Media tell only what they think we can handle
March 5, 2014
It is remarkable how the reporting of events blows with the winds of change.
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Wendi Deng Photo: AP
The relationship between the media and power is wonderfully encapsulated by the front-page headlines that appeared in Le Moniteur, the official French government daily, in the month of March 1815. During that month, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from his exile on the island of Elba and launched an extraordinary campaign that began with recapturing France, and ended on the battlefield at Waterloo.
March 10, Dateline Elba
The Beast Has Escaped Its Lair
The Rebel Bonaparte Evades Arrest
By Loyal Troops, Heads North
The Emperor At The Gates Of Paris
His Imperial Majesty To Enter
The City Today
These headlines show the athletic flexibility of media reporting as it responds to shifts in power.
In that case, Napoleon was being elevated as his power increased, but, of course, it also goes the other way as we regularly witness the downfall of previously powerful individuals.
Most vulnerable of all are the women who are powerful by association because they are in a relationship with a powerful man. If they separate from him or – even worse – leave him, their shift from protected species to fair game can be dizzyingly abrupt.
And power doesn’t just encompass political power. A celebrity who is much loved by the public can have formidable authority.
When former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney and his wife Heather Mills split in 2006 it was revealed that British tabloids sat on damaging accusations about Mills for years because they feared that McCartney was so well loved that negative press coverage of his wife might rebound on any paper that printed it. It was only once the two split that Mills became fair game.
Just a month after the couple’s break-up, News of the World published stories alleging Mills was a highly paid sex worker when she was in her 20s. The paper noted with gleeful malice that ”Our revelations will have a shattering effect on [Mills’] negotiations for a [divorce] settlement”.
Cast as the villain in their divorce proceedings, Mills was hounded by press outlets and paparazzi for years. In 2009, after her lawyers wrote to the Press Complaints Commission, in a two-week period, four newspapers published corrections to stories they had written about her and a fifth paper wrote to her privately to apologise for its coverage.
Years later, after the revelations of the Leveson inquiry, we know a lot more about the information-gathering methods – both illegal and unethical – of News of the World.
But there is also the method of death by a thousand leaks as a way of throwing ex-partners to a media feeding frenzy. Last month, three months after their divorce negotiations were completed, Vanity Fair published an article about Wendi Deng, who was married to Rupert Murdoch for 14 years.
Based mainly on quotes from anonymous sources, the article portrayed Deng as scheming, disloyal and untrustworthy. In a line full of racial stereotypes, Deng was described as a ”legend” to young Chinese women known as ”Shanghai Girls” who ”employ everything in their power to seduce Western businessmen”.
Central to the Vanity Fair article was an extraordinary note allegedly – and puzzlingly – written by Deng ”to herself” about former British prime minister Tony Blair saying, ‘Oh, shit, oh, shit. Whatever why I’m so so missing Tony. Because he is so so charming and his clothes are so good. He has such good body and he has really really good legs’ …”
The article finished with a quote from the same mysterious note, possibly about Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, saying, ”I’m not ever feel sad … about losing Eric … Plus he is really really ugly … and fat. Not stylish at all try to wear hip clothes”.
Exposure of the note, with its broken English, hints of betrayal, shallow preoccupations and ruthlessly superficial assessments of others, seemed calculated to hold Deng up to scorn and ridicule.
A question that needs to be applied constantly is: Who benefits? Who leaked that note and why? If Deng wrote a note ”to herself”, and presumably she didn’t give it to the magazine. Was it taken out of a rubbish bin? Found on a computer? The Vanity Fair article didn’t say.
Throughout the article, the magazine quoted ”someone who worked in a Murdoch family home” and who revealed private details about Deng. Presumably all employees who work in Murdoch homes sign confidentiality agreements. Why did they feel emboldened to speak about such private matters to a magazine without fear of consequences?
Having no independent media profile or voice makes women who split from powerful men especially vulnerable. Strategies that seemed designed to destroy Nigella Lawson in media and public relations terms following her split from millionaire art-dealer husband Charles Saatchi were damaging but not nearly as much as they could have been because Lawson had her own independent media profile and was known and liked by many members of the public.
What the market will bear matters to how news stories are chosen and written. Consider, for example, the way media reporting of Schapelle Corby has changed over the past nine years as public opinion about her case has shifted. Power, proximity and public opinion all shape media coverage. When there is a sudden power shift, be it a military campaign or a marriage break-up, those elements feed into careful considerations about who is protected and who is fair game.
Sally Young is an Age columnist and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne.