“Notice every little mannerism, taking notes on how we sit, stand, talk and even move. And all in that awful, derogatory, corkscrew English.” — Tracey Lord, The Philadelphia Story
A confession: I love a good gossip columnist.
I trained as a reporter among the best of them, and they horrified and captivated me in equal measure. The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald housed an impressive salon of deeply unfriendly writers whose name alone could chill a room colder than the imported sparkling water they favored.
There was Lawrence Money, who nicknamed celebrity hairstylist Lillian Frank “Celebrity Barber”; and Chris Webb, one of the weirdest cats you could ever meet, who has written a cool, archaic analysis of the business world.
There was Peter Smark, whose capacity for bitchyness was breathtaking and was the writer everyone feared; and the delightfully evil Richard Ackland, gossiping on the slightly higher level of the legal world, a place no less naughty or horrid than any other.
What these brazen and shameless writers taught me was that you had to hide yourself damn well and not give a damn what other people might think of you.
They had to choose to live in discomfort and shame — and resign themselves to making some people’s lives hell every time they opened their newspaper with trembling hands.
The tone could indeed be derogatory, as Tracey Lord reminds us, but the English was often quite brilliant.
Table of Contents
The ethics of coming out, a blockbuster and where it all went wrong
So to get to the point.
It was perfectly clear that the Sydney Morning Herald and gossip columnist Andrew Hornery wanted the news – a massive reveal of a celebrity’s sexuality – as he forewarned actor Rebel Wilson that he had the news of her first open relationship with another woman .
Of course, if you’re in the celebrity gossip game, you would want it. And you would be pushing hard to get it first and get it to yourself.
But while my esteemed peers in the gossip game of yesteryear knew there was only one way out of the corner once a columnist backed one up with a sharp pen — and that was either through their paper or the competitor’s paper, whatever the terms could negotiate – this world is very, very different.
The ethics of coming out won’t take long to debate: don’t do it, or if you choose to do it, accept the backlash that comes with it and shut up—simple.
But I think what Hornery and the newspaper failed to take into account was a power exchange between media and celebrities that is now not so much complete as absolute.
Forget the old adage about not arguing with someone who buys barrels of ink: the celebrities now own the means of reproduction, and in unimaginable numbers.
A whole new world
As Justin Bieber wanted to let the world know that he had contracted a virus that left half of his face paralyzed, he posted a video on Instagram. He has more than 240 million followers.
(The Saturday Herald, where the Hornery column appears, averages 489,000 readers.)
Bieber probably won’t do an interview about it, and he won’t when he comes back either. He’ll just tell his fans, they’ll amplify it through their social media, and within 24 hours billions around the world will know.
If he wanted to talk about it, it might be with Oprah — and she owns the entire network and distribution, which is where we’d hear it from.
The Kardashians have set the standard in this self-defined and proprietary world of information by not only being the subjects, producers and distributors of their content, but also both the source and reporters of news about their content—being themselves.
It’s like a hall of mirrors, each reflection more unreal and a little more spooky than the one before.
So when Wilson forestalled the Sydney Morning Herald by revealing her new lover herself, it was not only entirely to be expected, it also showed how woefully inadequate the humble newspaper columnist is in this famous god’s new Roman empire.
Some aspects of the old media still don’t get it
Am I sad about this? I do not know.
Frankly, we’ve done ourselves no favors in the media over the past few decades with a lack of accountability, opaqueness around sources and conflicts, and an unwillingness to admit mistakes that have left the millions of viewers and readers we once had disillusioned.
Like any other consumer, I like having seemingly direct access to the celebrities I admire.
However, when any of these stars are willing to sit down with a journalist with insight, wit and style, that’s a different matter. The interview or article can still be a miracle: another perpetual struggle between subject and interlocutor that reveals so much beyond the filters.
To me, the most egregious aspect of this whole affair was the dour and plaintive article exposing the failure in the first place, and the palpable outrage of a writer at being caught.
Well, that was really something different, and the cat barked that some aspects of the old media still don’t get it – the celebrities own the presses now, we in the media just get the notifications.
This weekend we have great news about dementia research, going off the grid and you can spend time learning more about the songlines of the wonderful Leah Purcell.
I wish you a safe and happy weekend and remember I shared with you the wonderfully defiant song by Thelma Plum, woman from Gamilaraay, Better in Blak?
Well, this is her new one. If you love a driving song, roll down the windows and crank it up. She has a perfect pop sensibility and I love it.
Virginia Trioli is the Mornings presenter on ABC Radio Melbourne and co-hosts Q+A on Thursdays at 8:30pm.