IIt was a hellish week for the Sydney Morning Herald. Last weekend, gossip columnist Andrew Hornery wrote a bizarre article in which he complained that actor Rebel Wilson had not cooperated with his attempt to get out of his romantic relationship with a woman. The fallout was swift, with readers pointing out that his conduct was tone-deaf and unethical.
Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields joined the fray earlier this week, supporting Hornery in a tone that was both dismissive and passive-aggressive. The response was predictable: Shields was pilloried by fellow reporters and readers and the issue became a global story.
Hornery issued an apology (of sorts). That wasn’t enough, however, so Shields penned a “note to subscribers,” offering his own heavily cautioned apology. At that time, Twitter was electric with this combination of joy and contempt which make it the absolutely addictive gutter that it is. The schadenfreude was palpable.
From the start, it was hard to understand why Shields fought so hard to defend a gossip column. It looked like a strange hill to die on. SMH’s decision to pursue and publish a gossip column in an age when the internet exists is baffling.
To understand how odd it is that the Herald still clings to a gossip column, it’s worth looking at the history of the genre. Gossip columns first appeared in the 17th century when printed publications emerged. As Joseph Epstein wrote, early gossip columns focused on “the miserable behavior of the rich and high-born.” As the lower classes learned to read, the gossip columns allowed readers to see that “the best weren’t, deep down, really any better at all”. The goal, in other words, was to make fun of the rich.
Personalities who had something to hide were particularly vulnerable to rumors that saw the best stories, as these politicians and personalities did not want to be revealed. There was something exciting about shooting down those who thought they were powerful. Then as now, gossip columnists often assumed a position of moral superiority over their subjects.
As the printing press developed, gossip grew in popularity. By the 1940s, the focus shifted from politicians and landed gentry to celebrities, especially in America, where Hollywood was emerging as an important social force. In the 1960s, Britons were also addicted to celebrity news, largely due to the explosion of interest in shows such as Coronation Street. In the 1980s, the tabloids were inescapable and their tactics increasingly authoritarian. Gossip was easy money – celebrity lives sold newspapers and were relatively inexpensive to document.
The tabloid model reigned supreme for a few decades, until 1997 when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident while trying to flee a pack of paparazzi. In the weeks following Diana’s death, sales figures for the Sun and Mirror plummeted to their lowest figures since 1962, and the Daily Mail even promised not to feature paparazzi photos in its pages. It was a promise he couldn’t keep.
Yet the period following Diana’s death signaled a shift in public opinion away from the tabloids, at least temporarily. The gossip columns were still consumed, but it seemed that the “rich and high-born” were no longer such an easy target.
In the 2000s, the Internet democratized the dissemination of information and prohibited anyone from claiming a monopoly on gossip as a multitude of new websites appeared, Exclusively covering the ins and outs of celebrity lives.
Broadsheets, on the other hand, continued to cover arts and entertainment, but were generally limited to having dedicated gossip columns, focusing instead on news and opinion. If readers wanted to know what the Kardashians were up to, they could find them online or pick up a tabloid, and if they were really invested, they could follow their social media accounts.
There were a lot of problems with Rebel Wilson’s piece. Perhaps most egregious was the columnist’s assumption that Wilson was wronged because she decided not to play by the rules of a game that wasn’t working for her. At a time when many celebrities have personal platforms larger than those of media organizations, Wilson’s decision to take control of her own narrative was entirely predictable. Plus, as powerful women increasingly push back against how they’re treated in the media, the Herald should have seen that uproar coming.
The Rebel Wilson case indicates that the Herald has not kept up with the times. Australia is a very different country now. Hornery’s original article reflected the critical tone that has been a mainstay of gossip columns since they were first published in Victorian-era England.
When gossip columns first started, they served an exciting and important social function: challenging the wealthy. Now, in a reversal of roles, the media is increasingly seen as disconnected and elite, while the rich and famous present themselves as accessible and trustworthy.
The times have changed. The culture has evolved, and the Messenger would be well advised to do the same.