The Age shows a surprising lack of Fearless Good Judgement

Vile, obscene and offensive. That’s how the Herald Sun described tweets that comedians Wil Anderson and Catherine Deveny made about the Logies. And reading the sensationalist outrage the Herald Sun whipped up about them, I was reminded of Julian Morrow’s brilliant talk at the Andrew Olle Media Lecture last year. Co-founder of The Chaser and executive producer of their controversial War on Everything television program, Morrow knows a lot about public outrage.

The Deveny tweets are a perfect example of what Morrow meant when he described the ‘primary and secondary audiences’. The primary audience is the target of the media production. They’re the people that tune in each week to watch a TV show, the people that buy a particular newspaper regularly or subscribe to a magazine. The primary audience is also the followers of a Twitter user, fans of a Facebook page or subscribers of an RSS feed. The secondary audience, as Julian put it, are those who “come to access controversial content because it’s controversial”. And that’s what the Deveny tweet scandal is all about.

I was following Catherine Deveny’s tweets during the Logies (I was watching The West Wing though, which was infinitely more enjoyable). A few times I raised my eyebrows at some of her tweets, before shrugging and chuckling to myself. “That Deveny, she’s always stirring!” I thought. It didn’t bother me, because I knew I could expect that from her. I was her primary audience. The problem comes with the secondary audience gets involved. When the Herald Sun published selected tweets from her and Anderson – focusing of course on the more extreme – it sparked an outcry of disparaging comments. “What an obscene, nasty, vile woman she is” said one comment. “Absolutely disgusting,” said another, “making fun about molestation and paedophelia about an 11 year is disgusting”.

The old adage “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it” applies in new media just as it did in old media. If you don’t want to be shocked by Deveny’s tweets, if you want to live in a narrow-minded bubble, don’t follow her on Twitter.

Unfortunately, on Tuesday night The Age editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge sacked Deveny, saying her tweets were “not in keeping with the paper’s standards”. Which is odd, because her tweets have nothing to do with the paper. She wrote a column once a week for The Age, but these tweets were made on her own personal Twitter account, which clearly is not at all affiliated with The Age. As Jeremy Sear wrote on Crikey, “off-colour or not, her joking remarks were not in the context of her work for The Age. A personal Twitter feed, whether ‘public’ or not, is not a newspaper column”.

Sacking Deveny has prompted a massive backlash on Twitter and the blogosphere. Comedian Daniel Blurt lamented that “to be sacked for cherry-picking from over 30 Logies tweets reveals truths about the media and this country that are almost too distressing to contemplate.” Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham blogged that “The Age have enjoyed her aggressive, provocative, and sometimes extremely irritating, style for some years but of course once she made a sexual crack about a child, well the sky fell in”. Morrow tweeted that  “deciding to employ Catherine Deveny is debatable but [The Age] sacking her now is deplorable. Ramadge: gutless, unprincipled, wrong”. Others saw the whole affair as a punchline: “I hope I don’t get fired for using my twitter stream to declare that @triplejdoctor is a VAGINA” tweeted Triple J’s Paul Verhoeven. The fake Andrew Bolt tweeted: “We gave Sam Newman a job on MTR just because he IS offensive”.

It’s clear from the huge backlash on Twitter that The Age acted rashly by sacking Deveny. They could have taken the Herald Sun head on and said “no, we are not the arbiter of social debate, we do not succumb to crass sensationalist journalism from rival newspapers”. But instead they folded, sacked her and lost the chance to prove themselves better. Julian Morrow said that “the temporary insanity of editorial crises does slowly abate and fearless good judgement can re-emerge with time”. But in the rush to placate readers from a rival paper, they capitulated. Let us hope The Age regains its fearless good judgement when the next scandal breaks.