The Politics    Monday, April 27, 2015


By Sean Kelly

Scott McIntyre’s sacking highlights our confusion about social media

Just over five years ago, Malcolm Turnbull lost his job as leader of the opposition to Tony Abbott (now better known as “Prime Minister”). One of the little-remarked aspects of those heady weeks was that it was the first major Australian political event in which Twitter was important. Until then, Twitter had been a confusing novelty for most. But that event transformed staffers and press gallery reporters into avid Twitter fans, watching it nervously for the first sniff of breaking news.

I mention this because the man who lost his job in that Twitter event has just helped another man to lose his job in a different Twitter event.

SBS sports reporter Scott McIntyre posted a series of tweets, beginning in the late afternoon on Anzac Day, in which he questioned the wisdom of celebrating Anzac Day in its current form. You can see them all here, but perhaps the most controversial was this: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan.”

Less than 24 hours later McIntyre had been sacked.

SBS said he had been sacked for “highly inappropriate and disrespectful” comments which were in breach of the SBS social media policy and the SBS code of conduct: “maintaining the integrity of the network and audience trust is vital … Mr McIntyre’s comments have compromised both.” Crikey reports he refused the opportunity to apologise and retract his tweets.

My initial reaction was that McIntyre had been a bit of an idiot. He is a public figure, of sorts, and could have expected some backlash. You’re a TV reporter: say controversial things in public and you may well hurt your job prospects. That’s the deal you make.

But then I thought: the bloke’s a sports reporter. Personally, I couldn’t give a stuff what he thinks about the Anzacs. If he were a war reporter, or a political journalist, or a newsreader carrying the integrity of the entire newscast on her shoulders, then sure. And of course if the sports journalist had been racist, or sexist, that could realistically affect their reporting.

A sports reporter with controversial views on a war that happened 100 years ago fails to concern me.

Now you can make an argument – as SBS did – that he is compromising the integrity of the network he works for. And perhaps you can win that argument.

But this is where we get onto very dangerous ground.

It’s not a question of free speech, exactly – McIntyre may be free to say what he wants, and SBS may be free to sack him. (There are reports he is considering his legal options.) But it does raise questions about the way our modern world works, and whether we’re dealing with it very well.

Five years ago, I would have said McIntyre’s case was a no-brainer: use social media stupidly and you deserve to be sacked. I’m not sure that’s true anymore. Social media is just a natural part of most people’s lives now, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest. Telling people they can’t express controversial (but debatable) views in their forum of choice is a genuine restriction on their ability to interact freely with the world around them. That wasn’t the case until recently. But the world has changed.

Journalists are in an even more difficult situation. Social media has placed a huge additional burden on most of them. I’ve heard senior political reporters express their frustration at having to act as miniature PR companies when previously they were able to focus on reporting.

So Twitter and Facebook have meant extra work for journalists, but unlike their family and friends they are not allowed the personal benefit of those same platforms.

The statement from the journalists’ union is worth quoting at length:

“Increasingly, media employees are being required to use social media platforms to promote their work and those accounts are then being used as a marketing tool benefitting media employers. The [social media] policies have begun to infringe on the private lives of media professionals, dictating what they can and can’t say in a private capacity, outside of their work … MEAA believes that employers must recognise that their employees are entitled to a private life, with their own beliefs and opinions … What MEAA is finding is that social media policies of employers are inflexible and deny staff the right to have and express a personal opinion.”

And it makes no difference whether journalists use “work” or “personal” accounts. As the SBS social media policy makes clear “the SBS audience may not be able to distinguish when an employee is acting in an official capacity on behalf of SBS or when social media use is personal”. (And that’s before we even get to the discussion over whether McIntyre’s views have any validity.)

You also have to ask when we are going to stop treating Twitterversy as real controversy. In the old days (six years ago) somebody had to make an effort to attack somebody for something. Nowadays it’s pretty easy to rally your particular set of allies round you and blow something up. And it’s incredibly easy for an online news editor to turn that into a breaking news story. Voila! Controversy.

We’ll never know whether this particular scandal would, in ordinary circumstances, have lasted beyond the cyber rage life cycle of a few hours, because Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull chose to make his presence felt at 9pm, tweeting in reply to McIntyre “Difficult to think of more offensive or inappropriate comments … Despicable remarks which deserve to be condemned.”

Turnbull may well have felt strongly about the tweets, but it was still an enormous call to involve himself directly in such a matter. It’s hard for an employee to come back from that.

One might have hoped for better from McIntyre. But one might have hoped for more, too, from Turnbull, a man with a history of fighting for people’s right to say controversial things, and a minister with more important things to do than individually chastise sports reporters for saying controversial things about history.

An interesting trail of tweets on why some of McIntyre’s views are at least debatable.

Over 3000 people have died in the Nepal earthquake. Hundreds of climbers remain trapped on Mount Everest.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran will almost certainly be executed in Indonesia early this week. There are sensational allegations about judges earlier being willing to accept bribes in the case. Tony Abbott has written to the Indonesian president pleading for clemency, and has been waiting for a phone call with the president for seven weeks now.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek has called for Labor to abandon its current approach to gay marriage – allowing its MPs a conscience vote – in favour of all Labor MPs being compelled to vote in favour of marriage equality. Bill Shorten continues to favour a conscience vote (though he personally supports gay marriage). Other Labor figures have attacked Plibersek’s position. And the New York Times has this on how difficult the issue is becoming for US Republicans.

There are a lot of concerns being voiced today about the potential for journalists to be sent to prison under new laws about reporting on intelligence.

The doomed Dr Karl Intergenerational Report advertising campaign (DDKIGRAC) was launched without independent vetting, despite new advertising laws coming in five weeks beforehand. Treasury has said the ads were “initiated” under the old rules.

BHP is paying bugger-all tax in Singapore.

Over-the-counter medications will be removed from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in the budget. That means pensioners and other concession card–holders won’t get a bunch of things for free after hitting the annual PBS safety net.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was held on Saturday. My favourite Obama comedy gold moment was this: "For many Americans, this is still a time of deep uncertainty. For example, I have one friend – just a few weeks ago, she was making millions of dollars a year. And she's now living out of a van in Iowa." Here’s are the ten best jokes the US President made. In less funny news, Russian hackers read Obama’s emails

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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