IIt’s been a hell of a week for the Sydney Morning Herald. Last weekend, gossip columnist Andrew Hornery wrote a bizarre article complaining that actor Rebel Wilson had not cooperated in his attempt to come out with a woman that she was romantically involved. The aftermath was quick, and readers pointed out that his behavior was unmusical and unethical.
Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields joined the fight earlier in the week, backing Hornery in a tone that came across as both dismissive and passive-aggressive. The reaction was predictable: Shields was pilloried by fellow journalists and readers alike, and the issue became a global story.
Hornery apologized (in a way). However, that wasn’t enough, so Shields wrote a “note to subscribers,” offering his own, heavily qualified, apology. At this point, Twitter was electrified with this combination of joy and indignation making it the absolutely addictive gutter that it is. The gloating was palpable.
From the start, it was difficult to understand why Shields would fight so hard to defend a gossip column. It seemed like a strange hill to die on. The SMH’s decision to pursue and publish a gossip column at a time when the internet exists is puzzling.
To understand how odd it is that The Herald still sticks to a gossip column, it’s worth examining the history of the genre. Gossip columns first appeared in the 17th century when printed publications appeared. As Joseph Epstein wrote, early gossip columns focused on “the wretched behavior of the rich and well-born.” As the lower classes learned to read, gossip columns made readers see that “the better weren’t really any better.” In other words, it was about mocking the rich.
Prominent people with something to hide were particularly vulnerable to gossips who saw the best stories, as these politicians and high-profile figures did not want to be exposed. There was something exciting about oppressing those who thought you were powerful. Then as now, gossip columnists often took a position of moral superiority over their subjects.
As the printing press expanded, gossip became more popular. In the 1940s, the focus shifted from politicians and country gentry to celebrities, particularly in America where Hollywood was becoming a major social force. In the 1960s, people in Britain were similarly addicted to celebrity news, largely because of an explosion of interest in shows like Coronation Street. In the 1980s, tabloids were inevitable and their tactics increasingly overbearing. Gossip was easy money—celebrity lives sold papers and were relatively cheap to document.
The tabloid model ruled for a few decades until Princess Diana died in a car accident in 1997 while trying to flee from a pack of paparazzi. In the weeks following Diana’s death, sales of both The Sun and The Mirror plummeted to their lowest levels since 1962, and the Daily Mail even pledged not to publish photos taken by paparazzi on its pages. This is a promise it couldn’t keep.
Still, the period following Diana’s death signaled, at least temporarily, a shift in public opinion away from the tabloids. Gossip columns were still consumed, but it seemed that the “rich and well-born” were no longer such an easy target.
In the 2000s, the internet democratized the dissemination of information and made it impossible for anyone to claim a gossip monopoly, as a whole slew of new websites popped up. exclusively covering the ins and outs of celebrity life.
Broadsheets, on the other hand, continued to report on arts and entertainment, but typically differentiated themselves from their own gossip columns and instead focused on news and opinion. If readers wanted to know what the Kardashians were up to, they could find them online or pick up a tabloid, and if they were really interested, they could follow their social media accounts.
There were many problems with the Rebel Wilson play. Perhaps most striking was the columnist’s assumption that Wilson wronged him by choosing not to play by the rules of a game that didn’t work for her. At a time when many celebrities have personal platforms larger than those of media organizations, Wilson’s decision to take control of her own narrative was entirely predictable. As powerful women increasingly object to the way they are treated in the media, the Herald should have seen this uproar coming.
The Rebel Wilson affair shows that the Herald has not changed with the times. Australia is a completely different country now. Hornery’s first article reflected the judgmental tone that had been the mainstay of gossip columns since they were first published in Victorian-era England.
When gossip columns began, they served an exciting and important social function: challenging the rich. Now, In a role reversal, the media is increasingly seen as aloof and elitist, while the rich and famous present themselves as approachable and relatable.
The times have changed. The culture has evolved, and the Herald would be wise to do the same.