Farewell SMH I miss what you once were

On Thursday 25 September 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald plastered its front page with jihadi imagery and an oddly dissonant picture of a young man in a suit. The Fairfax mast heads in Melbourne and Canberra published the same images and the same misinformation. It turned out the young man in the picture was alive but not so well, having been frightened by Fairfax out of leaving the house.

Picture a beautifully restored heritage landscape of sandstone and brick buildings, manicured gardens and green, green lawns rolling down to a sadly despoiled but still picturesque river. The odd Rivercat, a special catamaran-style ferry built for the shallows of Duck Creek, swooshes by with a faint honk carried on the wind.

This landscape is alive with young people and their families, everyone beautifully and respectfully dressed for the solemnity and respect demanded by the occasion. There are photos being taken on every corner. Young women tower over their parents in heels, bursting with health and pride. Young men hold their heads high and their chests sturdy. Nearly every ethnicity, nationality and religion on earth is represented. Scholars in full academic dress sweep by in pairs, their floppy hats and glowing brocade glittering in the sun.

This is graduation day at the University of Western Sydney, Parramatta campus. Our wonderful, dedicated, ambitious, hard-working against-the-odds students are attending their commencement, the day they start their adult lives as qualified bachelors, to go forth and work and teach and learn. To tend the sick, represent the accused, run the computer systems and teach the children of Western Sydney, Australia, and the world.

They are a wonder to behold. Huge numbers of our students would never have had access to tertiary education without this university, the brain child of Gough Whitlam, 25 years old this year. My heart swells with the tiny contribution I have made to some of their lives. I wish them every success, and eagerly anticipate seeing some of them on the news programs of tomorrow, working for peace, entering Parliament, making a difference.

Graduation is during the semester break. Just before the break, two of my students asked if I could give a lecture at Bankstown on the strong and rational responses we can deploy to mitigate against stereotypes of Muslim people, especially the young men. “They will listen to you miss” said one young man, an exceptional and committed student, employee, and family man, an Arabic-speaking Muslim who appears to know every other young man “of Middle Eastern appearance” on campus. Following up this request has become more urgent in recent days.

A few weeks ago I wrote about these young men. It was the story of an incident in my classroom where one Muslim student had objected to my using Islam in an example of an illogical argument. Three other Muslim students leapt to my defence, and one of the three later explained the concept in more detail to his formerly confused classmate, who is no longer confused on the point. It is good story, with a happy ending. It reinforced my conviction that education is the answer, irrespective of the question. As mother used to say, to a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. To that I would add that to a man with a seat in Parliament, every problem looks like more legislation. And to an educator in richly vibrant, hugely diverse multicultural western Sydney, every problem looks like sensible, ongoing and consistent investment in universal education. I like to think of myself as consistent in my commitments and values, and in line with my views of the value of education, I busy myself each day with the tasks of living, working and educating in Western Sydney.

Imagine then my disgust, my visceral anger, my absolute contempt for everyone involved in the sordid and careless mistake that was what Fairfax did that morning. I responded to the SMH front page with fury. I also did what any other engaged digital citizen would do with their seething, roiling, relentless heartburn at this despicable carelessness, and posted my intention to boycott Fairfax, after 25 years of faithful readership, on my Twitter feed.

The response was overwhelming. No tweet of mine has ever gone so far (not even retweets from the mighty Van Badham, whose reach is legendary). My notification folder filled with hundreds of retweets, favourites and mentions. More experienced tweeps contacted me by private message to offer support, advice and caution. I thanked everybody, responded to almost everybody, and continued to tweet out my reasons for 24 hours. Over and over again, I said this is the last straw. This is it. Too much.

Then I got a reply from a sub-editor at BRW, a Fairfax publication. This put me on the alert. Like my reply would not be sent through the ranks, if my tweets had caught her attention? SMH was tagged in every single tweet.

‘I’m not defending the front page’ she began. Well, obviously, given that it is indefensible.

‘But after 25 years there must be more to your decision than one front page?’

I took this question in good faith. I answered with two tweets, in the accepted two-tweet way. The first said

‘Yeah, fair call. It’s been a slow burn since the Abbott endorsement and Carlton, but this was personal 1/2′.

This tweet referenced the fact that Fairfax endorsed Tony Abbott at the 2013 election, even though it was obvious to the most casual of observers the man is a power-seeking wrecker, with no policies of any value, no vision, and tendencies to be violent, misogynist, homophobic, and racist. Nevertheless, Fairfax is a company in decline with a dinosaur of a business model, and it was equally obvious that Abbott would be the next Prime Minister. For this and other claimed reasons, Fairfax endorsed this decision of the Australian electorate. The tweet also referenced their shameful treatment of long-time columnist Mike Carlton. When the editor who arranged for an apology for an article critical of Israel was over-ruled, and sought to impose a suspension of the columnist instead, Carlton walked.

The second tweet said:
‘It was graduation day at UWS. I teach 100s of students ‘of Middle East appearance’. Fairfax endangered them all. More’

Interestingly, the Fairfax employee retweeted the first but not the second reply. If this was strategic, and I assume it was – she is a professional – the thinking would go something like this: I had a made a claim that Fairfax lawyers could argue is unsubstantiated yet damaging to the brand. Defamation, loss of earnings, damages. Thus a Fairfax employee could not spread my claim further across the twitterverse, as that would further damage the brand (and assist my hypothetical defence in this hypothetical libel case).

Here is what it would look like.

This woman has made an unfounded claim, Fairfax lawyers could tell the judge, which has resulted in loss of earnings. Where is the proof that students at UWS are endangered by the Fairfax front page? Show us the endangered student. Prove the danger has increased. Demonstrate the chain of causation back to Fairfax. How did the Fairfax front page endanger anyone any more than a Murdoch front page?

It doesn’t, of course. The front pages are all as awful as each other. But lawyers like causation. For this hypothetical suit, Fairfax would imply that I have to prove a link between their front page (rather than any other front page) and the reckless endangerment of one of my students (rather than the student community “of Middle Eastern appearance”). I would not have to, because the onus of proof lies with the complainant in these matters. The correct legal argument would therefore be around whether I caused loss of earnings through an unsubstantiated claim. But that would not necessarily stop libel lawyers from trying to imply that the case is about something else. I adore many of my colleagues who are in legal practice, and send many exceptional future lawyers their way. But I am not particularly fond of those who ‘defend’ corporate interests against people with little or no resources, wealth, income or power.

Here, in more than 140 characters, is why that headline was the last straw, and why I took to Twitter to express my disgust, and why I am boycotting Fairfax.

I have read the Sydney Morning Herald all my life. It was delivered to my parents’ home (still is), and when I left home I kept buying it daily.

In our student household in the late 80s and early 90s, someone would go get the paper and we would all sit around and pool our wits to do the crosswords. A day when we got the cryptic done before lectures (usually a Thursday, never a Friday) was a good day. A completed cryptic is still a beautiful thing. I taught my mum to tackle them, and later when we got mobile phones, we would exchange texts and tips on 7-down or 8-across. My dad developed a sort of ritualised whinge about the time mum spent with the crossword.

When I moved to Alice Springs in 1994, my mum would send a fax of the cryptic to herself, tear off that shiny paper and send me a bundle of four or five by post. Once a week I would head into town and buy the one SMH available in the Northern Territory: the Saturday Herald. My then-partner and I would do the crosswords together, a happy reminder of our pre-parenting, carefree student life.

The cryptic crossword alone was part of my circle of friends and family.

I also submitted letters. The editor printed many of them. I would get a flurry of texts from friends and family – ‘saw your letter today, well said, well done’. Once a letter I wrote attracted replies for over a week. The paper had gone digital relatively recently, and gentility was already evaporating. The digital splash fanned a controversy over Nicole Kidman pretending to play the didgeridoo. Colleagues stopped me in the corridor, friends questioned me at BBQs, and disagreed with me by email. All this was triggered by my letter. Ironically, it was on a similar topic: I criticised Kidman for potentially disrespecting Aboriginal people for the purpose of selling movie tickets (I try to be consistent). I also felt like I was contributing to public debate, and I was, as I am now. But it was somewhat intimidating and confronting (so is this) and I stopped submitting letters to the editor after that (I do not plan to stop blogging or tweeting. Yet).

On returning to my home town of Sydney after 14 years in remote and regional Australia, I booked a Saturday SMH delivery. I leave too early during the week, and more than one day a week delivery would feel indulgent anyway. By now a single mother escaping domestic violence, this Saturday delivery was a tiny luxury, one that made me feel I had re-entered polite society after a traumatic ride in the gutter. Reading the SMH felt like hanging out with kindred spirit adults, and like home. The letters page remained a delight. I had graduated from the simple Sudoku to the samurai, egged along by my other ‘adult company’ in that little house, Adam Spencer. I bought an SMH each week day morning on the way to the station and geared my brain up for the day at work with news and comment and puzzles.

I have come a long way since then. I graduated at law, have publications in academic journals, and a co-edited collection on citizenship to my name. I went to Greece last year and gave a paper on the parlous state of Australian democracy in the home of democracy. My eldest son has reached adulthood, a young man who has a clear understanding of the risks of being a young man in this world. My daughter and younger son are in high school. I work hard in my home town and am more connected than ever before. My reliance on the SMH for like-minded adults to read and ponder and sometimes interact with via the letters page diminished. And now it is gone.

This is what I think happened. It is not conjecture but hypothesis, produced using the available evidence and accepted rules of case theory. The news that police had shot a teenager dead broke late on the night of Tuesday 23 September. By the time I signed off just after midnight, all we had heard was of a stabbing and a shooting. This is too late for a print publication to get a full story out for the first Wednesday morning edition.
Next, the workers at the paper probably went into overdrive to catch up on Thursday. This is highly likely for the simple reason that print is dying but the business model demands it remain relevant. This is because much of the news cycle is actually the news recycled. Breakfast radio and television do ‘what the papers say’ and the papers return the favour by cross-quoting broadcast media. All the major dailies now have social media monitors and presences. Maintaining a print presence is about feeding the larger machine.

As they all do these days, the people on the Numaid story would have trawled facebook pages for uncopyrighted images. Of course, just because everyone does it does not make it right. Trawling the facebook pages of a dead teenager in order to increase newspaper sales is a repulsive thing to do, but people do it. There are papers to sell, and catch-up imperative to satisfy.

My considered view is that someone had too many screens open at once and in a race to deadline – the media environment has been more frenzied than usual and they are all on it to keep themselves relevant and afloat – the wrong picture was put on the front pages.

Human error is common and predictable. No-one is suggesting malicious intent by whoever made this monumental mistake. Just a profit-seeking relevance-desperation deadline-driven rush job. But it has nevertheless wreaked enormous harm on the teenager concerned, and has flow-on effects to all Australians of “Middle Eastern appearance”. And that includes many of my students, and that is why I am so angry.

And here is a predictable fact: attacks on Muslim women have increased according to AFP Commissioner Ken Lay. That is on top of the attacks on a Muslim school. To state the absolute obvious, schools have children inside. That is who schools are built to serve. So the ramping up of a terror threat, in which all the media are playing a shameful part, women and children in Australia are suffering. It is a man’s world alright.

It has been a slow burn, and it is personal, as I said in my first tweet to the Fairfax employee. And I will not be backing away from that second tweet. I have my arguments mustered. They are rational arguments. I have even generously disclosed some of those arguments to Fairfax lawyers right here in this post. And full disclosure, as they know, or ought to know, is how ethical lawyering is done.

So I feel like I lost a friend, but we were drifting apart anyway. I was probably holding on, unnecessarily, tenuously, for old times’ sake, the way you do, not wanting to be the one to do the breaking up. Not wanting to face the fact that I was deluded all along, thinking we were friends. The SMH brought many joys. But Fairfax is a corporation and I am a human being. And when I opened that newspaper yesterday and saw that sordid headline, and got home to hear a young man is afraid to leave the house, I pictured those proud students and their proud families against the backdrop of the university grounds. Then I looked at my newspaper and thought ‘I stand with my students. And I no longer read you.’

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4 thoughts on “Farewell SMH I miss what you once were

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