We in the media are decidedly inconsistent when it comes to supporting free speech — and not just when major media companies take extended legal action to suppress inconvenient information.

The problem of supporting free speech is that it only really counts when it relates to someone you violently disagree with. We’re all up for fighting the good fight when we like the individual concerned or the views they’ve expressed are ones we endorse.

Previously I’ve criticised the incarceration of Holocaust denier Fredrick Toben (whom the Australian media, with the exception of 4BC’s Michael Smith, ignored) and the treatment of ex-LNP galoot Nick Sowden. Now I have to defend Catherine Deveny, who could perhaps be the first columnist in the world sacked for her tweeting.

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I feel like I’ve taken a dive into an abyss of meaninglessness, having started with Holocaust denialism and racism, and ended up with… Bindi Irwin jokes.

I’m not from Melbourne so I don’t know a great deal about Deveny. Apparently she’s a left-wing comic. I don’t find her amusing, and her views remind me of my dire International Socialist SNAGgery when I was 19. But I thought her notorious tweets about Anzac Day reflected an inability to understand the complexity of how we celebrate that occasion, rather than some profound insult to the spirit of the Diggers, Australian values, etc etc.

But those didn’t get her sacked, oddly enough. It was her tweeting about another event of national significance, the Logies, that did that.

I can’t figure out the logic of that either, except that Bindi Irwin is somehow more important than the Diggers. I mean hell, who knows, maybe some people actually think that.

That her tweets, in particular about Irwin, but also about Tasma Walton, were lacking in taste, is a matter of universal agreement. Her justification for the crack about Irwin getting laid — about the connection between raunch culture and the objectification that is an intrinsic part of the Logies — is laboured but I buy it, sort of.

But in any event, by sacking her The Age has set a new standard that neither Fairfax nor, certainly, other media are ever going to meet.  The Australian media is rife with race-baiting, and homophobia, and misogyny, all of which are far worse than the asinine jokes Deveny offered the other night, and as far as I can recall sackings for those offences are few and far between. Deveny appears to have been singled out because she’s a mouthy woman who refuses to play nice in the mainstream media.

The timing of The Age’s actions appears difficult to understand otherwise.

Deveny herself  appears to have failed to grasp the significance of Twitter, comparing it to “passing notes in class.”  Not that she’s the only one at The Age in that position. Gordon Farrer, the paper’s technology editor, ponderously opined today “it’s sobering to think that her now-infamous postings will become part of the vast collection of historical material held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.”

“Sobering.”  Thanks Gordon, the queue for the Kevin Rudd impersonators is over there.

Everyone in the media is still coming to grips with Twitter, because the more it is used, the more potential it has. Twitter is to the Internet what the Internet was to the MSM.

It is the Internet on steroids — faster, shorter, more immediate. It is a broadcast platform, when traditionally the internet has been seen as facilitating a move away from the traditional one-to-many media model. Even if you don’t have many followers, you can be retweeted to potentially vast numbers of people. It is a common room, where you select the guests by deciding whom you follow, a space you populate and a conversation you take part in, depending on your tastes.

And it is a media aggregator. You can already replace smh.com.au or abc.net.au as your main news site by following journalists, commentators and newsfeeds. In effect your twitter page becomes the front page of your own news site, removing the necessity of clicking through the front page of a mainstream media website.

In time that, I suspect, will do a lot of damage to our already-ailing mainstream media.

It is all those things, but it looks and feels like the safer, more personal spaces of yesteryear. It can feel like one big lounge room or pub, where you can snark it up with your mates. That’s what Deveny was doing at the Logies. Problem is, of course, it’s not any sort of safe space. It’s the entire world, and everything you say is broadcast and stays out there for good. Out there where there are plenty of people just waiting to be offended.

Some of us are wise to that, or try to be. Bloggers know the dangers of posting an article or comment they might later regret. The smart ones self-filter to ensure it doesn’t come back to bite them. They know the feeling of anonymity and safety is an illusion. But at least a comment on a blog awaits someone clicking through to read it.

Twitter doesn’t wait, it pumps it out there, for everyone who follows you to see, and for anyone else who, beyond your control, might see it in retweeted form.

Twitter has vast possibilities, because it is so many things at once, and that’s why it poses a problem not just for media companies but for commentators and journalists.  Until we work it out, there are going to keep being casualties.

Deveny was the first but she won’t be the last mainstream media figure to get caught out.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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