A Matter of Context
Gillard and the press gallery
Tony Abbott, 23 March 2011. © Alan Porritt/AAP
Thank you very much, Deputy Speaker, and I rise to oppose the motion moved by the Leader of the Opposition. And in so doing I say … I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. And the government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.
Julia Gillard, 9 October 2012
Has there ever been a month when the mainstream media looked to be so out of touch with the zeitgeist? First the Alan Jones debacle and then the pundits’ response to Julia Gillard’s galvanising speech in the House of Representatives, in which she took Tony Abbott to task on the question of sexism. If I wanted to encapsulate the disconnect in a single anecdote, I would tell the story of my 21-year-old niece who, the morning after Gillard’s speech, was alerted to it on Facebook by friends. This directed her to the video on YouTube. She thought it was “awesome”. By the time we met for dinner she was far ahead of me on the issue because I had read only the newspapers. These either played it down with minimal coverage or offered hostile commentary. I showed my niece Peter Hartcher’s column in the Sydney Morning Herald, which deplored Gillard’s speech as a tactical defence of disgraced speaker Peter Slipper, and she read it with bafflement. “I don’t get what he’s saying,” she said. “But, then, I don’t read newspapers.”
I do, and I didn’t get what Hartcher was saying either. Gillard’s performance went viral and was saluted on sites such as the New Yorker’s, the Spectator’s and Salon.com. But the headline on Hartcher’s piece ran: ‘We Expected More of Gillard’. Well, who is “we”? Frankly, I expected more of Hartcher and his colleagues in the mainstream media when they opted to interpret Slipper’s resignation from the speakership as a symptom of Gillard’s supposed lack of moral fibre, while ignoring both the substance and the force of her critique of Abbott. Michelle Grattan dismissed Gillard’s speech as “desperate”. Hartcher accused the PM of abandoning principle in favour of power. “The moment Gillard rose to defend Slipper and keep him in office,” he wrote, “she chose to defend the indefensible.” But listen to Gillard’s speech. Where in it does she defend Slipper? What she did, citing chapter and verse, was attack the hypocrisy of an Opposition leader who had made sexist statements in the past only to shed pious crocodile tears over the repugnant text messages of the speaker, material put forward as evidence in a still unresolved court case. Gillard, who has had to endure unprecedented sexism since assuming the prime ministership, knew this to be a political ploy and she called it. Hartcher was unmoved. “The government had spent a month vilifying Tony Abbott for having a ‘problem with women’,” he wrote. “But when one of the bulwarks of the government was exposed as having a problem with women, it was suddenly acceptable.” Really? Vilifying? Wasn’t Gillard quoting Abbott’s own words? Then there was Hartcher’s claim that as a woman Gillard should be more than “just another politician”, the inference being that women are not there to exercise political skills but to act as God’s Police, refined creatures who can be counted on to bring some gentility to a man’s world of realpolitik. This is breathtakingly tendentious journalism.
If Hartcher’s posture was more in sorrow than in anger, his Herald colleague Paul Sheehan opted for a rug-chewing rant. Gillard “came out snarling”, wrote Sheehan, as if to illustrate Senator Christine Milne’s point that if a woman makes a strong speech she is ‘emotional’, whereas a male politician making the same speech is credited with decisive leadership. On this occasion, however, the broadsheets came too late because Gillard’s speech had already been received with massive approval by those using social media. People watched it online and judged for themselves (1.9 million viewings at the time of writing). Suddenly the disconnect between the pundits and their supposed audience was glaring. The Canberra press gallery had been used to setting the agenda but now it had been caught out in a major credibility gap. Fairfax’s Jacqueline Maley, among others, went into damage control. Under the headline, ‘Did We Get it Wrong?’ she wrote: “The bubble of the Canberra press gallery has been decisively popped this week.” So far so good, but she then went on to declare defensively: “It is not the job of the press gallery to laud a speech.” But hadn’t they “lauded” Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation, for instance? “It is the job of journalists,” continued Maley, “to place events in context, supply background and nuance”. But where was the context in commentary like Hartcher’s, namely Abbott’s long history of sexist remarks and the provocation of his echoing of Jones’s widely deplored “dying of shame” insult? Where was the nuance in Sheehan’s abusive diatribe?
But wait, there’s more. Over at the Weekend Australian, the ever-predictable editor-in-chief let slip his dogs of war: the prime minister’s speech was variously “demonisation” (Paul Kelly), “grubby” (Dennis Shanahan), “an irrelevant hissy fit” (an unnamed Shanahan source), “a big, massive offence-fest” (Brendan O’Neill), “a major mistake” (Chris Kenny), “hypocrisy writ large” (Peter van Onselen), “matinee theatre” (Tom Dusevic) and “government by soap opera” (Christopher Pearson).
Meanwhile, back at the SMH that same Saturday, Maley and Phillip Coorey were running with the point of view of Rudd supporters in the ALP caucus who, unsurprisingly, were critical of Gillard. Elsewhere in the same edition, Lenore Taylor was backtracking to some degree. Gillard’s diversionary tactic was now a “great speech”, but delivered “in the wrong context, at the wrong time”.
Did it occur to Taylor, I wondered, that in making this statement she was, for many women, striking the wrong gong? How often have women been made to feel they are out of place, or have spoken out of turn, i.e. “at the wrong time”? What might have been the right time to have responded to Abbott’s disgraceful echoing of Jones’s “shame” insult? A nice reunion dinner for veterans of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, well out of sight of the mainstream? Taylor repeated Maley’s point that it was all about context. It was the job of the press gallery to explain to the bunnies out in punterland that Gillard’s speech had been “part of a plan” to derail Abbott’s campaign to look woman-friendly. It was “raw politics”. Well, yes, we got that, but we also got the larger context that the gallery apparently missed, a context articulated by Julia Baird when she wrote that “sexism has been placed on the political agenda in a new and unprecedented way”.
Gillard’s speech will endure long after the messy politics of the Slipper affair have been forgotten, not least on YouTube. Many of us who are over 40 have been inclined to disparage social media as shallow and narcissistic but here’s a thought: without it we would not have had early and independent access to Gillard’s counter-attack. Within a hectic few weeks social media has demonstrated its power across several fronts, a power that goes way beyond the lazy ‘liking’ of a cause on Facebook or signing an online petition for GetUp! For the first time in Australia, social media is beginning to look as if it is ahead of the mainstream in the political game. A shock jock who had once seemed impregnable is now damaged goods. Advertisers on Alan Jones’s program may or may not have been genuinely dismayed by his comments about Gillard but they are smart enough to know that if they continue to use him, they take a risk. The dust may settle but then again it may not; some will return but others will consider their options. No doubt Jones will be invited to address more Liberal and rugby-club dinners but never has the musty fug of the antique settled more suddenly on a public figure than it did in this past month, when Jones, with his ageing demographic, was made to look like a wooden prop in a museum display of old media. Social media has pierced his seemingly invincible aura in a way that a biography by Chris Masters or a Walkley-winning broadsheet profile were unable to.
As if this were not enough, within the same month the new media demonstrated that not only can it channel independent opinion but it can generate its own rituals, as when 30,000 marched in Melbourne streets in response to the abduction and murder of Jill Meagher. It is a powerful form of access because it enables a rapid and spontaneous response from the public, and it can do this because it is largely free of conventional gatekeepers. A church without a priesthood can make the incestuous cloisters of the Canberra press gallery look increasingly irrelevant.