It seems the answer is “probably”. Otherwise, why would they use their national news network to get back at a student who wrote anonymously about her internship at the Herald Sun in a student newspaper?
I’m not going to name the student here because she chose to publish the piece anonymously and I’m going to respect that. Here’s a quick recap: a university student wrote a piece about the transphobic, sexist, and generally offensive-in-most-workplaces attitudes she encountered in a few people in the Herald Sun newsroom. It was published in Melbourne University publication Farrago a few weeks ago, and hit twitter this week. The number of people who discuss the MSM on twitter is reasonably small, which is why the Herald Sun‘s reaction seems even more over the top.
The Herald Sun lodged a fairly petty complaint with her university, saying she didn’t bring it up in the newsroom (ie, the work experience kid didn’t take on the senior journalists) and she didn’t give them the right of reply (I’ll get to that bit in a minute). But instead of just making a complaint to the university, the Herald Sun gave the student’s name to The Australian, where it was run in the media section, thereby making a much larger audience aware of the Farrago piece. Hello Streisand Effect. Streisand aside, it’s bullying and silencing, designed to scare her and scare anyone else who thinks of writing something negative about their newsroom.
Now, I’m willing to believe that the student and the Herald Sun weren’t a good ideological match. We’ve all been there. I’m also willing to believe that there are some jerkheads in that newsroom, because why would it be different to any other workplace? But really, an official complaint because a student said something bad about a few unnamed people? Puh-lease. And complaining that they weren’t given the right of reply is simply ridiculous. The right of reply when it comes to opinion pieces means you get your say in the next issue. Derrr. The Herald Sun knows this, of course, but is relying on most people not thinking about it. Editor-in-chief Phil Gardner wrote to the university’s internship co-ordinator, Hugh McNaughtan (and obviously, gave the letter to other media outlets):
“It is ironic that [she] criticises the supposed bias of Herald Sun reporters and lack of balance in Herald Sun reports, yet at no stage in the drafting of her Farrago article did [she] offer HWT a right of reply to any of the criticisms raised.”
Actually, she didn’t criticise these things at all. She criticised the attitudes she encountered in a few of the journalists, and how the whole experience killed her love of journalism. Sounds kinda like Gardner is pretty sure his comments will be reported without anyone checking if she did actually write the things he said she did. Welcome to modern journalism, where there’s more fact-checking in the features in your pay tv guide than there is on masthead websites. And I know because I’ve worked for both.
There was one sentence that caused much debate on twitter, about whether it’s sexist or manners to hold a door open for someone:
Men were also continuously and unnecessarily sexist, waiting for me to walk through doors and leave the elevator before them.
When I read that, assumed she meant that some of the men made sure she walked in front of them so they could leer at her arse. Women don’t make this shit up. We’ve had a lifetime of putting up with that sort of behaviour to recognise it immediately.
That the public discussion quickly became about the student is evidence of two things: 1) that no one was really surprised to hear that there are jerks in a tabloid newsroom; and 2) that as soon as you say “sexist”, a whole lot of people are pretty quick to say the problem is you. You’re being too sensitive. You’re too naive. In my twitter timeline, there was a lot of discussion about the door-holding bit, as though that was the most important thing in the opinion piece.
Criticising a student for being naive is a bit like criticising a teenager for being young. Actually, it’s exactly like that. Of course young students don’t have experience in adult workplaces, THEY’VE BEEN IN HIGH SCHOOL AND THEN UNIVERSITY. And the kind of idealism that people are criticising her for having – about newsrooms being inspiring places where you write important stories and make a difference – is absolutely needed in journalism graduates. Without the hope of being able to write real stories soon, you wouldn’t make it through your first year with all the crap leads you have to chase and all the shitty media releases you have to re-write. And yes, all the senior journalists who talk to your boobs. That last bit doesn’t change all that much, and I’ve worked with lots of thirty-something colleagues who are too stupid to know that when you’re facing someone, they can see where you’re looking.
What a lot of people seem to have forgotten is that calling her naive doesn’t mean her experience in the Herald Sun newsroom is somehow invalid. In my 10 years as a journalist, I’ve worked for some excellent editors who have treated everyone with respect and made me want to do a great job of anything they assigned me. I also had one editor who would call people “fucking idiots” if they disagreed with him. Another editor tore a junior journo a new arsehole in front of everyone just for being three minutes late. Another editor would put her byline on stories that she subbed. In front of mine. So it appeared that she did most of the work. I told one news editor that I wasn’t comfortable creating a photo gallery of images of a famous person’s relative pulling cones because I thought it was a complete violation of that person’s privacy. The response: “If you’re so precious, why don’t you go and get a job with Green Left Weekly“. (To the editor’s credit, when I came in to work the next day, there was an apology in my inbox.) I have no doubt that those editors would say that I was difficult to work with, and there are times when that has been true. The thing is, some of the daily behaviour I’ve seen in newsrooms would be front-page news if it was in another industry, and journalists would be falling over themselves to run stories saying that it’s unacceptable.
So, what did the student write about the newsroom that was so bad?:
On the sixth day, a senior journalist sitting across from me repeatedly made transphobic comments to a peer who was discussing a potential story on a trans person with him. His remarks included, “He? She? It?”, “There has to be a photo of it” and “You should put the heading – ‘My Life As A She-Man!’ or ‘G-Boy’”. No one in the newsroom reacted.
Referring to a person as “it” is pretty fucked up. Using the correct term isn’t about being politically correct, it’s about not being ignorant.
To me, the real problem is not the senior journalist being a jerkwad, but the editor and the rest of the editorial team encouraging his jerkwadness. Because when no one pulls you up for being a jerkwad, the message is, “what you just said is fine, please carry on”.
In The Conversation, RMIT lecturer Alexandra Wake writes:
I’ve always said that if you want to change something, you need to be part of it. It can’t be done from the outside. Individual people do have agency, and they can change things – given the right institutional environment.
That’s a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it? When it comes to institutional change, the most effective change comes from the top. It comes from the editor saying certain comments are not welcome in the newsroom, and then enforcing it. And there should be genuine diversity training (and hiring practices), because newsrooms are one of the least diverse workplaces you’ll find. It’s not about telling people to change their attitudes, or “sending the attitudes underground”. It’s about showing people how their attitudes affect others. And, if they continue to show a lack of respect for other people, then it’s time to show them the door.