There were plenty of crocodile tears in News Corp’s weekend mastheads over the weekend: does the loss of their appeal against the record defamation payout to Geoffrey Rush signal the death of Australia’s Me Too moment?
Rather, the Rush judgement should mark the end of a particular type of tabloid journalism — an end that will require Australia’s editors to recalibrate the judgement they bring to daily news.
The evidence in the Rush case lifts the lid on the otherwise black box that is decision-making in tabloid newsrooms. The missteps that cost News $2.87 million (plus costs) reveals what tabloid editors think about social movements, among other things.
The Tele’s error of judgement came in an important context: the long-standing Sydney tabloid fixation with the titillation of sleaze, particularly when it could lather it up with anti-elite culture warring against a Hollywood star. At the same time, News Corp was coming off the US Fox News harassment scandals the year before and was being beaten on the global Me Too story, both in the United States and in Australia.
That presented a dangerous mix for the company’s editors chasing a big story.
With this culture, comes the practical considerations: just how much do we have? What sort of careful wording will use a technical truth to draw the bigger picture? If we’re going to go, how big should we go — Sydney Confidential or front page? Add a calculation of risk: where will the story go, given just about every Me Too story leads to more women coming forward? Can we risk waiting and being scooped?
There’s a playing out of the subject’s likely reaction: will he sue and, if he does, how bad could it be? A court case can further muddy character and provides plenty of copy to carry the story on. Is that worth the potential costs?
On top of all that, there’s News’ sense of its own power and its contempt for cultural celebrities. There’s a confidence that celebrities need the publicity the tabloids bring, mixed up with an almost moral judgement that if you seek publicity, you deserve anything you get.
Mixed in the blender of News Corp tabloid thinking, the decision to front-page the story was inevitable. It was only wrong in retrospect, and only because of those pesky defamation laws.
That retrospect reveals plenty of misjudgements in the heat of battle that is daily newspaper production. More significantly, it reveals how much the social ground has shifted underneath the feet of the News Corp tabloids.
They looked at Me Too and saw the opportunity of the sleaze that’s shaped the company’s journalism since the 1960s Sydney Mirror. Then, it was titillating reporting of public fault-based divorce proceedings, sensational crime and page-three bikini girls mixed with sharp reporting and a “punch-up” social critique. This mix saw the paper lead the city’s circulation wars, right up until it closed in 1990.
Transported to London’s The Sun, the bikini girls lost their tops and the journalism — re-shaped by Thatcher’s Britain — morphed to “punch-down”. It found richer targets in workers, women and cultural elites, again turning a dying masthead into market leader — and political power.
News Corp brought this model back home in the 1990s to reshape its now Australia-wide collection of metropolitan mastheads into the largely interchangeable tabloids of today. Although circulation slid, it delivered political influence.
The journalistic result? In Liverpool, a 40-year-long community boycott. In London, the billion-dollar hacking scandal. In Sydney, the Rush defamation.
With Me Too, there’s a control test: the deeply researched reporting by The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey who broke the Weinstein story. Here, the meticulous reporting centred the women in the story in a way The Tele didn’t.
Kantor and Twohey titled their book: She Said. The Telegraph rushed into print without any woman saying anything to them at all.
The NYT reporters ended up with the Pulitzer Prize. Weinstein ended up in jail. The Tele ended up with a record defamation payout.