People In Glass Houses Shouldn't Work At News Corporation

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I’ve been called a lot of things in the course of my career. Andrew Bolt once referred to me as a “race warrior”, and Miranda Devine told a colleague of mine that I was “pure evil”.

Obviously, I was chuffed.

In The Weekend Australian today, Brendan O’Neill describes my colleagues at New Matilda and me as “moral crusaders”, as he leaps to the defence of Professor Spurr – the tenured Sydney University academic suspended recently over a series of racist, misogynistic emails.

I'm going to let the fact that it's yet another white man defending yet another white man's right to be a racist and a sexist fly through to the keeper, and focus instead on the fact that Mr O’Neill genuinely appears to have meant the barb of 'moral crusader' as an insult.

The fact is, I most definitely do ‘crusade’ (on a lot of issues, but in particular racism and Aboriginal rights, and increasingly refugees and climate change); and given that I like to consider myself quite ‘moral’ – although I accept many do not agree – calling me a ‘moral crusader’ is one of the nicest things that anyone at The Australian has ever said about me.

With the possible exception of this front-page accusation a month or so ago, that myself and colleague Wendy Bacon (one of the journalists, along with Max Chalmers, involved in New Matilda’s coverage about the $60,000 secret scholarship awarded to the Prime Minister’s daughter) were involved in a ‘plot’ to damage the Prime Minister.

Needless to say, ‘moral crusader’ as an insult to someone who is passionate about basic rights is about as caustic as ‘politically correct’ to someone who genuinely believes that being careful with language and concepts is important, so as not to further oppress minorities.

The ‘dirty words’ of our nation, I think, say as much about us as a society as they do about Professor Spurr and his use of terms like ‘Abos, Chinky-Poos and Muzzies’, and his apparent casual attitude towards the rape of women.

And speaking of Professor Spurr, O’Neill makes a surprising ‘concession’ in the very first paragraph of his article.

“Why is it bad to hack and expose photographs of a woman’s naked body but apparently OK to steal and make public the contents of a man’s soul?” laments O’Neill.

Wow. Seems Mr O’Neill – despite his otherwise robust defence – doesn’t think very much of Bazza. Which is puzzling, because from my reading, the official line from The Australian thus far has been that the comments by Professor Spurr were not part of his soul, rather they were, as Spurr himself continues to assert, part of a ‘whimsical linguistic game’. I suspect Brendan O’Neill – based over in London at Spiked – might not have got that News Corp memo.

The partial transcripts of the correspondence strongly suggest otherwise, but regardless, it’s surprising to me that in order to leap to the defence of a man, O’Neill and The Australian are prepared to so readily jettison something as fundamental as Barry Spurr’s soul, by suggesting that it consists of deep racism, misogyny and bigotry.

Personally, I don’t believe that for a second. Obviously, I’m not Professor Spurr’s biggest fan. But I don’t believe that the summation of a life (and in this case, apparently, a soul) can be done simply by calculating the sum total of the shittiest thing people found out about you.

Put simply, while I do believe that Professor Spurr holds deep-seated views that I, and many in Australian society, find utterly repugnant, I don’t believe that they plumb the depths of his soul. I happen to think that if souls do exist (and I’m not convinced… but anyhoo), they’re probably pretty nice, and that the nasty bits about all of us come from somewhere else. Lived experience, most likely.

But whatever the truth, I also happen to believe that the public interest, given Professor Spurr’s participation in the review of the National School Curriculum, warrants that his views – or his ‘soul’ – get a broader airing.

And that’s the other really notable thing about Brendan O’Neill’s piece. The phrase ‘public interest’ doesn’t appear once. Coming from a journalist based at the media empire in London which hacked the phones of celebrities – and that of a child who had been raped and murdered – for ‘scoops’… well, I can’t say I’m all that surprised. I’m not suggesting O’Neill defends the phone hacking scandal, but I am suggesting the awkward irony may be lost on him.

To make his point, O’Neill opines:

“… just a few weeks ago, when a hacker invaded the iCloud accounts of female celebs and rifled through their intimate snaps, there was global outrage.

“This theft of explicit private photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence and others was a sex crime, we were told.”

Well, yes, we were told that. But that’s only because it was. And there’s another irony: a Fleet Street lad from a corner of the world’s media famous for its base objectification of women appearing to intimate that it wasn’t.

The fact is, there is ‘news’ in celebrities. A case in point is this excellent article published on New Matilda today, by Dr Liz Conor. It explores the recent hubbub over plastic surgery undertaken by Renee Zellwegger, which left her apparently ‘unrecognisable’. But notably, Conor’s piece is not about the ‘tits and arse’ of Renee Zellwegger. It’s a thoughtful piece about the deeper issue of how we perceive famous women.

So there is value in exploring the public lives of celebrities, but it’s important how you explore it.

I agree, there is no value in publishing the private photos of a naked Jennifer Lawrence. It is an outrage. It may be what some sections of the public are ‘interested in’, but it is in no way ‘in the public interest’. They’re two vastly different concepts, but frequently confused by the hounds at News (and many other outlets, for that matter).

Thus, my respectful submission – both here and to the Federal Court – is that Professor Spurr’s views are in the public interest. I won’t dwell on that, because (a) my thoroughly awesome legal team is arguing that, and I don’t wish to pre-empt the judge's findings (we’re back there on December 8); and (b) I do sincerely believe that Professor Spurr and his legal counsel are entitled to test the matter and plead their case, without it being too polluted by public discourse from the guy in the dock.

At the same time, I don’t plan to sit idly by while those at News Corporation seek to rewrite history, and in the process, hope we forget their own.

I’m specifically referring to comments like these from O’Neill: “Fast forward to last week, and some of the same people whose jaws hit the floor at the audacity of those who leaked these women’s private, unguarded pics were cheering the hacking of Spurr’s private, unguarded words.”

A News Corporation journalist seeking to point out hypocrisy. Where do I start….

There’s a simple reason why The Australian has tried so hard to link the story of Professor Spurr to ‘hacking’, notwithstanding our repeated public statements that it’s not true. It’s the same reason The Australian has so vigorously pursued Freya Newman, the whistleblower in the Frances Abbott secret scholarship saga, and a young woman of substantial courage who clearly acted ‘illegally’ – as opposed to wrongly – in the ‘public interest’.

The simple reason is, they want us to look as bad as them. They want people to make the connection to the UK phone hacking scandal. Which was, of course, perpetrated by them.

Set aside the clear ‘public interest’ differences, and let’s just look at the facts: New Matilda published information given to it by sources. News International published information from people it had paid to hack. The terms ‘gaping hole’ and ‘go and have a bit of a lie down Chris Mitchell’ leap to mind.

In News-speak, i call this the ‘If we’re all covered in shit, then we all stink the same’ theory.

But it’s ultimately a straw man strategy. The links News wants you to believe exist, do not. And nor does the history. New Matilda and the outstanding (albeit very small) team that works here would need to practice decades of breath-taking hypocrisy and gross abuse of power to look or smell anything like some sections of News Corporation (notwithstanding the fact that there are a few people in the organisation I greatly admire) .

And in case anyone has forgotten, let’s pause now, briefly, to remember some of that recent history.

The contents of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper’s diary was published. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe News Corporation broke that story? I can’t recall The Australian railing about an invasion of privacy. I do recall them invoking 'public interest' (a test, and a story, with which I happen to agree).

When the ‘private’ emails of climate scientists were hacked last year, and then republished out of context, I don’t recall howls of outrage from The Oz or News Limited about ‘privacy’. I do recall a certain level of gloating and ‘we told you so’.

And this is where and why The Australian continues to come unstuck. It’s history of ‘what’s good for everyone else is not good for us… unless we say so’.

It’s a thoroughly transparent, and, frankly, embarrassing way to run a national broadsheet. And if this stunning scoop from one of the great independent Australian media outlets (Crikey) about the slow death of News Corporation papers in Australia is anything to go by, then journalism parading as sex, sensationalism and vendettas doesn’t pay the bills either.

The Glass House Empire of News Corporation, it seems, is a fragile one indeed, and no amount of historical revisionism, nor name-calling, is going to change that.

Journalism might. They should probably give it a crack.

* New Matilda is an independent Australian publication. We rely predominantly on reader subscriptions for survival. You can help fund us here, or assist simply by sharing this story on social media.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting.

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