“Watching every little mannerism, jotting down notes on how we sit, stand, talk, and even move. And all in that horrible, snide, corkscrew English.” — Tracey Lord, The Philadelphia Story
A confession: I love a good gossip columnist.
I was trained as a reporter among the best of them, and they horrified and enthralled me in equal measure. The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald housed an impressive salon of witheringly unkind scribes, whose name alone could chill a room colder than the imported fizz they preferred.
There was Lawrence Money, who tormented the socialite hairdresser Lillian Frank with the moniker “celebrity barber”; and Chris Webb, one of the strangest cats you could ever meet, who wrote a cool, arch dissection of the business world.
There was Peter Smark, whose capacity for bitchiness was breathtaking and was the writer everyone feared; and the delightfully wicked Richard Ackland, who gossiped on the slightly higher plane of the legal world, a place no less naughty or appalling than any of the others.
What these brash and shameless writers taught me was you had to have a hell of a hide and not give one single damn about what anyone might think of you.
You had to choose to live in discomfort and opprobrium — and be at peace with making some people’s lives hell every time they opened their paper with trembling hands.
The tone could indeed be snide, as Tracey Lord reminds us, but the English was often quite brilliant.
The ethics of outing, a scoop, 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 scoop — a massive celebrity reveal of someone’s sexuality — when he forewarned actor Rebel Wilson he was onto news of her first open relationship with another woman.
If you’re in the celebrity gossip game, of course you would want it. And you would push hard to get it first and to get it to yourself.
But whereas my esteemed peers in the gossip game of years gone by knew there was only one way out of the corner once a columnist with a pointed pen had backed you in — and that was either out through their paper or through the competitor’s paper, on whatever terms you could negotiate — this world is very, very different.
The ethics of outing won’t take long to discuss: don’t do it, or if you choose to do it, cop the backlash that comes with it and shut up — easy.
But I think what Hornery and the paper failed to take account of was a power exchange between media and celebrity that is now not so much complete as absolute.
Forget the old adage about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel: the celebrities own the means of reproduction now, and they do so to the power of numbers you can’t even imagine.
A whole new world
When Justin Bieber wanted to inform the world that he’d been struck down by a virus that has paralysed one side of his face, he posted a video on Instagram. He has more than 240 million followers.
(The Saturday edition of the Herald, in which the Hornery column appears, has on average 489,000 readers.)
Bieber probably won’t give an interview about it, nor will he when he returns. He’ll just tell his fans, they’ll amplify it via their social media and within 24 hours billions around the world will know.
If he did want to talk about it, then it might be with Oprah — and she owns the entire network and distribution via which we’d hear it.
The Kardashians have set the benchmark in this self-defined and self-owned information world, being not only the subjects, the producers and the distributors of their content, but also both the source and reporters of news about their content — which is themselves.
It’s like a hall of mirrors, each reflection more unreal and a little more ghastly than the one before.
So when Wilson beat the Sydney Morning Herald to the punch by revealing her new paramour herself, it was not only entirely to be expected but showed up how woefully inadequate the humble newspaper columnist is in this new Roman empire of the celebrity god.
Some aspects of the old media still don’t get it
Am I sad about this? I don’t know.
Frankly, we in the media haven’t done ourselves any favours over the past couple of decades with a lack of accountability, opacity about sources and conflicts, and an unwillingness to own errors that have disillusioned the millions of viewers and readers we once had.
Like any other consumer, I also quite like having what seems like direct access to the stars I admire.
When one of these stars is willing, however, to sit down with a journalist of insight and wit and style, then that’s something else. The interview or the article can still be a thing of wonder: another eternal wrestle between subject and interlocutor that reveals so much beyond the filters.
For mine, the most egregious aspect of this entire affair was the peevish and complaining article that revealed the failed gotcha in the first place, and the palpable outrage of a writer being got.
Now that really was something else, and it belled the cat on how 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-grid, and you can spend time learning about the songlines of the wonderful Leah Purcell.
Have a safe and happy weekend, and do you remember me sharing with you that wonderfully defiant song from Gamilaraay woman Thelma Plum, Better in Blak?
Well, this is her new one. If you love a driving song, roll down the windows and crank this. She has a perfect pop sensibility and I love it.
Virginia Trioli is presenter on Mornings on ABC Radio Melbourne and a co-presenter of Q+A on Thursday at 8.30pm.
We would like to say thanks to the writer of this write-up for this remarkable web content
Rebel Wilson scooping a newspaper columnist was entirely predictable. What came next wasn’t