AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan standing in front of the AFL logo and behind microphones a
AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Journalists are usually rewarded for getting hot scoops, especially ones that ruffle feathers. But at afl.com.au, the AFL’s news website, finding a scoop that’s too hot can land you in trouble. 

Journalist Mitch Cleary learnt this the hard way on Sunday when he was stood down by his employer, the AFL, for tweeting a now-deleted image that showed Brooke Cotchin, the wife of Richmond captain Trent Cotchin, had visited a day spa in breach of the Queensland hub rules. The breach cost Richmond a $45,000 fine. 

The tweet wasn’t even really a scoop — Cotchin had already broadcast her spa visit on her own social media channels and it had been picked up elsewhere. But the repercussions were swift. 

Cleary was reinstated last night, but not until after he apologised for the tweet, and a fiery debate raged about the independence (or lack thereof) of the AFL’s own newsroom.

Criticism of the AFL came in thick and fast, with many questioning whether it showed AFL Media was little more than public relations.

3AW commentator and former Collingwood Football Club player Tony Shaw implored AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan to reinstate Cleary.

“This isn’t North Korea!” he tweeted. “I’d be more inclined to stand down the person who made this decision.”

The Age’s Greg Baum was more succinct: “afl.com.au. Independent. Sometimes.” (The Age‘s masthead is Independent. Always.) 

So can afl.com.au be truly independent or is it the league’s very own Pravda

The competition’s media division, which publishes afl.com.au, was set up in 2012 to feed the appetite for club news and draw in more revenue from advertisers through partnership deals. But from the beginning it has prompted questions about whether its army of 30-odd journalists can truly be independent of the league. Those questions are even more relevant as the sport moves through one of the most difficult times in its 143-year history.  

In a statement on Monday, the AFL said it stood Cleary down because he had failed to follow an “editorial decision” not to name any family members relating to the club breaches, to protect their wellbeing. 

In an extraordinary concession, Cleary told the ABC, who also employs him on its Grandstand program, that he was not aware of this editorial decision but that he “should have been”. 

“That’s my job really, that is my job to dot the i’s and cross the t’s,” he said. 

But he defended interest in the story, saying he believed he was adding further detail to a club breach that had already been reported.

“Given the size of the story and the genuine interest in it, I felt like I was adding another layer to the story, given that it was on the public record,” he said.

For her part, Brooke Cotchin has said she disagreed with the decision to stand Cleary down, writing on Instagram that she had no input in the decision. 

Crikey asked the AFL whether the saga had once and for all revealed the code’s inability to report on itself without fear or favour. It didn’t get back to us. 

Peter Fray

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