Right. Let me see if I can justify this post. It’s not going to be typical of this blog.
It is about a writer. That’s good. On this blog I write about writers and writing. But it’s really about Twitter and a Melbourne daily broadsheet called The Age. Not so good. There we enter unfamiliar waters. Possibly waters marked ‘Here Be (Marine Species Of) Dragons’. We’ll see. But it’s also about freedom of expression and about variety of expression. And that’s something I’ve written about before.
If, like me, you live in Victoria then you already know that last week Catherine Deveny lost her job as an opinion columnist with The Age. And you – more or less – know why. For any readers hailing from more far-flung areas, or any living humble lives in caves and only alleviating the boredom by reading adaironbooks.wordpress.com, a brief re-cap is probably in order. For the rest of you, be assured that I’ll keep it very short.
Catherine Deveny is a writer and stand-up comedian. She is also a singularly uninhibited user of Twitter. During a rather revolting Australian television awards ceremony known as the Logies, Deveny produced two tweets which were deemed (by her editor at The Age) sufficiently offensive to justify dispensing with her services. I agree with Deveny’s assertion that reproducing these tweets is likely to cause more hurt than the tweets themselves. Google all about it if you don’t already know their substance. The exact content of the tweets is, I think (and hope I will be able to explain), not strictly relevant.
Good-o. There’s the background done. Now, back to justifying this post. I’ve got a bit of personal history relating to fall-out from Deveny’s tweeting, so I feel strangely qualified to comment on this particular incident.
Some time ago a dear friend of mine re-tweeted one of Deveny’s one hundred and forty character outbursts (which, if memory serves, took the form of a metaphor which conflated the nouns ‘Tony Abbott’ and ‘cunt’). My bosom buddy was at the time employed by a certain Australian broadcaster and an explanation was demanded of him by a number of frighteningly elevated members of that organisation. Enter the prose stylings and editing skills of Misha Adair, which were deployed pro bono in the form of a carefully worded explanation and defence of the re-tweet.
During this charitable process, my beady little eyes were confronted with this broadcaster’s Social Media Policy. At least, they were confronted with a document purporting to represent a policy, but which was in fact, for fabulous opacity, a serious rival to one of the murkier Zen Koans. The exact details of this piece of nonsense have dissolved, leaving not a rack behind. But the overall impression I got was that the ‘Policy’ consisted of a series of platitudes amounting to a plea to ‘play nice with the other kids’. It also made it pretty clear that the broadcaster in question failed utterly to understand the world of social media in which we now exist.
I think this lack of understanding is widespread. And I hasten to add that I don’t think this reflects badly on organisations which are struggling to catch up to the implications of internet networking or communications tools.
Let’s think about what a social media tool like Twitter actually is.
I think one of the better definitions of Twitter I’ve ever read comes from Stephen Fry: ‘The clue’s in the name of the service: Twitter. It’s not called Roar, Assert, Debate or Reason, it’s called Twitter. As in the chirruping of birds.’ The point that Fry is making here is that a microblogging service is hardly the place for profundities, and its name alone suggests that it is intended for frivolity.
In reality, of course, Twitter has emerged as a far more potent force than – presumably – its founders could have imagined possible. You only need to think of Twitter’s role in the most recent Iranian ‘elections’ and the violence which followed them to see that something rather more than ‘the chirruping of birds’ is going on here. It is also the case, as a friend of mine recently and very sternly reminded me, that a judicious selection of twitter streams, if followed, can provide one with a constantly updating and reliable news-service.
Righty-ho then. Twitter can be a serious source of news, it can have a serious impact on global politics. It can also, incidentally, be used to reproduce the whole of Don Quixote. And it can be a means of firing fatuities into cyberspace. It’s a versatile little beast. But can or should activity on Twitter result in someone losing their job?
We’ve all heard stories (haven’t we?) of witless workers who take the day off ‘sick’ and then update their Facebook statuses with something like ‘I’ve just had my third pina colada and my second round of hot sex with some guy I picked up at the tram stop and I’ve never felt better – FUCK THE BOSS! LOL’ apparently having forgotten that the boss is one of their Facebook buddies. Similarly, we’re starting to see increasing collisions between the professional and the personal in the realms of social media tools. Nick Sowden, anybody?
It is possible, in other words, to imagine a situation in which social media activity can have a direct and justifiably deleterious impact upon someone’s professional life. But given the ever-changing nature of social media and the ever-changing impact of the same, I would have thought that one ought to be very, very cautious about censuring (much less censoring) a person’s social media use. Giving people the benefit of the doubt seems to me to be the way to go until we settle into these services a bit more.
Back to Deveny in particular.
In this case, I don’t believe that there was any clash between Deveny’s online activity and her position as an Age columnist. Why was she asked to write for The Age? Simple: because she is funny, opinionated and outrageous. Her tweets are outrageous. Whether you find them funny is up to you, of course. But their intention seems to me to be clear: to express an opinion in an outrageous fashion through the medium of humour. Following Catherine Deveny’s tweets for even a day should be long enough to convince anyone that at times there isn’t enough salt in the civilized world to take them with. Her writing was feisty even when it had to get past the editors and lawyers at The Age (which it sometimes didn’t) but out in the Twittersphere, there was nothing and no-one to get between her brain and her audience.
There’s no clash between her columnistic and Twitterly lives that I can see. I suspect that we’re looking at office politics when we consider her ignominious departure from The Age, not genuine social media – let alone print media – standards. And I also suspect that we’re looking at a demonstration of the clout of two Australian Sacred Institutions: The Plaster Saints ANZAC and Irwin. The columnist Miranda Devine wrote of Deveny’s fate:
‘The wonder was that the newspaper kept her for as long as it did. The benefit of the connection was all hers. She used the platform of the opinion page of one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious mastheads to create her brand. The Age devalued its sophisticated image and was drawn constantly into tawdry debates, such as when Deveny derided Anzacs as rapists.’
Ah, there you go, you see – don’t you dare say anything nasty about the ANZACs. That’s not allowed. You just worship them, ok? That’s what they fought for our freedom for: so that we wouldn’t be free to criticize them. Or something like that. Maybe I’ve got it muddled up.
And hang on, if a major ‘sophisticated’ daily can’t hold its own in a debate or two (tawdry or not) it’s not up to much, surely? The point should also be made – though goodness knows why, since it’s so arse-bogglingly obvious – that Deveny’s Twitter account is not part of or in any meaningful way affiliated with The Age. It’s something quite separate. Which makes Devine’s assertion that Deveny was ‘trashing the brand’ even more peculiar.
And here we have another conundrum: the separation of the personal and the professional. Does it now behoove every journalist – indeed every employee of any stripe – to think twice in panic before tweeting? Or ought they simply scramble to close down their accounts? How many journalists in Australia are, even now, scouring the back-log of their twitterings with fear in their hearts? Miranda Devine, of course, has already had to clean up her somewhat smudged glass house.
What a sordid little lot of bullshit, to be sure.
But enough, and more than enough of the social media debate. The simple fact is that those who don’t watch their followers and their words with paranoid care are increasingly going to find themselves victims of the humourless, the vindictive and the hypocritical. Get used to it, kids.
So, what have Age readers lost in losing Deveny?
Deveny writes scatter-shot polemics that are remarkable for a jagged sense of humour that can be hard to take. Her own response to the situation she finds herself in is typical of her style: hyperbolical, highly personal and unapologetic.
Whether you feel aligned with her politically or ideologically is not important. She is divisive, and we need divisive voices in the media. Simple As That. And we need those voices to be utterly fearless, and unmoved by the possibility that their words may cause ‘offence’. We also – and this simply must be said – need gutsy female voices in the media.
I cannot imagine this affair having a lasting or particularly deleterious impact upon Deveny’s career. But I fear that it sends a rather unpleasant message about where The Age is heading. For some time I’ve been puzzled by the soft-core middle-leftism of its editorials and opinion columns; I’d even (long-sufferingly) welcome a bit more Leunig from time to time. At least there’s something to sink your teeth into when St. Michael emerges from his anchorite fastness to do the relativists’ shimmy.
I don’t believe that Deveny is a supremely gifted prose writer. I don’t think that she is always ideologically, politically or philosophically on the money in her work. I even think that there have been occasions when she would have been better served to rethink the manner of some of her comments, although never their substance.
But I am utterly convinced that Deveny’s work displays a firm and unvarying moral foundation. I am convinced that she puts her all into her writing. And I’m convinced that The Age has been disingenuous in the extreme in its justifications for her dismissal.
Catherine Deveny will not be silenced or destroyed simply because she has been cast from The Age (where, in any case, she was never accorded the now rather dubious honour of a staff position).
But whether The Age can win my trust back after making so egregious a blunder remains to be seen. Me? I’m not very confident.