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‘Clusterfuck’: how the media slipped up on the Speaker saga

They were the text messages that brought down the Speaker, making political history. So why did most of the media miss them?

The modern media is a ravenous beast, quick to seize upon seemingly any scrap of scandal or conflict. Yet in this age of information overload, it’s still possible for a ground-breaking story to fly past the fourth estate as it stands by, distracted and impotent.

Look no further than Peter Slipper and the vile texts he sent to a former staffer comparing female g-nitalia to “shell-less mussels”. The story was so big that, in less than a week, Slipper — until then one of the great survivors of Australian politics — had been forced from the job.

The way the Slipper scandal was  — and wasn’t — reported is a tale of chance, intuition and behind-the-scenes legal manoeuvrings. It’s also a reminder of how wildly different news values and judgment about taste shape the news agenda.

One reporter who’s written about the matter over recent days describes it simply as a “clusterf-ck”. Here’s how it unfolded.

Last Thursday, Slipper appeared in Sydney’s federal court to defend himself against s-xual harassment allegations filed by former staffer James Ashby. At around 2.30pm Ashby’s lawyer Michael Lee raised Slipper’s lurid references to female g-nitalia to emphasise the s-xualised nature of his communications with Ashby.

He read out a text sent by Slipper: “Been to the fish shop yet to buy the bottle of shell-less mussels.” After clarifying this referred to female g-nitalia, Lee read out another text message: “They look like mussel removed from its shell. Look at the bottle of mussel meat.”

In the courtroom were print, broadcast and wire service reporters — at least 10 according to one of those present. Many were shocked by the comments, but only one newspaper, The Australian Financial Review, reported Slipper’s remarks the next day.

The Australian, by contrast, focused on the fact Slipper was representing himself; The Sydney Morning Herald led with the judge rebuking Ashby for not pressing criminal charges. The Daily Telegraph’s angle was Slipper’s suggestive comment to Ashby and a colleague: “Can I kiss you both?”

Court reporting, as anyone who has attempted it knows, is an extremely difficult, at times exhausting, task. Even with impeccable shorthand, it’s possible to not hear a comment, to miss what is said — or the significance of what is said.

Crikey has spoken to one newspaper reporter who was in court on the day but was absent for the half hour when the texts were raised because they were filing a story. Another heard the remarks but didn’t get them down in full.

None of us were quite sure what the quote was,” said the reporter. “We knew he said something about mussels and g-nitalia and we were trying to check … I didn’t want to run anything unless I knew exactly what the text said.” According to this journalist, the judge in the case, Justice Steven Rares, denied requests from reporters to release the texts that afternoon.

The AFR had two big advantages over its rivals. One of its reporters in the courtroom that day was editor-at-large Pamela Williams. The political reporting veteran didn’t write the initial news story, but she grasped the political implications of Slipper’s remarks and shaped the paper’s coverage. The Fin also obtained a transcript of that day’s proceedings, which allowed the paper to confirm exactly what was said in court.

The Fin’s Friday story got remarkably little traction in the rest of the media (including the ABC, the highly-read Saturday papers and Crikey). By Saturday night, both Fairfax and News Limited’s Sunday Telegraph had obtained copies of the Slipper/Ashby texts. The Tele decided not to run them following legal advice that doing so could leave the paper in contempt of court.

Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen admits a tinge of regret about not pushing harder to publish. ”On Tuesday, when the Fin Review published a full breakout of the texts, I realised they were dynamite,” Breen told Crikey.

As well as the negative legal advice, he was also consumed with the aftermath of Alan Jones’ offensive remarks about Julia Gillard’s father. ”If this was a Saturday where there was no Alan Jones story it might have been a different kettle of fish,” he said.

Fairfax’s Sunday papers, following discussions with lawyers, decided to publish a selection of the 200 texts. Jess Wright’s story, which wasn’t run prominently in either The Sun-Herald or Sunday Age, noted Slipper’s “dismissive references to female g-nitalia” but did not focus on this angle.

News Limited political correspondent Samantha Maiden, also writing on Sunday, had no doubt squeamishness about the text messages’ gross content had led to them being underplayed by the media. She wrote:

Slipper scored an unusual get-out-of-jail card this week when most of the media self-censored his musings on female s-xual organs as too lewd for publication.

But, with both sides of politics playing the gender card, why should good taste prevent public discussion of whether a man happy to compare female g-nitals to ‘shell-less mussels’ in texts read to the Federal Court is fit for the job?”

Indeed, the broadcast media has been particularly reticent about reporting on the Slipper texts, with ABC Lateline’s Tom Iggulden describing them as “unbroadcastable” and Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes as “too disgusting for broadcast”.

By Monday night, the full suite of text messages had been released.

According to many commentators on social media, Slipper’s private text messages are none of our business – and shouldn’t impact on his ability to stay in the job. But Coalition strategists quickly seized on them as an opportunity to prosecute a case of hypocrisy against Labor, which had been hounding Tony Abbott over his attitudes to women. Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, who had both previously backed Slipper staying in the job, were so revolted by the text messages they told Slipper they would support a vote of no confidence against him unless he resigned.

At 7.20pm on Tuesday, an emotional Slipper addressed the Parliament and announced his resignation. This time around, no one missed the story.

  • 1
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Just goes to show how last century newspaper really are! The sooner they die the better.

  • 2
    Mark out West
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    If the description is as vile as you portray then I would suggest that you are condemning a very significant portion of the population. The bearded cl#m is referred to in many male conversations, if this is all there is then the reason it received no traction was most reporters have used or laughed at the phrase.

    Get over yourself.

  • 3
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    So why is pussy riot so widely publicised ? What is the timeline of these texts , before or after Slipper became speaker ?

  • 4
    Stevo the Working Twistie
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    It is just so hard these days to decide what to be outraged about. Who can blame the mainstream media for not knowing which triviality to beat up out of all proportion?

  • 5
    Shaniq'ua Chardonnay
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I think the reason the texts escaped notice is that they really only had ‘political implications”. They really don’t come across as misogynist to me - they just seem stupid. The worst was calling Ms Mirabella a ‘botch’ which was pretty venomous but that’s about it. I wonder if there are any similar comments about his male counterparts.

  • 7
    Mark out West
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Also the phrase “The fourth Estate” belongs to only a very small minority of independent journalists, you could count on one hand.

    The rest are partisan, normally right wing because it doesn’t take as much intelligence to side with the money and power. Journalists like to wrap themselves in the “Fourth Estate” mythology like people who call themselves patriots wrap themselves in the flag.

  • 8
    Michael Lines
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Geomac26, the texts were sent last year, before Slipper was Speaker. But you wont get the Coalition owning that little fact.

  • 9
    Ben N
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I agree Shaniq - somewhat off colour comments in private messages do not a misogynist make.

    I am also surprised that there is little emphasis on the ‘private’ part either, as opposed to the allegations against Abbot for his very public opinions. To my knowledge, Peter Slipper hasn’t gone on the record with sexist remarks - if he had I am sure it would be dredged up by now!

  • 10
    Matt Hardin
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    @Stevo - you win. That is the comment of the week! Worthy of a whole First Dog cartoon.

  • 11
    Bob the builder
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Well said Mr. Twistie.
    These texts are unpleasant (well, what would I know? - no media outlet appears to have posted the primary source anywhere that I can see), but hardly worth any but the most cursory coverage.

  • 12
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Can someone please explain to me how it is sexist to compare vaginas with mussels. Over-use of the C word is pretty bad, and does look like disrespect for women.

    These texts were sent while Slipper was a Liberal Party MP, before he became speaker.

    The Libs outrage in parliament was totally confected. Absolute bullshit.

    Abbott deserved what he copped from Gillard, and then some.

  • 13
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    At least part of the tory-manufactured outrage was only possible because of the MSM censoring what was written and thereby making it seem far worse than it actually was.

    Let’s just pause for a moment, boys, and contemplate our ‘winkles’. Or is it any seaside mums in British towns (ie my mum!) who ever used that term for boy’s parts?

    Now let us think of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. There’s a reason she’s coming out of a clam, you can call it sexist if you like, but any worse than comapring them to flower parts? Not really.

    Yes, it was crass. But then we are taking about a gay staffer who was encouraging sexy conversations with his boss.

    Is the word ‘Honeytrap’ offensive? It sure seems appropriate…

  • 14
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Oh for god’s sake, grow the hell up. If descriptions of female genitals are now so lurid as to never be mentioned where are we, in the 19th century.

    They were sent before Slipper employed Ashby so Ashby can hardly claim to have been harassed on the job when he was the one doing all the texting.

    You need to grow the hell up and stop being pathetic children.

    Marianne Faithful once wrote and sang a song called “why’d ya do it” in which she portrays her genitals as “my little oyster”.

    Now just stop the precious clap trap.

  • 15
    Bingbong Abooboo
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    The left biased media just ignored or chose not to report the comments, knowing this could bring down the speaker and possibly bring the next election that little bit closer.

  • 16
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if the response of social media commentators and others is, at least in part, a generational thing? My Gen Y offspring have been quite firm in their views that not only private communications but the whole ‘character thing’ is irrelevant to the ways in which holders of public office should be assessed. ‘It didn’t have anything to do with the performance of his job,’ was the view of the 20-somethings. The view of baby boomers, on the other hand, seems to be that it does matter. So perhaps there is a generational difference in what we expect of our politicians.

  • 17
    Aliar Jones
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    The only reason anyone is even debating whether the texts were ‘misogynistic’ is due to the limp ‘gotcha’ tactics regularly employed by the LNP and their horde of goons who would fail basic primary school comprehension.

    File this crap under ‘Juliar’ as a fundamental failure of intelligence.

  • 18
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Not sure Margo, none of the women in my family have any time for Gillard at all and we range from 82 down to 12.

  • 19
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t this make you think of last night’s Rake - “memberum virili” is the appropriate term, because “p-nis” might offend. The elderly judge.

    I think we should be more concerned as to whether the former Speaker sexually harassed a staff member than his euphemisms for female reproductive organs.

  • 20
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    PS Crikey, how come you can use the whole, uncensored word in the headline, but you use “clusterf-ck” and other blanks in the body of the article?

  • 21
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of Kennetts taped phone conversation with Peacock ? and same words as Slipper but to describe Howard . Don,t recall it doing him any harm politically . I,ve wondered sometimes how does being a cadet at a private school like Scotch enable one to become an officer when called up instead of rank private ? Maybe thats why Kennett the officer was sent to Malaysia instead of Vietnam . I think he was awarded the silver pen for outstanding penmanship while writing orders .

  • 22
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    And really after decades of gay liberation marches, debates on gay marriage, gay relationships only on our TV screens in family shows isn’t it all a bit juvenile to titter about a heterosexual man describing genitals to a gay man.

  • 23
    Matthew Knott
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Hi @Lexi. We censor naughty words not because we’re prudish but because they can get caught by email spam filters. Not an issue for website copy.

  • 24
    schaffer bill
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    There are several things worthy of pause in this case, none of which are emphasised in the current piece. The first is the unrestrained hypocrisy of Liberals who object to public response to speeches made at political functions while dragging a person’s intimate and personal text messages before Parliament. The second is the even more outrageous hypocrisy of the chorus line of journalists who have lined up to denounce Gillard for her lack of moral principles in not denouncing Slipper (when she actually did), without bothering to point out that the Liberals have prosecuted the issue in an obvious and utterly cynical attempt to wedge the government. The press gallery in it’s entirety is indeed well on the way to irrelevancy.

  • 25
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Yes, just how did the palace eunuchs of the press miss all this?
    Isn’t all this exactly what the other palace eunuchs in Imperial China were interested in?
    Murdoch, The Last Emperor?

  • 26
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone know which way Peter Slipper voted when the Coalition elected Tony Abbott to replace Malcolm Turnbull as Leader of the Opposition? Abbott won by one vote. Could that have been a Slipper vote?

  • 27
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    In fear of being called a hypocrite, or incitng outrage ….

    I haven’t seen anything much more than the mussell reference, and I’m not interested in dredging the bottom of the internet to find out, and if all he did was refer to female genitalia with crude euphemisms, the man should be accused of what he no doubts is.

    A bogan!

    I would have thought dropping the C-Bomb a greater offence, and sadly I have uttered it myself, but tend to be smart enough not to txt such language.

    It wasn’t a clusterfuck, it was a non-story until TA decided to try to make a case for his termination as Speaker based on the fact that he had outed himself as a bogan. And then what ensued was exactly the sort of spanking that such hypocrisy deserves.

    It just looks like confected outrage to me. I would never be so crude as to use such terms in the presence of a woman, but I have surely giggled inappropriately at ribald jokes where such terms have been employed. Does that make me an axe murderer?

    This was missed because it was not much of a story, surely, except for a Sunday rag (rag = reference to a lowest common denominator pseudo-news publication)

    Again, missing the point.

    Now if Abbott had got up and made a case for Slipper’s termination due to rank stupidity, he would have had a pretty tight case.

  • 28
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Tight = watertight, of course.

    And this comment will make sense if my previous one gets through moderation.

    Apologies for any confusion.

  • 29
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Slipper voted for Abbott .

  • 30
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    were is the comment that i posted mr editior ?

    there was nothing offensive in my post

    censorship at crikey you have got to be kidding ?

  • 31
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    my apologies it was published below another article

  • 32
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    The other missed story of the day that slipped right under the media’s blinkers….

    Labor passes legislation to cut parental payments for 100,000 single mothers.

    But hey… lets focus on Gillard screaming everyones s_xist instead!

  • 33
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Heaven’s how can it be that I agree with Geewiz.

    The talk of sexism is frankly embarrassing.

  • 34
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    truthless aka whiz aka alf garnett
    Coalition supported that legislation but you missed that ? Thats a very neat figure you state not 1005 or 20678 but 100,000 and all mothers . So there are no fathers in Australia raising their children ? Maybe fathers don,t count in your estimation as being relevant in child raising . Your concern would be credible if it wasn,t for the many times you have maligned any form of social welfare . Any form except that is private education etc etc that goes to people who are not on their uppers . So the story would be ? Both major parties united in passing bill to have parents on newstart after their child turns eight and no tax up to 21k . Oh and can earn 800 odd bucks a fortnight as well . Whats the headline ? Dole basher finds his lost heart .

  • 35
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    @ GeeWizz - This comment is becoming boring. You have been repeating it for days!!
    Why shouldn’t the taxpayers of this country expect single PARENTS to get a job (or do some study) after their YOUNGEST child has been at school for three years? Perhaps you could explain to all of us why these people should expect to be supported by the rest of the community to do nothing while their children are at school during the day??? This is NOT a s+xist issue - there are single fathers too, you know.

  • 36
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    GeeWizz, the story has been reported in the media, including Crikey. Eva Cox wrote about it, remember?
    So what is your take on the legislative changes? Have you made representations to Parliament decrying the changes? Have you been critical of anyone or everyone in Parliament about the changes? Do you even know what it means?

  • 37
    Grant Kelly
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Ashby was always just a ‘honey trap’. Confidant of Mal Brough. On a relentless payback campaign for Slipper ‘ratting’on the Coalition. The endgame is playing out. Slipper will probably vote often with the Government from here on in. Who could blame him?

  • 38
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    To all the pinheads carrying on about Tony Abbott holding the leadership by one vote, he was elected to the position unopposed after the last election, as Julie Bishop was to the deputy position. Thats’ right - not a single man in the Coalition felt there was sufficient opposition to a female deputy to even put their hand up.

  • 39
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    So all you people here would be happy for your boss to send you txt’s about female genitalia, for your boss to ask by txt if your having sex with someone, for your boss to txt you and ask if you should be more then friends. These text’s were inappropriate coming from the person you work for and Im F^%$ if I know why what side of politics your on matters when it comes to working that out.

  • 40
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Pat the Baiter. Pat the Master. Pat the Pinhead. That’s our Pat. Now he’s confused.

  • 41
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Now Andy’s confused too. oh well.

  • 42
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Hugh I just find it ironic that on the same day Dillards screaming S_XISM! shes stripping 100,00 single mothers of parental payments.

    I mean how does this woman keep a straight face while she made her feminist rant?

  • 43
    Posted Friday, 12 October 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    I think your referring to two way banter between a liberal politician and a staff member . Was Ashby on staff at that time , Oct last year ? The libnats are going to find it hard giving Ashby a job but they will find a way . After all Ashby is getting his legal work done by the libs . Come to think of it Kathy Jackson is in on that largese as well .
    Patrat , truthless , muck is muck whatever the name . Wish truthless would remind me which site kicked him out , maybe punch , no idea . Moderation I could understand but banishment ? Recidivist I guess , must have been particularly obnoxious .

  • 44
    Posted Saturday, 13 October 2012 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Geewiz and his new found desire to protect people on welfare. It has been a big week

  • 45
    Posted Saturday, 13 October 2012 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    BAAAHahahaaaa ! Too flamin’ kind, us …… Good SBH …..

  • 46
    Posted Saturday, 13 October 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Geo: I suspect that Ashby is set for life, given what he could probably tell if not placated.

  • 47
    A K Osmand
    Posted Saturday, 13 October 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    ‘Clusterfuck’: how the media slipped up on the Speaker saga…

    Matthew has been checking out the urban dictionary again, trying to be down with cool kids…

  • 48
    Person Ordinary
    Posted Saturday, 13 October 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    The commercial media’s product is conditioned (or deluded) humans. After decades of profitability and success, is it any wonder that a majority of the population are now dominated by ego driven deluded self interest? Those of us who have in some way avoided indoctrination simply do not have the numbers to hold commercial media to account. Outrage and ridicule are not enough.

    Ultimately the political process must be accountable to wisdom and truth, and these can only be delivered by the emerging alternative, non-commercial media, and only if we demand that all mistruth is exposed. The migration of mainstream people away from commercial media must be actively and deliberately orchestrated, if we are to have a political system that can effectively address the real challenges we all face … or we can just enjoy the Crikey thing and leave the rest up to someone else …

  • 49
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Saturday, 13 October 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    GeeWizz, I guess exaggeration outshines irony any day. The changes to the sole parent payment do not target women they target all sole parents including whatever (relatively tiny) proportion of recipients is male. So how is that sexist? I can see the point you are trying to make but in fact the evidence you mount does not match up with the claim you are trying on. Anyway, it’s a pointless operation because there is no political mileage for either party in undermining the other’s austerity measures. Labor will bring in that surplus whatever it takes. No doubt we will whinge like wounded Greeks but nothing compared with the political carnage to come if the surplus is not made. You think that Labor has no chance whatever in the next election and should give up now. I think Labor is still trying to turn things around and a massive psychological cornerstone for that is the budget surplus. Everyone, including some particular welfare recipients, are going to take a hit and there’s no way the dole will be increased this year for exactly that reason. It’s not irony, it’s the real economy.

  • 50
    Posted Saturday, 13 October 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    A surplus is theft of taxes without supplying services.

    Why punish single parents and their kids to steal.