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.
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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.