As the heavier particles of dust kicked up by the Catherine Deveny affair settle (smaller particles will be lodging in our nostrils for weeks) there are a few things to say and some comparisons to be drawn.

First, the importance and risks of social networking for writers, journalists, stand-up comedians and the rest of the human mix.

We can’t get away from it. Something such as Twitter is here to stay. And as I have said elsewhere, journalists who agree to employers’ attempts to constrain their social networking presence are giving a massive serve of power to the boss. I wouldn’t do it.

Why someone such as Deveny, who was not even on staff but a contributor on a piece rate, should expect to be so constrained is hard to say.

On the other hand, social media is most certainly a public, not a private space. It is analogous to a subscription magazine. Unlike broadcast media, Twitter does not make its way into your living room without you having any control other than the off switch. You choose to “follow” someone. Those who followed Deveny presumably liked her stuff, or at least loved to hate her.

It is not immediately clear why The Age should regard itself as part of the relationship between Deveny and her Twitter followers.

On the other hand, It is, of course, The Age’s perfect right to decide who it commissions and there is no doubt in my mind that the Tweets that caused Deveny’s sacking were pretty off.

Age editor Paul Ramadge yesterday was claiming that Deveny had been warned in the past. Well, it seems that may depend on what you mean by “warned”. Deveny told me “there was nothing in writing”.

Apparently a column was spiked a while ago because it was seen as too offensive. Deveny didn’t take that as a warning.

Deveny told me that Ramadge had once asked her what he was meant to say to readers who complained about her Tweets. She replied that he should say she was a contributor, and her own person.

Most media companies in Australia have either tried to ban staff from using social networking media,  or have uneasily encouraged it, while standing far enough back to be able to duck trouble.

The Age falls into the latter category, and more’s the shame. And, of course, as Jonathan Green (who, in a previous life, was the first Age section editor to commission Deveny) makes clear in this piece The Age only sacked Deveny once it was clear there would be a fuss. It looks like a response to pressure, not an act of principle.

So far as I know the ABC is the only Australian media organisation with clear guidelines on staff use of social media. Launched by ABC managing director Mark Scott late last year, the guidelines are lean and sensible, with just four standards for staff to heed.

  • Do not mix the professional and the personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute.
  • Do not undermine your effectiveness at work.
  • Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views.
  • Do not disclose confidential information obtained through work

So would Deveny have been sacked if she worked at the ABC? Perhaps she would be held to have transgressed on the first guideline, but I doubt she would have lost her job.

The obvious comparison is what happened to the Chaser when they put to air their infamous “Make a Realistic Wish” sketch. They were suspended. There were consequences for those who arguably should have exercised editorial judgement and had the skit spiked. But then the Chaser boys were brought back.

I suspect the same would have happened to Deveny, and that would have been appropriate. She is after all a comedian, and The Age has been doing very nicely out of her outrageousness for some time.

But a sacking offence? I think not. Particularly when the whole reason she was employed was because she was edgy and offensive.

I asked Deveny whether she regretted her Tweets. She had no clear answer. She is, in between being deeply upset, portraying the affair as being all about freedom of speech and media diversity.

I think that’s a bit rich. The affair is interesting because of the new media context and what it says about the character and choices of The Age editor. And that’s about it.

And of course Deveny will be back. In a sense she has arrived. Many more people will be watching what she does next. I’d be willing to bet the number of people following her on Twitter has soared. Thanks to new media, she doesn’t need a broadsheet newspaper to present herself to the crowd that likes her stuff.

Meanwhile, perhaps The Age would do well to get some guidelines for staff and contributors on the use of social media. Otherwise, nobody knows what the bosses encourage, and what they will punish.

But if the staff and contributors don’t like the guidelines, let me know. I will Tweet it.

Peter Fray

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