There are two kinds of broadcast media on-air transgression: those that get you sacked, and those that don’t.
Looking at recent history, the question of whether a racist, sexist or ableist slur is a fireable offence appears to rest on your money-making ability for the network, rather than the severity of the crime.
The most recent scalp being called for is Collingwood president and Melbourne media’s everywhere man Eddie McGuire. On Friday night, McGuire mocked double amputee and plane crash survivor Cynthia Banham while calling the AFL for Fox Footy — just the most recent of his many, many blunders. McGuire said he had not properly viewed the footage and was unaware of Banham’s condition.
He’s no stranger to having to apologise for sexist or racist comments in his broadcasts, but is yet to face any real sanctions. His only punishment this time has been self-imposed — he withdrew from calling Saturday’s night’s match. Last year, he joked about drowning sports journalist Caroline Wilson. In 2013, he compared Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes to King Kong, which he later apologised for but refused to step down over. So is McGuire’s status as seemingly unsackable an anomaly?
Not exactly. 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones, similarly has remained on air despite record defamation payouts, regulator censures most recently for using the n-word, and claims of on-air bullying.
Media analyst Steve Allen said the reason broadcasters such as McGuire could get away with these sorts of mistakes was because of how many viewers or listeners they drew to the network.
“If you’ve got a big audience and a loyal audience, the revenue follows,” Allen said. “When you’re talking about baby boomers, which a lot of these people attract, they’re well-heeled and spending the inheritance, which is what advertisers want.”
Broadcasters that have been sacked for on-air comments tend to be less of a drawcard for the networks. Ross Cameron and Mark Latham were both sacked from Sky News’ Outsiders over comments they made on-air. Cameron called Chinese people “slanty-eyed”, and after a series of nasty on-air comments, Latham was sacked for calling a schoolboy “gay” for participating in an International Women’s Day video.
Allen said that while network management liked attracting controversy to generate news coverage, there was a limit based on how valuable the talent was — Cameron and Latham’s low-rating show probably wasn’t going to lose much in revenue without those co-hosts.
Likewise former AFL player and commentator Barry Hall, who was calling footy games when a vulgar pre-show comment about another player’s pregnant wife earned him an on-the-spot sacking. Hall had been calling the game for Triple M — the station McGuire also works for as a breakfast presenter.
He was part of a commentary team, and not a singular drawcard for the network.
Former cricketer and commentator Dean Jones was sacked by Dubai-based Ten sports in 2006 after calling South African cricketer Hashim Amla a “terrorist” while calling the match for the network. Jones apologised, and was not sacked by his Australian media employer 3AW.
Another apparent unsackable is McGuire’s former Footy Show co-host Sam Newman. He was fired as a commentator by Triple M in 2006 for labelling a caller to the program a “fuckwit” while on-air, which he did not apologise for. But that was just a blip in Newman’s long career. Despite years of “controversies” that include racist, homophobic and sexist slurs and jokes, Newman wasn’t sacked from the Footy Show, but quit late last year in an attempt by Nine to rescue the show’s falling ratings. He still has a contract with the network to produce specials.
But Allen said a changing social mood, especially around sport, meant the free rides for McGuire could soon be over, partly because people might stop tuning in if he’s on air.
“Eddie has been making almost annual faux pas of some size, and sooner or later it’s going to be a step too far and I think he knows that because his contrition this time was swift and fast,” Allen said. “There is a cumulative thing to this, and there will be the potential for people to switch off.”
How do you think Eddie’s controversies compare to the ones above? Email [email protected] with your comments.