Friday, May 06, 2011

News against the World

News Ltd are again taking the fight to its perceived enemies with extraordinary assaults against Larissa Behrendt and now Julie Posetti in recent days. Not for the first time both women are the victims of The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell’s attack dogs.

The attack against Posetti (online version not available) was disguised by a headline which read “academic warns of Twitter danger” in classic fearmongering fashion. But having quoted Posetti’s “warning” in the lead, the article suddenly switches to put in the boot in the second sentence and from there on they frame the story as a war between Posetti and Mitchell.

If there is a war, there is only one side fighting it and it’s not Posetti. The Canberra journalism academic first attracted Mitchell’s ire during the so-called Twitdef affair in December. Posetti was at an academic conference live-tweeting the speech of former News journalist Asa Wahlquist when Wahlquist told the conference her reporting of climate change issues was stymied by head office. Posetti duly posted this important admission on Twitter. Mitchell denied Walhquist said this but the audio backs up Posetti. Walhquist later backed away from the statement but the writ has never seen the light of day. Mitchell knows Posetti has a valid defence of fair report.

Nevertheless the Australian insists Posetti erred significantly in not mentioning the incident in a radio interview with Deb Cameron today about dangerous uses of Twitter. In one sense it is a shame Posetti didn’t talk about the issue. It would have shed light on some of the real dangers lurking in Twitter, such as threats from powerful people. But the fault she didn’t mention it, if fault is not too strong a word, belongs to the interviewer Cameron (herself a former News Ltd employee) who missed a golden opportunity to connect the wider story with personal experience.

Posetti was too busy answering the questions that were asked, to have time to talk about her own personal experience. That experience with Mitchell while memorable and bruising, has left her with nothing to be ashamed about. Bringing the subject up unasked in interview, if she had time to think of it at all, would have smacked of vindictiveness - a strong suit of the Australian. The Caroline Overington article makes no sense unless interpreted as a threat. "We are still out to get you so watch what you say in public", was the coded message.

Coded messages were aplenty in the hounding of Aboriginal academic Larissa Behrendt. The former Young Australian of the Year got up News Ltd’s nose recently by being one of the plaintiffs in the race discrimination case ongoing against star journalist Andrew Bolt. The Australian found a way to hit back when they found a tweet sent from Behrendt’s protected Twitter account addressed to friends which read “@rhiannaPatrick – I watched a show where a guy had sex with a horse and I’m sure it was less offensive than Bess Price @paddygibson”.

Behrendt was watching Price on Q&A at the time and unhappy with something Price said. But for News Ltd this was a slur typical of "leftist, ivory-tower thinking". It also had juicy overtones of bestiality which could be spread like muck without any heavy lifting. They launched a relentless campaign against Behrendt constantly reheating the horse sex issue. Their fake outrage was matched with fake concern for Aboriginal issues in daily airings of the “scandal”.

There have been two great skewerings of the affair. Tony Martin effortlessly used a bit of research and a lot of humour to expose the campaign as humbug. He unpacked the horse sex issue and forensically looked at the most well known proximate cause. Behrendts, said Martin, was “one of the nine people who, as Miranda [Devine] would say, ‘identify as’ Aboriginals, and who are currently dragging the Herald Sun’s biggest drawcard [Bolt] through the courts. So, of course, she has to be taken down, even if it’s on trumped-up charges.” Larissa Behrendt expressed a strong view in less than 140 characters that may have been read by as many as 400 people, Martin noted. “She really has to be stopped”.

Then Chris Graham weighed in today with a deeper cause of the problem. He said the campaign was not because of the Bolt connection but rather a successful defamation case she won with NITV CEO Pat Turner against Mitchell’s paper in 2007. The Australian settled for an “undisclosed amount”. Mitchell may appear to act unhinged, but his behaviour is cold and calculating. For him revenge is a dish best served cold – and continuously.

CORRECTION (7 May 2011). I was contacted by Larissa Behrendt who told me about one factual error in my account. Behrendt wasn't watching Q&A but Deadwood which was on at the same time.

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