Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Catherine Deveny and the Tweet Feed of Doom

It’s big news, folks – Catherine Deveny, Australia’s most militant atheist (I don’t think I’m exaggerating on that score) has been sacked from her gig as a regular contributing columnist for The Age in Melbourne because of some comments she made about Bindi Irwin on Twitter. Everyone has an opinion on this. So do I. We’ll get to it in a moment.

I could have talked about a lot of things given that it has been a long time since my last entry. I’ve got a backlog of topics.
My closest friend and I are having a wonderful debate about just how much respect needs to be accorded to the religious and I want to summarise for a general audience.
The Catholic Church is seeing enemies everywhere in modern fiction.

But the hot topic for today is Catherine, and while I must admit in the interests of fairness that I have, myself, stopped following her on twitter because our senses of humour don't seem to align (after ANZAC day - nothing to do with the damn logies), I've got a question that I'd like to see dealt with by someone. Anyone, really.

I'm playing the Moir card.

DOES Nobody remember Jan Moir? Remember Jan, the British columnist who wrote the single most ignorant and horrible article I've read on the subject of same-sex civil unions in the history of the world? (What you are seeing is a heavily tidied up and edited version from the original one I read. I was unable to find a link to someone who chronicled the differences, and for this I feel deeply unprofessional).

She recieved a record number of complaints after her article was circulated around Twitter. 21,000 complaints in total. That is, get this, 4 1/2 times the amount of followers that Deveny has on Twitter at all. That's 16500 more complaints to the British Press Complaints Commission than even heard Deveny's tweets the first time around.

So, with such a heavy public response that so far outweighed Deveny's total followership, of course Jan Moir suffered a far worse fate than Catherine did, right? I mean, Jan Moir published her hateful bilge in a national newspaper. Catherine posted it on her personal twitter page. The punishments ought to be at the very least similar, right?

Oh wait. Jan Moir has written 17 published articles for the Daily Mail since the beginning of April this year. Catherine will not write for The Age for the foreseeable future.

 This may be the only photo of Catherine Deveny in existence.

TWITTER was the reason that the Jan Moir complaints were dismissed. It was suggested that, because a link to the PCC's complaints page was passed around by certain influential tweeps, that the sheer weight of public outrage was disproportionate. It seemed that many, many more people than otherwise would have complained were made aware of the incident and whipped into a frenzy by the Twitterverse, and this counted in favour of the author.

A frenzy whipped up by the Herald Sun in Melbourne had the exact opposite effect on Deveny. Many, many more people than otherwise would have objected were made aware of her tweets and whipped into a mob by tabloid journalism. This counted very much against the author of the article. She no longer has a job.

I DO not especially enjoy Catherine's humour and certainly don't agree with her views on a number of topics. But if you cannot see a disparity in the way these two incidents played out then I fear for your deductive powers. They occurred in different countries with different national publishing standards is the absolute best argument to be invoked, and that is a straw man. Moir wouldn't have been sacked in Australia, either, of this I'm pretty damn sure.

Catherine's comments were distasteful and The Age reserved the right to terminate her. No law has been broken here. But forgive the twittersphere if it is a little aggravated by this turn of events given what happened with Gately.

Twitter can't win here. An overwhleming number of tweeps objected to a print newspaper and were dismissed. A small number of tweeps objected to Deveny, which was then picked up by a print newspaper, and she loses her job. Any notions I may have had about Twitter being the great democratic medium (they were tiny, tiny notions) have been effectively snuffed out.

I need to stress that I was originally glad that the twittersphere's reaction to Moir did not get her sacked. I have been an opponent of religious zeal long enough to recognise a porgrom when I see one and I felt that the PCC did the best they could when faced with an incredibly difficult situation. Their commitment to freedom of speech won out over bowing to pack pressure. I respected them greatly for this.

But now, what of Catherine? I see the reverse. 700-odd comments on The Age website and she is gone. (She was sacked after only 200, if I'm remembering correctly). No backbone, no commitment to anything except circulation numbers. It's kind of slightly heartbreaking.

I DO not agree with what Catherine says, but I ought to defend to the death her right to say it. In the end, she has only lost the privellege of being published in a broadsheet as opposed to her right to freedom of speech. But there's something incredibly off about how the power of Twitter only counts when the 'real' media says it does. Either people's outrage is a perfectly viable reason to sack a journalist or it isn't. We do not appear to have a consensus here.

In the meantime I won't be re-following her on Twitter, as is my right. I do not think she will lose much sleep over it.

EDIT: In the few hours I spent between drafting this and posting it, Catherine gained about 600 followers. Good for her. Adjust earlier figures accordingly.

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