COMMENT:

It is called "public life" for a reason.

For those in it, it is a life in which their private deeds or comment may be publicly exposed at any time, as former National MP Jami-Lee Ross and now Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie with whom he had an affair know.

Public life used to be synonymous with a dedication of service for the public good.

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Now it is a term more related to risk - the risk of one's actions being scrutinised and made public - and no more so than for Members of Parliament.

If people are being put off offering themselves for public life these days because of the level of scrutiny and risks, then so be it.

It comes with the territory especially in the ultra competitive modern media environment.

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

We know now that the private angry text tirade against Ross sent in August last year from Sarah Dowie's phone after the affair had ended is being investigated by the police, based on an anonymous complaint about it.

Ross revealed the investigation but the Herald decided to publicly reveal the name, without casting judgment on Dowie.

It is highly debatable whether the vitriolic text including the words "you deserve to die" was inciting Ross to end his life. She also incited him to change his hair.

Presumably the police in their investigation will look at what Jami-Lee Ross himself had said or done to her to provoke such abuse and whether it is really fair to highlight one phrase with no context.

But there are no suppression orders in place. And the revelation of a police investigation does not warrant a continuation of the self-censorship the media has applied collectively to not naming Dowie.

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Certainly if the bare facts of a police investigation had emerged today without the torrid backstory, it is difficult to imagine any media withholding the names of those alleged to be involved.

The real question is not whether she should be named now but why she was not named back in October during Ross' meltdown and expulsion from National.

By and large the New Zealand media is not too intrusive.

The unwritten rule in political journalism that affairs are not written about unless a) it is a known fact and b) that it has had an impact on the job and/or the party.

That test was clearly met in the case of Jami-Lee Ross, because last October he revealed the affair himself in the context of claims he had treated women badly which in turn, he said, had led to a mental breakdown which had led to his medical leave from his job – before he was accused of being the disloyal leaker of Simon Bridges' travel expenses to Newshub.

Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie with Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross. Dowie is currently under police investigation after sending a text message which allegedly caused Ross to consider self-harm.
Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie with Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross. Dowie is currently under police investigation after sending a text message which allegedly caused Ross to consider self-harm.

He did not mention Dowie in the lengthy live press conferences he held that week which the public were glued to, although he did name her in a pre-recorded interview with Newstalk ZB which the station decided to withhold.

Even when the existence of the text became known through the Whaleoil blog site shortly after Ross was sectioned, she was not named - except in the comments section.

There was no collective decision by media not to publish her name but collectively the media did not. And there were plenty of other aspects of the unfolding story on which to concentrate.

After Newsroom published a series of stories by women (unnamed but widely understood to include Dowie) setting out what they felt were ghastly experiences at the hands of a manipulative Ross, Dowie came to be regarded as a victim.

The #MeToo mindset prevailing last year was an added protection for Dowie. Certainly National had reason to try to protect Dowie from the sort of pressure that Ross was facing at the time, and to contain the scandal.

But the media's obligation at essence is to disclose unless there is a good reason not to.

The revelation this week by Ross about the police investigation into the text was a fitting time to exercise that obligation.

Dowie, formerly an Invercargill lawyer, should be able to survive politically if she wants to stay in politics and gives her electorate the respect it deserves. It is entitled to know she was a key player in a political scandal and that she is the subject of a police investigation.

Dowie certainly has a better chance of political survival than Jami-Lee Ross.

His lengthy statement this week ahead of re-entering public life weeps with remorse over the destruction of his career.

But some of the agonising detail contains a hint of someone who is not yet over the crisis - details for example about what was running through his mind (images of his 3-year-old daughter) as he stood on those Waikato railway tracks wondering whether to end it all before police found him.

And he still seems to be looking to blame others for his misfortune, albeit in a less frenzied way than last year.

He apologises and forgives in equal measure but paints himself as a victim,  as someone who spoke truth to power – ie telling Simon Bridges that he was not popular, of a heartless texter "telling me to kill myself" and as someone apparently not treated fairly when he was accused of leaking Simon Bridges' travel expenses.

Bizarrely he is modelling himself on Nelson Mandela who left Robben Island after 27 years with no bitterness.

In many ways Ross' statement can be seen as a veiled plea to his colleagues not to expel him from the Parliament.

In private letters to them he reminds them that he knows where their skeletons are buried from his previous job as senior whip, while promising to keep those secrets.

The really positive thing about Ross' statement is his advocacy for mental health awareness.

In the short term, that is where he has the most potential to rehabilitate himself with the public.

Perhaps he sees himself as a latter day Maurice Williamson who was suspended from the caucus under Bill English and reinstated under the next leader.

Jami-Lee Ross thinks he is ready to resume public life. The public will be the judge of that in due course.