Troubling new evidence has emerged in the scandal surrounding Fairfax film critic Jim Schembri’s infamous Scream 4 spoiler, with secret internal documents contradicting the scribe’s official explanation for the snafu.
In a prominent piece written by Schembri for last Friday’s Age Insight section titled “How I punk’d the Twitterverse“, the buff claimed he’d penned two versions of his review to execute a deliberate ruse — one without a spoiler for the print edition of The Age‘s EG filed on Wednesday, April 13 and another version — revealing the killer — that would appear on the web and cause a commotion before being replaced.
“…I decided to create a [sic] online event. I wanted to become the scourge of the Twitterverse as I led the hordes down a merry trail of cryptic messages and misdirection,” Schembri wrote, claiming he “ignited the firestorm by writing two Scream 4 reviews, one with genuine spoiler, one without. The latter ran in print, filed on the morning of last Wednesday week.”
But not only was the print review filed a day earlier than Schembri claims, it also contained the spoiler. The error was rectified 20 hours later — not by Schembri but by a savvy Brisbane-based sub-editor who sounded the alarm.
Internal copies of the story’s version history from The Age‘s “Cyber” publishing system, seen by Crikey, reveal that in fact Schembri (or “jschembri” in IT parlance) initially filed only one review, containing the spoiler, at 17:48:40 on Tuesday, April 12 to “Eged” — the desk for the copy that goes in the paper. That version was picked up briefly by EG editor Jo Roberts later that night.
The first sentence revealed the identity of the killer, a strict no-no in film critic circles: “Only the sight of <xxx> getting all kill-happy [emphasis added] in the frenzied, formulaic final-reel bloodbath makes this totally unwanted, utterly predictable franchise stretcher marginally worthwhile.”
Cyber shows the crucial spoiler word — “kill-happy” — is left unaltered up until the review’s 13th edit on the following afternoon — Wednesday — at 14:34:53 by “EBestAGE”. “EBest” is Liz Best, a Pagemasters sub-editor based in Brisbane. While Pagemasters refused to comment on the record, citing its commercial relationship with Fairfax, Crikey understands that while subbing the piece Best noticed the spoiler and contacted a senior editor at The Age and Schembri to alert them.
Soon after, “Kill-happy” is replaced — by Best in the system — with “caught up” and the spoiler disappears: “Only the sight of <xxx> getting caught up in the frenzied, formulaic final-reel makes this totally unwanted, utterly predictable franchise stretcher marginally worthwhile.”
The junked text was placed into Cyber’s “notes” function. (Crikey sub-editor and former Age sub Mick Vaughan explains the Cyber “notes” area is where alterations to the story can be tracked). Barring two further minor edits, this is the version that would appear in the EG print edition.
In his “punk’d” piece, Schembri wrote that as part of the prank, an online version of the review — containing the spoiler — would appear on the Wednesday “afternoon” on The Age‘s website. At about 5.20pm, The Age‘s online content management system indeed shows that Schembri created the item and published it to the web.
(The Age maintains a separate publishing system for its online stories, for which Schembri has publishing rights).
As Crikey‘s Luke Buckmaster quickly observed, it took Twitter about 12 hours to notice the spoiler and accuse Schembri of ruining the film.
The following morning — Friday — Schembri posted a series of retaliatory tweets claiming “we do not give away the ending”, but only after he had altered “kill-happy” to “caught up” online. It appears he had either reverse-engineered an excuse for the original error at the time it was discovered by Pagemasters, or had published the online spoiler version erroneously and came up with the ex post facto excuse then.
But if, as Schembri maintained in Insight, his intention to “punk” the Twitterverse had been hatched in advance — with a spoiler-free version written for the print edition and a spoiler online — then it makes no sense to have filed the spoiled version for EG. And the “other version” only appeared after Pagemasters’ intervention. Note that Schembri makes no reference to filing an erroneous version in his official explanation.
Jo Roberts appeared to subscribe to the latter theory, telling Crikey this morning that Schembri had explained to her he had “filed the story errantly” and had also confessed to a “genuine error”. Roberts said she wasn’t aware that Schembri had taken it upon himself to publish the review online and that the normal practice was to publish to the web at the same time EG hits the streets.
Other senior Age sources have confirmed that in their view the “punk’d” excuse was simply a ruse to cover over a serious breach of the first rule of film reviewing — don’t give away the ending. One described Schembri as a “difficult character” and a “loose cannon”.
Neither Schembri nor Age editor Paul Ramadge responded to Crikey‘s request for an explanation this morning.