When the Australian Financial Review and senior reporter Aaron Patrick set their sights on Samantha Maiden for what is known in journalism as a “hit job”, one could have been excused for expecting it would do the seasoned reporter some damage. Dig up her work history, delve into her childhood, fling around words like “challenging”, “spiky” and “difficult” and the reporter who revealed allegations that Brittany Higgins had been raped in Parliament House might be cowed.
What the editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury, and Patrick didn’t foresee was that what many believed amounted to the bullying of a top female journalist, who has led the coverage of harassment and sexual violence against women in politics, would backfire so spectacularly.
The only people damaged by Wednesday’s article, “PM caught in crusade of women journos”, are the men who wrote and published it.
As the artist Jon Kudelka said: “Did the AFR seriously just run a comically transparent hit job on Samantha Maiden for being a journalist while female?”
In an unusual show of solidarity, journalists from across the media rallied in support of Maiden, the political editor of news.com.au who honed her steely reporting skills in the rough house of News Corp: at the Australian, the Sunday Telegraph and Sky News Australia.
Journos from Nine Entertainment (publisher of the AFR and its sister papers the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald), News Corp, the ABC, Guardian Australia, Crikey and the Saturday Paper all spoke up.
There were the likely allies in support of Maiden, such as the journalism academic Margaret Simons – who said it was a “nasty and ill-judged piece” that, in her view, “breaches ethical codes on several levels” – to the highly unlikely ones, such as the UK singer Lily Allen. By the end of the day tweets in support were trending on Twitter.
‘Activism’ or public-interest journalism?
The ill-judged piece started off musing about how a pack of female reporters had made the prime minister’s life difficult with their “activist” and “angry” journalism and then veered into a deeply personal examination of Maiden’s character, childhood and family circumstances.
“Anger at the government over the abuse of women is being led by a powerful group of female journalists,” Patrick wrote.
“Angry coverage that often strayed into unapologetic activism came forth from a new, female media leadership: Laura Tingle and Louise Milligan on the ABC, Katharine Murphy and Amy Remeikis at the Guardian, Lisa Wilkinson on Channel Ten, Karen Middleton in the Saturday Paper and a cameo by Jessica Irvine on the Nine Network.”
As Murphy has pointed out, this cohort of reporters is not “new”; some, like Maiden, Tingle and Murphy, have been reporting on politics for decades. Their work is not “activism”, it’s public interest journalism.
Politicians who spoke up include Labor’s Penny Wong, whose words were backed up by her Senate colleague Kristina Keneally: “In these last weeks we have seen extraordinary work by many women journalists, keeping a focus on issues which have too long been unspoken. Dismissing this as a ‘crusade’ or ‘unapologetic activism’ undermines their work and deliberately misses the point.”
Some of the detail in Patrick’s article was so grotesquely inappropriate it can’t be repeated. The AFR had removed the worst line from the online article due to guidelines relating to reporting mental health issues, Stutchbury told Beast.
Patrick did admit that Maiden “may have done more than any other individual, journalist or otherwise, to define the Morrison government as indifferent to sexual harassment, assault and rape”.
On this point Higgins herself agreed, saying that Maiden, who gained her trust over weeks, carefully listened to her and fact-checked her story, was her “personal hero”.
The ABC Melbourne radio host Raf Epstein called it “revolting & revealing”.
It’s not the first time Patrick has been accused of bullying female journalists on the pages of the financial daily. He ran a long campaign against the former ABC Lateline host Emma Alberici, calling her “a woman of considerable self-belief”.
To this accusation, Patrick said: “Absurd and ridiculous claim that ignores tough coverage of powerful men.”
‘Filling in some details’
Stutchbury told Weekly Beast he had received some email complaints from readers and he understands there is “a fair bit more criticism on Twitter”.
He defended the story as an attempt to fill in an under-reported aspect of Scott Morrison’s “damaging News Corp diversion in his mea culpa press conference last week”; and the fact that the PM had been talking about Maiden when he made the comment.
“Apart from abuse, some complainants don’t seem to like the idea that the overall ‘enough’ phenomenon has been led by female journalists fed up with the harassment of women,” he said. “That same point has been made by others who are openly supportive of the female journalists.
“Others similarly don’t like the suggestion of ‘activism’, even though that seems a reasonable observation of journalists who speak at rallies, even those in aid of good causes.
“Aaron has written more about the need to combat sexism in the Liberal party than most journalists, and before it all blew up, such as here.
“It reports that Samantha Maiden is a fearless and admired – but in some circles controversial – journalist. Filling in some details on Samantha, and observations from her supporters and critics, aims to help readers, particularly those outside the Parliament House bubble, understand this overall very important story and the overdue efforts to improve the status and lives of women.”
‘Twitter fuss’ warning
One editor who took a different approach to many journalists was the relatively new editor of the Age, Gay Alcorn, who responded to some staff tweets about the Patrick article – which was in the Age’s sister paper – by sending a note to all staff warning them not to comment publicly.
“I know there’s a Twitter fuss about a particular piece today, but be really careful adding opinions criticising other journalists,” Alcorn said on Slack.
“And NEVER make a generalised comment about ‘Canberra’ coverage because that includes our own bureau, which is extremely unfair and will not be tolerated – it would be like someone in Canberra carelessly tweeting about how hopeless ‘Melbourne’ coverage is on a particular issue. I am talking to a few people but this applies to you all.”
New Nine chief hit with cyber attack
The Patrick piece may have had more impact because so many people could read it in a week that saw the paper take down its hard paywall in response to a major cyber attack on Nine Entertainment. When subscribers couldn’t log in, Stutchbury made the content available to everyone. Nine has described the attack as “significant in scale with high potential to disrupt our business” and almost a week later the company is still expecting staff to work from home (there is no wifi), producing TV as it was done in the 1980s and putting out the papers without the assistance of some digital production tools.
The new chief executive, Mike Sneesby, may have taken the reins in the toughest week the media company has faced, but he fortuitously had the professional skills to cope. Unlike his predecessor, Hugh Marks, who is a lawyer who went into TV production, the former chief executive of streaming service Stan is an engineer by trade who built the streaming service up from scratch and worked alongside Nine’s chief information technology officer, Damian Cronan, setting up ninemsn earlier in his career.