“RUGBY PLAYERS FINED OVER NAKED BATH ROMP”; WHO WOULDN’T READ A SALACIOUS STORY LIKE THAT? SCANDALS HAVE BECOME THE NORM IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA, AND NEW ZEALAND IS NO EXCEPTION, AS STACEY KNOTT FINDS.

We love to judge, to apply our own morals to other people’s situations and bask in the glory that we “would never do that.” When someone does do something so outrageous or wrong, and word gets around, we salivate over it. A scandal is just that, the vocal outrage at someone’s actions which are publicised, and that mainly means through the media. For a scandal to survive there should be multiple layers and to keep it relevant, information needs to be drawn out slowly and deliberately. It must involve sex, misuse of power, tax payer’s money and celebrities, preferably all at once, and it doesn’t all have to be true.

The biggest victim of scandals, hands down would go to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. With his recent untimely death scandal has erupted like never before.

Previously he has made headlines for alleged child molestation through to buying the bones of the Elephant Man, while most can agree some of the things he did was odd, like all celebrity scandals, unless you personally know the person, it’s hard to make judgements when all you are given is headlines like “Michael Jackson wants to live with leprechauns” or “Michael Jackson can hear through his nose.”

Since his death on June 26 (NZ time) magazines and papers have been speculating over him committing suicide, being murdered, whether his children are his after all, and who he was seeing before his death, amongst other things.

Jackson was hounded by the media and being intensely famous at a very young age, and being in the public eye his whole life, took its toll.

Jackson once told a reporter; “Why not just tell people I’m an alien from Mars. Tell them I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight. They’ll believe anything you say, because you’re a reporter. But if I, Michael Jackson, were to say, “I’m an alien from Mars and I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight”, people would say, “Oh, man, that Michael Jackson is nuts. He’s cracked up. You can’t believe a damn word that comes out of his mouth.”

This statement does reflect the power the media has, we can say these things as a credible source, but do you really want to hear them? Not really, says Unitec communications lecturer Ed Mason.

Mason believes scandals are inconsequential.

“It’s an overabundance of resources focussed on the inconsequential story which often comes down to celebrity.”

He says the public don’t really care about scandals; it is the media pushing them.

Locally, New Zealanders have had a great scandal to gossip over recently – the alleged actions of now ex National MP Richard Worth. Last month Worth resigned as an MP because he had become the centre of a police investigation over a complaint of a sexual nature.

Interest from the media and the public flared, especially when a second, unrelated complaint came out, of a similar nature.

One of those women, Neelam Choudary, said Worth had said sexually explicit things through text messages and phone calls, and also offered her government jobs.

Worth rejected the claims, and rumours emerged that he hit the high seas on a friend’s yacht to escape the circus.

Mason says while the Worth scandal seemed to be all about sex, that might not really be the issue at all, as is usually the case with scandals.

“It may be constitutional and political but John Key won’t tell us, so what we get is a hint of sexual scandal but we don’t get any or very little commentary of the political and constitutional implications of a Government minister.”

For this issue, Mason says the onus lies with the political communications people within the National Party who have been so tight-lipped over the incident, which left the media and public to speculate and guess.

A recent international political scandal that involved tax-payers’ money proved to be paper-seller. In May, British papers reported on British MPs’ claiming expenses for things like dredging a moat at a country house, hiring tax advisors, renting homes from their relatives and friends and installing a duck pond. The scandal embroiled over a dozen MPs across all parties, led the Speaker of the House to quit, and about 20 MPs will stand-down at the next election. It seriously affected Labour’s popularity. By all accounts, it was a great scandal, because new details were leaked daily and the British public was outraged, which made superb headlines, British tabloid The Sun was full of gems, such as “A message from the little people to MPs: You disgust us”.

“…Scandal has become the norm in the media. it is not just the reserve of the tabloids and women’s magazines.”

Herald business columnist Deborah Hill Cone wrote a piece in June with this scandal in mind, titled Scandal Chasers Selling us Short.

She says the Herald on Sunday was gagging for its own version of the British scandal, asking NZ MPs to disclose their expense claims.

“This story about MPs’ expenses says more about the media’s arrogance than it does about MPs’ profligacy. What riles the media is that politicians have insisted the expenses remain exempt from the Official Information Act. Journalists, already feeling as useful as stamp collectors, hate being told no. Put aside all the lofty posturing about transparency and public interest; journalists are simply looking for another Tuku’s underpants-sized scoop that will sell some newspapers,” she wrote.

She says that the more journalists pursue a scandal, the more the public-their readers- lose respect for their role as the fourth estate.

“Journalism will become a hobby unless we can show we add real value – not just prurient entertainment.”

However, isn’t also the public’s responsibility to stop reading scandals if they are so concerned about reporting standards? It seems like a chicken verse egg scenario, which came first, the people’s desire for scandal or the journalist’s willingness to write it? For example, at the time of writing this, the top viewed stories on stuff.co.nz were “Beckham’s nanny says sorry” about a nanny who went public with confidential information about celebrity couple, Victoria and David Beckham, and “Fountain wee woman hands herself in” – a Napier woman caught on security tape urinating in a cathedral fountain one night.

Mason says people do like to read about such things, but because there is a lack of choice scandal has become the norm in the media. It is not just the reserve of the tabloids and women’s magazines.

He likens the offerings by New Zealand media to that of being offered Wendys, Burger King or McDonalds, when he wants real food. He says there is no respect for the audience because of the lack in choices of media to consume.

“Where is the non-tabloid, non-scandal and non-celebrifacation news?” he asks.

Mason believes the values in the media matches those on talkback radio; scandal, shocking statements and attention grabbing debates, nothing of educational substance.

He says it is not so much the journalist’s faults, but the corporate media model, where money is the biggest aim.

Lack of respect for the subject matter brings to mind the alleged child-father, Alfie Patton, whose delicate image was sent global earlier this year, when British tabloids reported the then 13-year-old allegedly got his 15-year-old girlfriend pregnant, while later DNA testing showed the baby was not Alfie’s, the fact that kids so young were having sex, outraged us.

But was it wrong for the child to be pushed to the limelight to such a degree? Child parents is nothing new, but as it was revealed it was the parents of the young mother who cashed in on the scandal, but then, if the tabloids weren’t asking for the story, it would have all gone unnoticed.

Tony Veitch was another local celebrity who brought scandal to his name, when it was discovered he had beaten up an exgirlfriend so bad, that he broke her back and tried to pay her off to keep it silent.

Veitch’s wife begged the media to leave her husband alone, saying he was suffering depression and suicidal thoughts over the incident – it was reported he attempted suicide at least three times.

He resigned from Television New Zealand and Radio Sport after the allegations were made public.

Scandals are what NZ Truth paper does well. Senior reporter Jock Anderson says they often take a different angle on stories the mainstream media are doing, for example, over the Tony Veitch saga, Truth reported the way the court proceedings were manipulated.

Anderson says that was a scandal as there were alterations to Veitch’s character references and attempts to pervert the course of justice. Anderson believes people’s attraction to scandal is part of human nature, “people are gossips, they love sensation and shock”, he says. Anderson says there are classic Truth stories, like the recent “randy doctor and his rural romps with a married woman”, and it is these that the paper is probably best known for.

He agrees with Mason over the quality of news in New Zealand, with the focus on scandal and celebrity becoming more prominent.

“What you see in the news is the kind of stories like a celebrity who has an ingrown toenail, and how can they deal with that…or a story on a walk-on extra on Shortland Street who is a celebrity in their lunch hour, to me that is rubbish but more and more media see that as a cheap and easy way of trying to titillate people, but by the same token you have to ask if this is so great why is the circulations of most of these papers going down?

“The public are pretty discerning at what they look for, you can only feed the public so much rubbish for so long, these days there are hundred of places to get information.”

He says scandalous stories like “Rugby players fined over naked bath romp” are pretty insignificant, and people may click on them just to divert their attention for a few minutes.

“These are stories that never change the pattern of civilisation, its light-hearted, we don’t want to be reading doom and gloom all the time.”

Words by Stacy Knott.