On Deveny’s dismissal: you’ve tapped into the wrong outrage

Let’s be honest now: is there anyone who truly believes Catherine Deveny was advocating for or supporting paedophilia? The only crimes we can charge her with are bad taste and an inability to judge public reaction, hardly hanging offences.

What other commentators have failed to grasp about the whole debacle are the sinister implications of Deveny’s firing, and the problems this poses for the position of ‘the writer’ today. Alongside the increasing commodification of the author is the idea that authors are a brand, and as such, are expected to build their brand name. They’re thrust into the world of social media, websites, endless self-promotion, celebrity and accessibility. They have to be ‘themselves’ (the reason they were hired in the first place) while promoting their talents, idiosyncrasies and opinions, and within reaching distance of their thousands of followers. They are effectively private contractors who no longer have the support of their institutions or the conditions that go with this.

The privatisation of corporate responsibility – shifting risk from corporations and government to the individual, in this case, Deveny – is what employment in this neoliberal economy demands. Because what Age columnists say on their own time, according to Age policy, belongs to that paper.

So are we to reason that working for a corporation (in Deveny’s case, this involved one column a week) means that corporation owns the writer’s time and what they produce in this time, all 24 hours of every day? So what is it they own? Well, an author’s voice apparently, as well as self-expression, creative control, opinions and attempts at humour.

The things about humour is, it occasionally fails. Even when the entire press team of the President of the United States has vetted the joke:

These demands on private contractors (aka journalists, commentators, writers) regarding responsibility and production are unreasonable and disproportional to a writer’s salary and their employee accountability. The media is now scrambling to convince everyone that a writer’s Twitter feed, regardless of what it contains or who reads it, belongs to the company they work for for X hours per week.

What does this say about any other piece a journalist writes for a publication outside one they are employed by or contracted to? What exactly is the scope of a columnist? Are they also in the Age’s employ when they’re sleeping? Commuting? Drinking? Attending social events?

If this is about what the Age identifies as its ‘brand’, how do they explain Miranda Devine, who advocates the lynching – with all its racist implications and agitation for violence – against environmentalists? Can we subsequently assume everything an Age columnist says is Age editorial policy (and Devine a mouthpiece for the Islamaophobia and racism of the paper)?

This outrage over comedic paedophilia is a faux response. If people are so genuinely outraged, why aren’t the DHS and their cost cutting front-page news? A 16-year-old girl dies from a drug overdose; a victim of sexual abuse who was in state care for most of her life, yet the heartbreaking story disappears after one day. If this outrage is honestly about protecting the children, it’s time for some more honesty: we mean the good children; the ideal middle-class child; the one uncorrupted, innocent when it come to sex, murder, violence and the cruel realities of the world.

What is the line that writers, artists and provocateurs are not allowed to cross? Because it’s not racism, homophobia or other general fear and warmongering.

It’s not Devine, with her Muslim fixation:

There is a new wave of sophisticated, articulate Islamic fundamentalists trying to spread the word among moderate Muslims in Sydney. Young men, wearing regular clothes, with neatly trimmed beards, broad Australian accents and fluent in Arabic, they appear to be fully assimilated, second-generation Australians.

It’s not senior Age writer Julie Szego, and her similar fetishisation:

His admirers point to his progressive interpretations of Islam and advocacy for Muslim integration into the West. His critics accuse him of double-speak and trickery. I admit to hearing alarm bells on seeing his name.

Ramadan describes the problem in Britain as one of “violence”. Presumably he means the surge in violent attacks against Muslims in recent years. It’s an ugly trend, but surely context — the attacks being partly a response to Islamist terror — is relevant here? The terrorists might be few; but their atrocities, would-be atrocities and apologists are not. Merely stating these facts does not equate to condoning anti-Muslim violence or blaming the victim.

It’s not Bolt, with his inherent mistrust of the Sudanese:

A state school principal has also told me how very hard she’s found it to integrate the African students in her school, given how few of them have any English or much respect for authority. What makes her challenge worse, she says, is that she has so many of them, leading then naturally to form a “gang” rather than be forced to assimilate.

We can ignore all this, as we usually, do and shout “racist” at those who point out that we have a problem.

But we need to rethink just how – or even whether – we resettle immigrants whose culture is so very, very different.

And it’s not Ackerman, with his take on Australians stranded in Lebanon and his insights on the Middle East:

And while the coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald goes out of its way to blame Israel for belligerence, intransigence and even, most laughably, for a lack of “proportionality” in its response to aggression, it must not be forgotten that this current crisis was triggered by a Hezbollah raid into Israel and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers.

This is not a war of Israel’s making. This is part of the ongoing jihadist war to dominate the world.

These are all examples of writings produced during work hours. Doubtless, these writers still have jobs because they were upholding the paper’s brand when they produced this propaganda.

So writers beware: upset middle-class moralism and that’s it, your job’s over. In this day and brand and economy, you can be sacked for displaying bad taste on your night off – yet, not for inciting a riot. Or perhaps the line Deveny crossed is the same line Greer crossed: the Irwin family. Maybe Australia is in need of a locally-born royal family.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Indeed. The other comparison is with those pundits who advocated for the Iraq war, not via an off-the-cuff quip but often through a series of articles. That conflict was, according to the majority of international legal experts, illegal, and resulted in the deaths of perhaps a million Iraqis. Not one of the pro-war columnists lost their jobs — not one.
    Shorter MSM: it’s OK to campaign for an illegal conflict that soaks the Middle East in blood, so long as you’re not rude to anyone.

  2. Super piece. Right on. One can advocate for war, murder, suburban vigilante activity, racist exclusion, the locking of children in prisons, and so forth. But don’t make lame jokes in ‘bad taste’ that your employers don’t like. Even when you’re not at work.

  3. Deveny’s writing on her night off work got me thinking about footballer’s behaving badly at pub. Does a contract with the Age contain one of those generic clauses about bringing the paper into disrepute? We don’t have a problem with AFL players being fined, traded or pilloried when they offend the greater community.

    Is it because Twitter, like AFL, exisists tangibly in popular culture in a way that ‘the writer’ traditionally has not. We can touch and interact with the writer through social media, like we can cheer and backslap players at Thursday night training – but we’ve never had access to the writer before as we do today.

    Could it be that, with this increased access comes a greater sense of public ownership – we can get the writer for free, online, whenever I want to be entertained, whenever I want – and therefore we (the public, the Age, the rest of the media) can make decisions about what a writer can say and think..?

    Or maybe it’s more than that – maybe an online writer isn’t a real writer, and therefore not entitled to their own thoughts, their own time?

  4. Good piece that I’m sure all of us somewhere on ‘the left’ will agree with to a great degree. However, I think Jason Wilson’s piece in New Matilda (http://newmatilda.com/2010/05/06/embarrassment-latte-belt) really highlighted why it’s a win for civil society that Deveny was sacked. She has a right to say what she wants, but not necessarily to be given a broad readership and pay for peddling unveiled class hatred. Her tweets were offensive, but hardly the crux of what’s wrong with her particular ‘contribution’ to public comment.

    Of course we all think Bolt, Devine, Ackerman (Albrechtsen, Jones…) shouldn’t have a (paid) forum to do much worse than Deveny ever has. But I don’t think that means we can’t be delighted to see any of them go.

  5. Hi Tammi,
    I saw that Jason Wilson piece too and I must say I didn’t find it very convincing. Yes, Deveny, like so many of the New Atheists, did, at times, write stuff sneering at suburbanites (like the notorious Chadstone piece). But is that why she was so targeted by the various rightwing hatchet men? Does her sacking open up more room for left-of-centre voices in the print media or less? Is she likely to be replaced by someone who articulates a more coherent radical worldview or will her spot go to yet another safely bland columnist who will repeat conventional wisdom and never trouble anyone?
    As someone from Crikey pointed out, the Age has effectively conceded that the shock jocks are the legitimate arbiters of public morals. IMO, it’s a very bad precedent.

  6. Hi Jeff – I totally agree that there are concerns over what kind of columnist might come along next. However, I would hardly hold The Age up as hopeful to provide insightful left-of-centre commentary, and I stand by Jason’s points – I personally never have believed that Deveny represents the left, or feminists in particular, in a way that I appreciate or believe to be productive.

    As for your concerns about shock jocks – I obviously share those as well, and since Deveny was simply another version of the same, I’m glad to see her go. I’m not a fan of the trolls, as I gather you’re not, and that’s what Deveny is.

  7. Fascinating and pathetic, what will incite action – not outrage, but the outrageous; not empathy for the truly common sensible, but offended sensibilities. And dear Bindi, unwitting catalyst, an ironic, iconic example of human being as commodity/brand.

    An excellent response, Jacinda, thank you.

  8. I’m still bamboozled as to why Deveny’s tasteless chatter gets her sacked, whilst a League player involved in a pack rape gets his own TV show.

  9. Deveny’s tweets are not, I think, being claimed by Fairfax? In that they are HER tweets? Mmmm. Twitter makes it very plain in its terms of use that, unlike Blogger or Facebook, anything you tweet is your copyrighted material.

    There have been arguments in the US over whether something as short as 140 characters is covered by copyright. According to Larrikin Records, a riff of 11 notes most certainly is – and worth a claim of $65 million. (The Men at Work Down Under case). And certainly Twitter, while conceding copyright is retained by the originator, is free to distribute it as it will.

    But did any of the media who have repeated ad nauseum Deveny’s tweets, character for character, have permission to do so? Fair use would allow them to use 10% without permission – that would be a maximum of 14 characters. Should Ms Deveny be hiring herself a damned good lawyer and requesting payment for the unauthorised use of her copyrighed material?

  10. Jacinda, you’ve raised so many excellent points as have the responses. Catherine can be outrageous – that’s her job. And she takes the piss – that’s a good thing. She’s one of the very few who are willing to take risks and to expose hypocrisy and challenge authority. No wonder she’s been flagellated. In fact, you get the feeling that people (read right-wing commentators who dominate the media) have been waiting for this moment.

    And because Australia’s media is so concentrated, analysis and discussion of her sacking will fall pretty much to The Age (self-interested) and the ABC (once fearless now fearful). I haven’t read the Herald-Sun’s take on it but my guess is that Murdoch media’s analysis will be little more than sticking the boot in.

    So Catherine gets it while ‘boys’ like Newman, McGuire, Ackerman, Bolt et al get to spout their racist, sexist, homophobic, fear-mongering rhetoric.

  11. I received this from a colleague who is asking people to support Catherine by protesting to The Editor-in-Chief of The Age:

    The Age’s termination of CD’s contract as a columnist because of her recent Twitter messages raises many conflicting issues: free speech of individuals v reasonable right of a serious media organisation to protect its integrity, the level of control a media outlet should/should not have over comments of its columnists in their private lives (and how that differs for serious journalists v comedians and employee v contractor,) and is comment on twitter private or public, etc.

    In the end, regardless of which way you come down on those matters, I think that Catherine Deveny should be supported because society needs people who are challenging and insightful (even offensive ratbags which CD can sometimes be), she is one of few people writing in the mainstream media who is often outspoken on women’s issues, action of The Age sends a bad message about what happens to women who dare to be different, and because life will be more colourless if CD is muzzled!

    Women who know CD or read her columns may want to support her by contacting The Age.

    With the media’s span of attention on any matter lasting only a day or two, if The Age has stopped publishing Letters to the Editor, people could write to:

    The Age
    PO Box 257, Melbourne VIC 3001

  12. Miranda Devine in the SMH:

    In a chaotic world of aggregators, of Google and Twitter and specialist web feeds, a newspaper is a “credible one-stop shop” of local news where all the hard choices have been made for the reader. Which is why not trashing the brand is more important than ever. Sorry, Catherine.

    Miranda Devine on Twitter the same day, to someone accusing her of homophobia:

    You’ve had enough of rogering gerbils I see.

    #rogeringgerbils was briefly a trending topic.

    Will be interesting to see whether the SMH is happy to associate its brand with homophobia.

  13. I’m a couple of days behind with all of this, but I totally agree with you, Jacinda. I do think, though, that the fact that it was Bindi Irwin meant the public outrage was much louder than it would have been if it had been any other kid in the public eye. I used to work behind the scenes in a couple of mainstream media outlets, and their obsession with Bindi Irwin (and the sickening regularity with which they indulged in it) was rivalled only by their penchant for misrepresentation and grief pornography.

    I do think Deveny’s brand of hyperbole and antagonism has a role to play in mainstream media, if only to counteract the tidal wave of right-wing perspectives that take a similar tone. I also think your points about the \writer brand\ are well made and very important. I hope the tide shifts in favour of the writer’s freedom of expression but I’m not totally optimistic.

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