective finding vital evidence to solve a crime. Understand a woman's sex life and you understand her mind, seemed to be the message here.
But God forbid George show as much interest in men's sexuality as Norington does in hers. Norington's biography describes George's former Teachers Federation colleagues as being agog at her habit of querying of their love life. It's a tale told by Norington - without the slightest hint of irony - to illustrate her supposed social incompetence (and what a sin that trait is in a woman).
Norington's real obsession, however, is how George's behaviour affects the men in her life. When George first announced her retirement plans last August and her interest in a NSW Upper House seat, he wrote an article that practically agonised over the difficult position this put the Labor machine men in. In a bit of brotherly advice he even warned them of the trouble that lurked behind her "demure" façade: "based on her emotional temperament, her agitation is likely to become a crescendo over the next year" he wrote.
He even threw in a bit of free career advice: "While it is possible she may believe a ministry in the Carr government would befit her senior status, the demands involved, given her desire for an easier life, suggest that she would be better served not to seek one if she makes it to parliament". The whole point of this piece, its news value, seemed to be summed up when Norington wrote that George was "probably the closest she has come to walking directly over the ambitions of others to get what she wants". Note that she hadn't actually stepped over anyone at that stage: but the fact that a high-profile woman was close to doing so was presumably news-worthy enough.
In the Review section of another edition of the Herald, Norington warmed up to his couch-side perspective of the George psyche, sagely telling readers that her decision "revealed the inner workings of her mind". Like a parent disciplining an oldest child, Norington condescendingly attempted to put George in her place: "It may have pained George but it is a political reality that once someone in a prime position in public life decides to go, it is inevitable that attention will turn to a successor", he wrote.
In her book The Journalist and the Murderer, New York writer Janet Malcolm likens the relationship between a journalist and their biographical subject to a narrative of romance and betrayal. The journalist seduces and attempts to gain the trust of a public figure, who, in turn, tells their story in the belief that it will be faithfully portrayed to readers. A journalist's profession demands they are an ear to all while keeping any opinions for the piece that is eventually published. Meanwhile, their subject's self-absorption means they are unable to let go of the illusion that the journalist will see them exactly as they see themselves. The relationship is almost bound to come crashing down in acrimony when, after eventually reading the journalists' take on their tale, the subject painfully realises their intimacy has been betrayed, and that the journalist was always going to write their own story.
The degeneration in this romantic narrative between George and Norington now threatens to draw in other journalists who report the fall-out like installments of a soap opera. The Sydney Morning Herald's Debra Jopson wrote of George's tactics to evade Norington, who, in his pursuit of her, was stationed outside the room where she made her resignation announcement. As competition between journalists to 'get the story' grows, forcing ever more cosy but precarious alliances between the reporter and the reported-upon, we can only expect that these sorts of dramas will unfold across the news pages with greater frequency.
Beware, Sharan Burrow, of any shady-looking characters with ink-stained fingers, seductively sidling up to you late at night with offers of the mutually aggrandising project of a biography.
Interview: Parting Gestures
Outgoing ACTU president Jennie George looks back on her time at the helm and charts some challenges for young women in the union movement.
Unions: While We Were Sleeping
It’s been a long hot summer for Australian workers - from the showdown in the Pilbara to the victorious National Textile workers. We look at the stories Workers Online missed while we were in the banana chair.
Media: Freudian Slips
The coverage of Jennie George’s final days as ACTU President were a case study in the art of psycho-tabloid.
Legal: Cookies’ Fortune
The breakaway union led by a man personally backed by the Prime Minister has been refused registration in a ruling that raises questions over the whole enterprise.
Politics: True Deceivers
In his controversial new book, Andrew Scott argues that Labor's rhetoric has outstripped its achievements.
Review: Rebel With a Cause
A new Michael Moore has emerged at the frontline of subversive television. His technique? Combining organising with silly suits.
Satire: Victorian ALP shock: "Apparently We're in Power!"
A recent survey conducted by the Victorian State ALP has revealed that the party is in government.
International: Right Hand Drive
The rise of the extreme Right in Austria carries some important lessons for our own society.
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