Thursday, 26 June 2014

Bat country for old men

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Daily Telegraph blogger Tim Blair is notorious for inflammatory personal attacks posted on his blog, particularly against women with a public profile and strong opinions. Personal abuse is everywhere on the Internet, on twitter, private blogs, and in comments. But Blair is also a journalist blogging under the masthead of Australia’s most powerful News Corp tabloid, The Daily Telegraph.

The newspaper ran a “Stop the Trolls” campaign in 2012, “aimed at stopping the vile and abusive trolls on Twitter”. Blair’s blog specialises in personal abuse and it allows commenters free rein. But because Blair is a journalist working for a powerful organisation, it’s not just his victims but also his peers who will not call him out. Other journalists are complicit in his behaviour by their silence and his employer is actively participating in it by allowing it to continue.

Blair made a splash on twitter recently with his Frightbat poll. He certainly didn’t seem to mind the attention, with a follow up post, and another follow up post and then another and a column in The Daily Telegraph as well (yes, I’ve linked to his page, no I am not concerned that this will provide advertising revenue for him*).

The Tribune contacted Blair to discuss his approach to blogging and commenters. He was polite, engaging and generous with his time. The conversation was pleasant, sympathetic, even enjoyable, and it jarred with the blog persona. It’s hard to know whether this was a genuine lack of awareness of the damage that sometimes flows from topics he raises, or a practised disingenuousness.

Blair thought the Frightbat poll was just a bit of fun, not something to take particularly seriously. He didn’t associate anything in the post with mental health issues.

TB: If I call someone crazy I’m not talking about mental health issues, that’s the common sort of talk for just irrational or illogical.

KT: So you mean it’s colloquial rather than diagnostic?

TB: Yes, very good way of putting it.

On the other hand, this is what he actually wrote in the Frightbat post:

They shriek, they rage, they cheer, they despair, they exult, they scream, they laugh, they cry! There’s never a non-emotional moment in the lives of Australia’s left-wing ladies’ auxiliary, whose psychosocial behavioural disorders are becoming ever more dramatic following Tony Abbott’s election.

Only one of them, however, can reign as our solitary monarch of madness. Only one can stand above all others, wailing and howling, while the rest look on and ask: “Where’s the Ritalin?” In the search for this nation’s most unhinged hysteric, let the BlairPoll decide!

This goes beyond the colloquial. Even if he didn’t mean it that way, it would seem that some of his commenters misunderstood him.

Tim Blair

 

Blair’s blog has been hosted by News Corp and published under The Daily Telegraph masthead since 2008. Although he is named in some places as the Opinion Editor of The Daily Telegraph, he claims that “I haven’t been the opinion editor for some years” and there is no reference to him holding that position on the site. He is however, publishing under their aegis and, in addition to his own regular column in the newspaper, he is implicitly supported by other News Corp sites like The Australian republishing this piece by Blair under their own masthead. This is not just some guy in a basement, this is a journalist hired by the largest newspaper owner in Australia.

The Frightbat Poll was not a one-off; there’s a fair bit of history behind it. Blair has been posting derogatory comments about Margo Kingston (one of the women nominated in his poll and the subject of the comments above) for nearly 14 years.

Kingston was a pioneer of online journalism in Australia. Her blog Webdiary, first published on the Sydney Morning Herald site and later independently, was one of the first political blogs in Australia. As Tim Dunlop said in his book The New Front Page: new media and the rise of the audience:

…what Webdiary delivered, is the sort of journalism that fundamentally alters the relationship between the media and its audience; the sort of journalism that breaks the fourth wall between journalists and citizens, the force field that keeps the two separate. This is an approach that, depending on your point of view, is either going to save journalism or destroy it.

Blair to his credit was also one of the early adopters of online journalism, and seemed to develop an almost obsessive hatred of Kingston and Webdiary. At that time, Blair was running his blog privately.

Kingston says that Blair, on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, published blog posts impugning her appearance, intelligence, sexuality, mental health, her professional abilities. He suggested she was an alcoholic and questioned not just her sexual orientation, but even her gender. Some of the posts from those early years and, even more, the comments, are staggering. As Blair himself said, “you can’t get away with unmoderated comments now”, but in the early days of blogging and comments sections there was a far greater concern with allowing freedom of expression than refusing to post offensive comments.

The constant barrage of insults and insinuations weren't something she could avoid by just refusing to read Blair’s blog. His commenters moved from his blog to hers (which they refer to again and again) after each post he made. Kingston says the final straw was a comment to the effect that she had hair on her palms. “Like I was an animal, just pretending to be human, but not really human at all.”

In late 2005 Kingston suffered a physical and nervous breakdown after trying to establish Webdiary as an independent site, and retired from journalism.

I couldn’t find any posts by Kingston making personal attacks on anyone, including Blair. Even Blair’s commenters noticed that she never hit back at him. She is certainly passionate about her causes, she sees herself as a voice “for the public interest” and is very firm in her opinions. But she was also determined, long before the days of comments policies and awareness of online bullying, to ensure that Webdiary maintained a highethical standard.

Blair is well aware that Kingston has had mental and physical health issues. Kingston told The Tribune that she and Blair were on a panel together for the Sydney Writer’s Festival in 2009 and, after the panel discussion, she said to him “do you know how much you hurt me?” Kingston says that he told her that he’d “decided to never do that again”.

The Frightbats Poll, the four follow up pieces on Blair’s blog and the article in The Daily Telegraph opinion section suggest that either she misunderstood him or that he was unable to keep such a promise.

Kingston also says that Clementine Ford’s response to Frightbats was an inspiration. “It helped me let go of the pain and realise that to be vilified by such a man is actually a compliment”. She is also quite clear that while she agreed to be interviewed by the Tribune about Blair in this instance, it’s a topic that she is not keen to revisit. She is working on a PhD and keen to continue with her focus on citizen journalism and the public interest causes she embraces. Blair’s obsession with her activities is something she wants to put behind her.

Sarah Capper, editor of feminist publication Sheilas and long-term friend of Kingston, can recall the impact of Blair’s relentless personal attacks during the Webdiary years.

It caused her deep anguish at times on a personal level and was of a vicious, teardown mentality. And it was constant, relentless – there was just no let-up. That old adage of ‘ignore it and it will go away’ didn’t work.

Blair has a tendency of flame throwing. Striking a match and running away.

This may be fine, for want of a better word, on a private blog-post, but as a representative of The Daily Telegraph and News Limited, I think he has a responsibility to rein in comments when they sink into low-blow, personal abuse-driven territory.

We’ve heard over and over again that the best way to deal with such things is to ignore them. “Don’t feed the trolls” is almost a catchcry of the Internet. But Tim Blair has been blogging for nearly 15 years. Ignoring him has no effect. Indeed, ignoring him simply allows him free rein to continue with his attacks on the person rather than the argument, because he is never called to account for what he does.

Blair told The Tribune that The Daily Telegraph exercises no oversight or editorial control over his blog and that he has no guidelines for the comments that he publishes - it is entirely his judgement call. He is given free rein and is, if not actively encouraged by News Corp, never restrained from his harassment of left wing and progressive writers.

Over the last 12 months or so, he’s started a campaign against playwright and The Guardian columnist Van Badham that looks eerily similar to the obsessive posts about Kingston.

He posts regularly about Badham but rarely addresses her arguments. In one of the more egregious posts, he quoted a paragraph from an article about unemployment that she’d written for The Guardian, in which she mentioned her recently deceased father. He didn’t address any of the points she made about the cause and effects of unemployment, which were the main topics of the article - his post was solely about her and her father, it opens with: “It turns out that Guardian columnist Van Badham’s capacity for indulgent hysteria was inherited from her father” and closes with another sneer.

Blair moderates his own comments. He doesn’t have any specific guidelines from News Corp or the Tele, as he told The Tribune:

KT: Do you have a specific list of things you won’t publish or is it more of a judgement call?

TB: It’s more just a judgement call.

KT: So the judgement call [to not publish a comment] is on the basis of ‘can it be proven, is it a threat, is it offensive’, is that right?

TB: Yes...you just watch out for threats and yeah, play nice with everybody

After the announcement that Badham would be on the ABC’s QandA panel in April this year Blair posted three pieces about her, striking the match and publishing comments like these:

Tim Blair

 

And this:

Tim Blair

 

Indeed.

Blair cannot be held responsible for what people say anywhere outside his site. But if he presents his readers with a target and they follow that outside his site and start attacking the subjects of his posts, does he bear some responsibility? Immediately after Blair posted about Badham being on QandA, links started appearing in her twitter feeds, many of them linking back to Blair’s posts.

Tim Blair

 

Tim Blair

Tim Blair

Tim Blair

 

Tim Blair

 

These are just a few of the hundreds of tweets Badham receives, and any observer can see a spike in the hatetweets immediately after Blair has posted about her – as happened with the QandA tweets above. If Blair knows this, or it is pointed out to him, does he have a responsibility to ask better behaviour of his readers? Or to at least ask them to refrain from joining in on hateful tweeting directed at the subjects of his posts? And does The Daily Telegraph and News Corp have a responsibility for the content published under its masthead?

Without reading everything he’s written over 14 years, it seems that most of his posts about female writers follow the same pattern. Their argument may get a mention, but the focus of the posts seems to be the writers themselves. They’re moody, old, crazy, irrational, berserk, unhinged, sweary, paranoid and loco and this is why their work should be dismissed

It’s interesting that when he posts about male left wing journalists (which he does regularly) he rarely comments on their appearance or emotional state. Little digs about where Jonathan Green bought a house aside, he will make some effort to address the argument with which he disagrees when he’s posting about Mike Carlton or Sam De Brito. None of his male subjects are castigated for their emotions - this is something that only attracts his ire in women.

This approach is, of course, not unique to Tim Blair. And it is not unique to one side of the ideological divide. Some of the women nominated in the Frightbat poll can be strident in their opinions and have tweeted offensive or personal remarks about public figures and other journalists. And in the same way that Blair should be called out when he makes or incites personal attacks, so to should anyone else. Bob Ellis, for instance, has a long history of personal attacks, straw man arguments and playing the man not the ball. And such behaviour is as reprehensible in him as it is in Blair. The difference is though, that Blair is publishing under The Daily Telegraph masthead, with the all support that complicity from a large organisation implies. Ellis is published by no one but himself. For good reason.

Blair is not pretending to publish news, he is publishing opinion. The fact that some of us may disagree with his opinions is in no way grounds to complain about his ability to publish them. Media and democracy would be much the poorer if opinion, even offensive, satirical opinion, were removed from public discussion.

However there is, or should be, a line between vigorous disagreement and vicious personal attacks.

There is such a line. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the journalists’ union, guidelines are specific about it.

Journalists will educate themselves about ethics and apply the following standards:

1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.

2. Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.

Blair may well not be a member of the MEAA and therefore not bound by their guidelines. However, the Australian Press Council’s Statement of Principles is equally clear on this issue and Blair is a journalist, he should be held to the standards of the profession:

Publications should not place any gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. Where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report and express opinions in these areas.

One of the reasons Blair is not called to account is fear. I interviewed a number of people in the course of researching this article. Almost all of them warned me about what would happen if I went ahead. Some were too afraid to go on the record about him because of the reaction it might incur. I was told that he would go through my social media photos, searching for images that he might be able to use to shame me, as he did with Clem Bastow. He would go back through all my published articles to find things he could misrepresent or misquote. That he would post about me and I’d be attacked on twitter and by email with vicious personal slurs. I understand this risk, fear of being trolled means many people remain silent about what he is doing. This is a problem, not for him, but for journalism.

Media has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 10 years. The line between journalist and blogger has blurred to the point of being almost indistinguishable. Journalism, if it is to continue to be self-regulating, must in fact, regulate itself. This should never mean that dissenting opinions are shut down, but it should mean that where the media is doing genuine harm, it acts to mitigate that harm.

* in response to all the people who worry about clicking links to Blair’s blog on the grounds that they do not want to contribute to his advertising income. Most large advertisers, of the type showing up on Blair’s blog (Optus, Commonwealth Bank, eBay etc), are buying online ads through agencies. Typically media buyers purchase tens of thousands of impressions, not specifically with one masthead, but through a broker. The brokers are selling space on any number of mastheads and ads are served by following demographics and behaviours (recent searches in cookies etc) rather than specific blog pages. The brokers sell ad views at somewhere between $7 and $14 per 1,000 impressions and it would be unusual for more than 50% of that to get back to Blair himself. Obviously, The Tribune has no information about the financial arrangements between Blair and News Corp, or between News Corp and the ad brokers, so this is just speculation based on general information provided by industry experts. However, it seems almost impossible that Blair’s blog would provide significant direct financial reward through advertising, and just clicks alone are meaningless. Where Blair’s blog would provide value to News Corp is in maintaining returning visitors, and moving traffic around the various News Corp sites through both embedded and sidebar links. He creates “stickiness” – loyal readers, who spend significant time on the site, are engaged with the brand and return regularly.

Jane Gilmore

Jane Gilmore is the editor of The King's Tribune.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @JaneTribune