Is the Herald Sun scared of a student?

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.

17 responses to “Is the Herald Sun scared of a student?

  1. Yes for a media organization that doesn’t lose an opportunity to rage at “Political Correctness Gone Mad!!!” what precious little pearl clutchers they have at the HUN.

    They talk about this intern as naïve & sheltered but jeez didn’t take much for these so- called seasoned professionals to call for the smelling salts and a fainting couch. Sound just as cloistered in their little culture.

    As for changing from the inside – that can take frikken centuries. Best way is to tear up the rule book, invent a whole new way that makes the old one a steaming pile of redundant. Circumvent the suckers.

    Also what is it with spittle flying MRAs is that bloody door opening crap? Do they still drive around in jalopies? The first person that gets to the door opens it and holds it open for the rest of the group. We don’t even need to know what junk the door holder has in their pants! I KNOW!! Outrageous!! World Gone Mad, etc etc

  2. What I found most enlightening about this whole sordid episode was watching ABC journalists line up behind The Hun, complete with stories about how similar/worse their workplaces are.
    In my experience, the behaviour described by the intern would not be acceptable in any government office, or on any university campus – at least not in the last two decades or so. How has the ABC managed to score a Get Out Of Jail Free card on workplace behaviour?

    • It’s a worry, isn’t it?

      Most MSM journos lined themselves up with the Herald Sun. The SMH’s Dylan Welch seemed to be the only one calling them on their over-reaction.

      And while I’m having a whinge, the claim by journos that they use black humour because they’re on the “front line” like paramedics is just laughable. Sure, a few journos will see some awful stuff when they chase ambulances to accidents, but on the whole, most journos never leave the office.

  3. I knew you would hate this as soon as I saw this ‘news’. Freaking hell I hate mainstream media outlets. They are the school yard bully and the teachers mixed into one fucked up power.

  4. Michael Boswell

    I suspect you know the person concerned … and from your reading she does sound a little precious. (I only use ‘she’ because you did in the first sentence of the second paragraph). Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty and sixty year old teenagers are all too common and one has to get used to it. In an ideal world men would not objectify women. However, I am guilty of perving at a woman’s ‘arse’. It was wrong of me and it of me and ‘she’ is right to be angry.

    My one criticism is that change does not come from inside but from pressure from outside. Most people conform to the organisation they joined to change. Change needs pressure from outside (as well as those from the inside). I suspect there are more people who agree with her at the Herald Sun than you or she realises. (Well that is my experience). She has just given them more ammunition.

    Finally, ‘she’ should take comfort in the words of Gandhi: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you and then they argue with you and then you win. She got to step three in one article. Great work!

    • Actually, I don’t know the student. And I’ve never been in the Herald Sun newsroom.

      You’re right about people conforming to their workplaces. There’s a lot of research indicating that journalism graduates diss their uni education in order to fit in with their new newsroom, which is another reason why Wake is wrong to say it’s up to the young journalists to create change.

      Michael, there’s a BIG difference between checking someone out/having a bit of a perve, and leering. My feeling is that there was a lot of leering from a few people in that newsroom.

  5. “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.”
    — KP, do you honestly think that’s why men hold open doors for women and let them exit lifts first etc? Really? And if your answer is, “Oh, it’s only some men …” then how do you know which men, when it’s happening and when it’s not?
    I’m 44 and have worked in major metropolitan newsrooms (not the Hun) and a range of other workplaces. I’ve shared a zillion lifts with a gazillion men and women and not once – not once – has it crossed my mind that the reason blokes generally let women out first is so we can perve on their arses. I have never seen other men staring at the exiting women’s bums, nor share a nudge-nudge, wink-wink pervy grin with each other as the lift empties out.
    Not once.
    Ever.
    If you believe there’s a secret male “let them out first so we can perve on their arses” society, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. The first I’ve ever heard of the notion was reading your blog today.
    You are, of course, free to assume what you like about the intern’s complaint re doors and lifts but I assumed her disgust at the idea of having a door held open for her stemmed from the somewhat justifiable perception of it being patronising, or a show of gender control – not some sort of optic sexual assault.
    Maybe I’m being naive, or even hetro-normative (I am, after all, a white, middle class male). Whatever the case, I expect I’m gonna get a kicking for this comment.

    • Hendo, I don’t believe that all men hold the door open for women so they can perve. Read my sentence again. I said “some” men. Most people who hold the door open for others do it because they were at the door first, but every now and then someone will be leering at your boobs as you walk to the door and you know they’re going to be leering at your arse, usually because they crane their neck to start looking while you’re alongside them and can see what they’re doing. That’s how you know. And that’s what I assumed she meant, simply because it’s something I’ve experienced. Of course, I could be wrong, and she was offended because she thought it was patronising or any number of things. However, just because you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

  6. You can blame Kat Anderson for my input, and ultimately I’m only going to comment on the bits that I disagree

    It seems a bit of a jump from ‘holding doors open’ to ‘lining up a perv’ to me, and that may have been her jumping at everything because the place was a nightmare. Personally though I hold doors open for older people (ie, anyone likely to be more senior than me), anyone with full hands (be it bags, books or babies), people who look like they’re in more of a rush, and anyone I find attractive (hey, you want them to like you, right?). Without knowing the exact context of the ‘unnecessary’ door-holdings, it’s a bit hard to ascribe motivations to the people involved, and could only be described as guesswork from this end.

    The issue of correct pronouns for people who don’t ascribe to traditional gender roles is more complex. I have only (to my knowledge) known two such people, and one of those was post-op (and visually, obviously, male). A lot of people, especially those with ‘conservative’ lifestyles, won’t knowingly have come across anyone to whom ‘normal’ pronouns don’t apply, so who is going to pull these people up if no-one in the room is actually aware of a polite approach? Education is improving, but not in the mainstream.

    • Anthony, if it’s only guesswork, then why is your guess more likely than mine?

      My guess was based on two things: 1) that it’s happened to me, and 2) that if she was annoyed/upset enough about it to write about it, then chances are it wasn’t just someone holding the door open to be polite.

      I’d also like to point out that the door part of her piece was minor compared to the rest of her criticism.

      Welcome to the News with Nipples, by the way.

  7. As I said, I agreed with the rest (of yours, and hers), so I’m skipping agreeing with the fact that there are douchebags out there (especially in that newsroom).

    I would hope that my guess is more accurate for two reasons:
    1) Growing up, we’re told to be polite (I was going to write “taught”, but that’s a whole different argument), and I think in general it sticks.
    2) I would like to retain some faith in humanity please.

    I am also very familiar with how out of proportion everything can get, especially when young, and you’re so surrounded by crap that a stick looks like a turd.

    [sarcasm] Finally, it’s hard enough being a straight, white, middle-class male with a stable home life and no major disabilities without questioning my motives for holding doors open, thank-you-very-much. [/sarcasm]

    Incidentally: Right of reply? They’re a newspaper. Do they think we’re all idiots?

    • Like I said in my post and in the comments, most people are polite. Some people are not. Just because you are polite, doesn’t mean that everyone is polite. It’s as simple as that. There ARE some dickheads who talk to my boobs. There ARE some dickheads who will hold a door open so they can leer at my arse as I walk through. Thankfully, most people are not like this. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Why is that so hard to understand?

      I’d also like to say that I’m pretty annoyed that you’ve decided that your guess is more accurate than mine because you think your experience in being told to be polite is more important/valid than my experience in having some creep hold the door so he can leer at me. I haven’t said that all men who hold doors open for women are leery pigs. I’ve said that sometimes, a leery pig will hold the door open for you and his motives are pretty clear.

  8. Right, I don’t think I was clear enough what I meant (unclear communication on the internet… wonders will never cease).

    I was not attempting to suggest that leery creeps holding doors open in order to perv do not exist. I was suggesting that based on my interpretation of the original article, that in the specific instance mentioned by the author of the original article (and with no specific mention of leeryness directed towards said author within said article), that insufficient information was provided regarding the context of the door-holding for me to ascribe specific motivations to said door-holders, and that in the absence of that information I would revert to the normal (in my experience) reason for holding doors open for people, being some variant on politeness, regardless of the prickery shown by personnel within that workplace in other situations.

    I hope that’s clearer, despite it being a horrifically-written sentence.

  9. i’m still crafting my reply on this

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