Last year a television presenter by the name of Charlotte Dawson attracted a barrage of hostile messages to her Twitter account that were hateful and insulting, so much so that she felt threatened, suffered a panic attack and depression, and was hospitalised in a suicidal state.
It appears she caused an affront to the sensibilities of those who roam the digital ghettoes in search of transgressors and pay out on them anonymously with a peculiar form of swift justice called trolling. As a panellist on television programs such Australia’s Next Top Model, where bullying is seen as an art form, Dawson’s ordeal was judged in some quarters to be an ironic form of comeuppance. To compound the irony, the presumed offence that brought the fury of the trolls upon her was her involvement in a community anti-bullying initiative.
Nevertheless, the incident caused considerable media turbulence. So much so that a mainstream publication took up her cause. Step forward Joe Hildebrand. Hildebrand is an aspiring celebrity himself, having recently presented an ABC television program titled "Dumb, Drunk and Racist", but his day job is with Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. Along with its Victorian cousin, the Herald Sun, the two tabloids account for the two biggest newspaper readerships in the nation with a total daily circulation between them in the magnitude of 820,000 readers, and a combined readership of well over two million.
A month or so after the Dawson incident, SBS television ran an Insight program on trolling. Hildebrand was an invited guest. He had earlier been installed at the Daily Telegraph as the leader of that newspaper’s latest campaign: The War on Trolls. In that role he was responsible for leading the charge against the bullies who were putting innocents like Charlotte Dawson into psychiatric wards.
Insight is facilitated by Jenny Brockie, a skilful operator in the business of drawing guests out with a minimum of judgemental intervention. Hildebrand adopted a semi-authoritative role as an official protector of trolling victims. Other guests included some self-confessed trollers from within Australia and overseas, the latter coming in by satellite, and they defined trolling as a mixture of pushing a cause and having a laugh.
To Hildebrand, Brockie directed this question: "You played a key role in the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Stop the Trolls’ campaign. What do you think listening to these definitions?"
His answer included this declaration:
"What we were talking about was sustained, targeted and personal abuse that was directed specifically at individuals and resulted in cases of self-harm as we saw with Charlotte Dawson, who is obviously a very famous example but there are plenty of other people less famous who get upset by it and get affected by it, and plenty of other people who, without resorting to self-harm or things that extreme, get upset and emotionally, you know, tortured or manipulated by it, and no one should be put through that."
Throughout the program Brockie persisted with her direct questions to one and all, until she produced the Daily Telegraph’s infamous front page, featuring Peter Slipper, whose image had been doctored to resemble a menacing rodent, complete with tail and other rat-like features.
Brockie reminded the audience that the photograph was typical of a number of front page stories the newspaper had been running on Slipper and she asked Hildebrand how that was different from trolling.
Surprisingly, the question seemed to catch him off guard. The genial friend of the troll victim disappeared, and he delivered a tortuous, long-winded explanation that included the idea of the rat as a term for people who betray their political party.
His answer (edited for clarity) was:
"What we were talking about is personal sustained abuse at strangers from anonymity. If people have a problem with that front page … they can make a complaint, there’s correspondence back and forth. People are accountable for that, the editor is accountable for that newspaper when I represent it. And we have that argument and we have it in a public debate."
At the time the Insight program went to air Peter Slipper had been accused by an employee of sexual harassment and other sundry offences, some of which were later withdrawn. A number of Slipper’s parliamentary colleagues expressed concern about his state of health, though there was no report of him being put on suicide watch. The case at the time had not come before the courts.
Yet in the court of public opinion, stories that kept appearing prominently in the Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun and other publications ensured that Slipper was held up to public ridicule. They also invited reader condemnation for alleged offences that had not been heard by a court. His accusers were unknown editors and anonymous artists, the latter acting presumably under instruction from the former.
But on 13 December last year the Daily Telegraph was presented with an opportunity to give credence to Hildebrand’s defence of his employer. On that day, the judge dealing with the Peter Slipper matter delivered a ruling in the Federal Court that the sexual harassment allegation against Slipper was without substance and was an abuse of the judicial process.
The judge named six offending people involved directly in the abuse of process and described their offences that included using the court for their self-serving public relations purposes. He awarded costs to Peter Slipper and against the complainant James Ashby. He also indicated the other five parties may have a case to answer.
One might expect, therefore that the Daily Telegraph would give comparable prominence to the Federal Court’s damning judgement and correct the record.
That expectation would be wrong. The lacklustre mainstream media coverage of the judgement so astonished former press gallery journalist Margo Kingston that she has now returned to the fray. Here she is in Independent Australia expressing her dismay:
"No page one splashes. No page ones at all in the Murdoch tabloids, which had broken Ashby’s allegations to the Court with a splash and then kept splashing. In the Daily Telegraph, a small news story on, wait for it, page 17, with the misleading headline ‘Court rejects SLIPPER case’."
Kingston might have added the accompanying headline: "Telegraph right to break story". No contrition there.
All this leaves Joe Hildebrand high and dry in the light of his loyal defence of his masters at the Telegraph. Apart from burying the Ashby story and misrepresenting it, where are the reports of complaints and correspondence on the paper’s coverage of the Slipper stories? Where is the editor’s accountability and where is the public debate?
The fact is there is no debate. There won’t be any reports because there won’t be any complaints. What’s to complain about? The "Slipper" case has been thrown out. That’s as it should be because, as all Daily Telegraph readers know, Peter Slipper was up to no good. This is a "fact" that no amount of evidence to the contrary can change.