Matthew Johns is his own best judge

Daily TelegraphChannel 9 stood down rugby league star Matthew Johns last week, not because his behaviour was immoral or illegal, but for commercial reasons. That is the view of Harold Mitchell, Australia's best known buyer of television advertising time.

He told ABC Radio: 'Advertisers in my experience are very sensitive to public opinion because it lands on their doorstep very quickly in the form of sales.'

New Zealand police did not charge Johns over his involvement in a 2002 group sex incident in Christchurch, as they could not see that he'd broken any law. It was commentary after last week's ABC Four Corners investigation that was labelling it 'rape'. Significantly the public appears to have followed the leadership of opinion and judged it as such.

While Channel 9's decision looks self-serving, the commercial logic that governs it can at least seen to be democratic. That is, it ensures the community's standards of common decency are reflected in what is shown on commercial TV. However the court of public opinion is heavily influenced by the dominant media commentary, and its power must not be allowed to eclipse that of the more traditional forms of arbitration, the civil courts and private conscience.

Last week the British were preoccupied with media revelations of obscene — though not necessarily illegal — expense claims by government MPs. Financial regulation expert Joe Egerton wrote in Eureka Street's sister publication Thinking Faith that the court of public opinion has a place, and of course a vital say in the fate of the MPs under scrutiny:

'[If an MP] takes a public stance that some well publicised and controversial claim was in order, we are also entitled to ask whether we are going to vote for a person who thinks that that sort of claim is proper to make on the public purse.'

But Egerton stresses this point: 'Most claims will have been entirely proper. Not all of the reporting is fair and proper.'

That is why popular judgments must be tested by civil law and, most importantly, one's own personal law — conscience. As Egerton says: 'This is not a matter of our judging an MP's actions. This is a matter of each MP judging his or her own actions.'

The MP may well be confined to electoral oblivion by what the people think when they come to vote, just as commercial reality has ended Matthew Johns' career, at least for now. But it's the final judgment — and its anticipation — that really matters. Egerton quotes St Ignatius of Loyola: 'Imagine I am on my deathbed and then ask, 'what would I like to have done?’
Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Matthew Johns, rugby league, football, conscience, popular opinion



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Existing comments

Yes, and Channel 9 has its own conscience, I have mine etc, etc. Point is, do we want the world to think we find Johns' behaviour is acceptable? As a media personality he is an example to young players and a role model to young people in general. Whether what he did was legal or not is not the point. People responding by not purchasing advertised products are voicing their disapproval ... and that is down to their consciences.
A Perkins | 18 May 2009

Thanks Michael for giving Eureka Street readers an opportunity to dwell and comment on the deeper currents of this issue.

Some discussion has been focused on the issue of consent, but many people forget that the issue of consent - particularly in matters of sexual activity that come under the scrutiny of the Law in this nation has changed dramatically in the years since 2002 when the footballers and their waitress had their night of 'innocent' fun.

Consent, according to recent decisions of the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal, is not a once only matter, it is ongoing for the entire sexual activity. That is, each participant is under the protection of the Law for the entire activity and even more importantly, each participant must ensure the consent of those directly involved with the activity at every 'twist and turn' so to speak.

That, said by the Law, what is left is an admission by society and its legislators, that group sexual encounters are so problematic with regards to the issue of consent that such activities cannot have the protection of the Law and therefore, must be seen as illegal and punishable by the Law.

Morality is no longer a term that can be used by anyone, Church, State or individuals because it can no longer be quantified or qualified and integrated into Law. What needs to be done now to offer some protection for the State, and, in doing that, its citizens, is to focus on matters that oblige all to implement the Law which is legislated for. In the Church we have the decalogue and Christ's dual commandment to love God and love others as we love ourselves. Such clarity should be welcomed by Jews, Muslims and Christians and matched by all who want to enjoy citizenship of the State.

We need to investigate as well how the disintegration of morality as we knew it has allowed various individuals and groups within the media industry to 'control' debate on the matters which they raise 'in the public interest' as, for now, it is certainly one dominated by commercial interests rather than at uncovering a way forward for all those concerned, including us as a State.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 18 May 2009

Peer pressure doubtless played a huge part in the behaviour - and not just that of the immediate moment but a team (game?) culture that appears to see women only as objects of male satisfaction (reward for effort?) I wonder how the wives of men who do this sort of thing feel about themselves......
Hilary | 18 May 2009

Separating the issues in the Matthew Johns' affair is as difficult as separating the ingredients of Five Spice. And they do need to be separated if a proper analysis - be it moral, social, pharmaceutical, psychological - is to be made. In much of the media coverage there seemed to be a reluctance to find out what part alcohol (or any other drug) played in the whole episode. The Porter in Macbeth nailed the connection between alcohol and sex when he told Macduff:
"Lechery, sir, it (drink) provokes and unprovokes; it provokes the desire but it takes away the performance."
Uncle Pat | 18 May 2009

Aren't you being rather dewy-eyed to assume that Johns has a conscience?

The mea culpa deathbed image of Johns with his conscience pricking is very amusing. He and his mates would certainly need to be "blessed" with a very long stretch on their deathbeds.
Kerry Bergin | 19 May 2009

Don't kid yourself that public opinion is against Matthew Johns and the rest of his pack. If you don't believe me, just go and read the comments on some of the popular blog sites.
Tom Jones | 22 May 2009


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