June 17, 2022


Two sides of the same Shields?

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Composite image of Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields (image SMH/supplied) and actor Rebel Wilson (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields (image SMH/supplied) and actor Rebel Wilson (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Editor Bevan Shields’ attempts to handle the backlash over his masthead’s treatment of Rebel Wilson points to the dismal and fragile state of news media

Last weekend, I came across a headline about the actor Rebel Wilson’s new relationship. Like most Australians, I didn’t care. That was, at least, until the origins of the story became clear: Wilson felt obliged to declare her same-sex partnership after The Sydney Morning Herald’s gossip columnist, Andrew Hornery, had made inquiries and given her two days to respond.

Naturally, Wilson interpreted this as an ultimatum and, assuming the story would run anyway, decided to reveal it in her own way – on social media. Oddly, we learnt of this sordid intrusion not via Wilson, but Hornery himself, when the Herald published his strangely self-pitying and proprietorial column complaining that Wilson had ruined his exclusive.

In the since deleted column, Hornery wrote: “It was with an abundance of caution and respect that this media outlet emailed Rebel Wilson’s representatives on Thursday morning, giving her two days to comment on her new relationship … before publishing a single word.”

But Wilson “opted to gazump the story,” Hornery sighed, and “her choice to ignore our discreet, genuine and honest queries was, in our view, underwhelming”.

Who else was included in that “our”? Did others feel Hornery’s disappointment that a stranger might, God forbid, ignore his coercions?  

Rebel Wilson has said little since, but Hornery and Herald editor Bevan Shields have barely shut-up, offering defences, then apologies for those defences, in an awful, seemingly endless loop of insouciance and contrition.

On June 12, Shields published a short note: “The article [about Rebel Wilson] has promoted some public attention and I’ve been reading this feedback closely. In the interests of transparency I wanted to offer the Herald’s view on this issue.”

This already read like Google’s chatbot, whose artificial intelligence relies upon linguistic pattern recognition to create an unconvincing simulacrum of human thought and sensitivity.

Shields went on: “Like other mastheads do every day, we simply asked questions and as standard practice included a deadline for a response. I had made no decision about whether or what to publish, and the Herald’s decision about what to do would have been informed by any response Wilson supplied.

“Wilson made the decision to publicly disclose her new partner, who had been a feature of her social media accounts for months.

“Private Sydney is a column in which the writer’s interaction with his subjects is often part of the story. Saturday’s piece followed that theme in giving readers insights into our interaction with Wilson and her PR team. This was not a standard news story.”

Perhaps the deadening effect of Shields’ words on my frontal cortex was deliberate: implicit in the creepy blandness, and its insistence upon appearing reasonable, was the suggestion that this was all just a trivial misunderstanding but, out of an abundance of sensitivity to reader complaints, he’d magnanimously looked into it – and found nothing wrong.

Naturally, Shields’ “note” made things much worse. Aside from its robotic tone and defensiveness, there was the fact that the story’s alleged dependency upon its subject’s cooperation was never shared with Wilson.   

These were now quickly cascading clusterfucks, generating global infamy and internal discontent, and producing three distinctive grounds for apology: for the original commission, for Hornery’s petulant column and for Shields’ rationalisation of the whole mess.

And it made me wonder: does Shields think that the “great mastheads” and their editors are inherently unimpeachable? That they’re engaged in a wholly noble profession, and their occasional mistakes are innocent slippages of judgement or hiccups of misinterpretation, rather than expressions of much more fundamental problems – like having a gossip column in the first place?

Or is he just badly out of his depth, and splashing against the tide?

Most journalism obliges parasitism, but perhaps never as obviously as in the gossip pages. The gossip columnist’s talents are not intellectual, but temperamental: they’re shameless.  

But compared with Shields’ defence, at least Hornery’s column, for all its strange self-pity, was more human and revealing of the pitiless drive of the gossip columnist. He gave us a taste of his professional impulses: the entitlement to private stories, and his weird bruising when it’s denied. The professional impulses of the Herald’s editor were also clear enough: to disguise his defensiveness as rigorous soul-searching.

The snowballing clusterfuck kept rolling. Hornery’s column was removed, and replaced with another: “It is not the Herald’s business to ‘out’ people and that is not what we set out to do,” Hornery wrote. “But I understand why my email has been seen as a threat. The framing of it was a mistake.”

So now it was Bevan Shields’ turn to have another go at smoothing public relations. On June 14, he wrote: “Mistakes were made in our approach to Wilson and I apologise for them. As Andrew explained yesterday, the inclusion of a two-day deadline was an error as it appeared to be an ultimatum or attempt to pressure Wilson to make an announcement herself or through the Herald.

“Another error was a piece Andrew wrote for Saturday’s paper and online edition in which he expressed annoyance that Wilson had decided to make the announcement herself on Instagram. Andrew acknowledges the tone of Saturday’s piece was not appropriate.”

It’s baffling that the serious faults to which Shields was now admitting weren’t obvious to him just days before. And maybe this is a pious eccentricity of mine, but I’d prefer the editor of a major newspaper, when explaining his errors, to not sound as trite and obscuring as the politicians his paper is meant to account for.

Shields’ dubious judgement – and his recalcitrance – was suggested earlier this year, when aggrieved staffers leaked internal correspondence about stories they were writing about the NSW government’s temporary shutdown of train services. Despite numerous journalists explaining why the situation could not fairly be described as a “strike”, Shields persisted – and later apologised.   

Meanwhile, Hornery undermined his own apology regarding Wilson by posting on Instagram that “the pitchfork brigade is baying for blood”, and “Don’t take any notice of them, it’s toxic vitriol and nutters barking at shadows.”

More revealing, I thought, were Hornery’s words in his official mea culpa: “The Herald and I will approach things differently from now on to make sure we always take into consideration the extra layer of complexities people face when it comes to their sexuality. Celebrities have huge influence in our culture. We still have to ask questions, sometimes very difficult ones.”

Here was the gossip columnist asking the public for sympathy, and justifying his job with the same earnest language an investigative journalist might use to defend theirs against powerful interference.

Here’s what I’ve heard in this rolling shitshow: a gossip columnist justified his absurd profession, an editor ineptly disguised his ineptitude, and an influential paper revealed its dependency upon both of them.

The golden rivers of print advertising were largely dammed two decades ago, and survival now rests upon doing many things badly – news, gossip, opinion, recipes, real estate – but also trusting you’ll have a leader that can justify the existential desperation with old lines about the indispensability of news media.  

“Owning up to mistakes is a sign of a masthead’s strength, not its weakness,” Shields wrote, in his first apology to readers in March about the NSW train shutdown. Which is basically true, but the idea becomes reduced to a cliché when overused and detached from an understanding of where those mistakes flow from. You can lean on goodwill only so far, and it’s grimly hilarious that the Herald’s reputation and its internal morale have suffered so much in the pursuit of something so trivial. But hey, clicks are clicks.

But for those now wanting to cancel their Nine/Fairfax subscriptions, know that while this mess unfolded, Age investigative reporter Nick McKenzie was sharing his hard-won knowledge of extremist groups before a Victorian parliamentary inquiry, the consequences of Adele Ferguson’s recent investigation into cowboy cosmetic surgeons was still rippling, and Kate McClymont’s #MeToo reporting was vindicated.

Important work is still done, and those contemplating the end of their subscriptions should ask just where else they think this work might be achieved.

But it’s also right to ask for that work to be overseen by people who understand that the sum of journalism is simultaneously vital, frivolous and fragile – and that unqualified claims to its value are deluded.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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