Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A tweet too far for The Age

One of the hottest stories of the week involves the sacking of The Age columnist Catherine Deveny over her controversial tweets at a recent Australian awards show. The Melbourne-based daily dumped the sometime comedienne after its website went into meltdown over inappropriate Twitter comments Deveny made regarding child star Bindi Irwin. This represents somewhat of an about-face for the publication considering it recently sanctioned an article in which Deveny referred to her own children as ‘the spawn of Satan’. So what is it about Deveny’s tweets that angered The Age so much?

The newspaper has a history of taking a dim view of public figures who disgrace themselves in their personal lives. A recurrent theme that dominates the sports editorials of the paper seems to be that the life of public figures is never entirely private; every move, action and expression of the individual can be considered representative of their profession. Consider the attitude of sports columnist Caroline Wilson who finds it remarkable that footballer Brendon Fevola was never sanctioned by Carlton for his off-field behaviour. Wilson goes on to warn that, ‘letting the off-field antics of footballers go unpunished rarely proves expedient in the long-term’. This is representative of the overall stance of The Age that there is a fine line between the personal and professional lives of public figures. Perhaps Deveny should have taken this attitude into consideration before tweeting her way to unemployment on Logies night.

According to Editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge, Deveny’s tweet referring to her wish that Bindi Irwin ‘gets laid’ is ‘not in keeping with the standards set at The Age’. To what standards is Ramadge referring? Standards of good taste one would assume? It would appear this is not necessarily correct, as Deveny reserves arguably her most irreverent comments for her own children. In a column published in The Age last month, Deveny advises parents when asked for help by their children to reply, “If you’re not smart enough to work it out, you’re not smart enough to play Xbox. Bring me another glass of wine. And remember, it’s your fault I drink”.

At the time, comments left on the newspaper’s website indicated that the audience were largely receptive to the controversial humour detailed in the article. How then, did presumably the same readers come to be so outraged by Deveny’s irreverent tweets? The answer lies in the media itself. Deveny conceded in an interview that Twitter is not the place for complex issues. Quite simply, the earlier comment was but a small part of a much larger article, allowing it to be taken in a much wider context. The luxury of a wider context does not exist with Twitter, users are condemned to be judged by their use of those 140 characters only.

Deveny is no doubt seething at the hardline stance The Age has taken over her tweets. However the newspaper’s position on social networking and professional conduct outside the workplace should not have come as a surprise to her. In January legal affairs reporter for The Age Joel Gibson wrote that spying on the self-created social networking profiles of employees had become commonplace for many companies. Further, Gibson warned that society’s increased blurring of social and professional lives online potentially has serious consequences for employees. What a pity then, that Deveny failed to heed the warnings of her colleagues.

Ultimately, The Age’s well known stance that those in the public eye are equally accountable for their actions in their personal as well as professional lives meant the publication had little choice but to end their relationship with the columnist. In the wider context of an article, perhaps her comments about Bindi Irwin would have been taken in the irreverent spirit they were no doubt intended. Deveny’s fatal mistake was to choose the wrong medium in which to deliver her brand of controversial humour. May this be a warning to all tweeters – remember, those 140 characters are your only context.

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