NEWS

Bad press: the Rebel Wilson debacle that rocked SMH to its core

Jun 17, 2022

Show caption Rebel Wilson said on Twitter it was a ‘very hard situation’ that she was trying to handle with grace. Photograph: Fairfax Media

Australian media

Fri 17 Jun 2022 21.00 BST

It was around 5pm on Tuesday, on the sixth floor of a shiny new office block in North Sydney, that a meeting the like of which no media executive wants to have took place.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s editor, Bevan Shields, and executive editor, Tory Maguire, had assembled staff in a conference room to discuss a media debacle that had rocked the masthead, owned by Nine Entertainment, to its core.

For four days the 191-year-old newspaper with a proud history of ground-breaking journalism had been at the centre of an international scandal about journalistic ethics and the treatment of celebrities’ private lives.

The paper’s gossip columnist, Andrew Hornery, was accused of forcing Australian actor Rebel Wilson to come out after giving her a deadline to respond to a question about her relationship with a woman.

The editorial misstep had quickly spread globally, prompting stories in the New York Times and a rebuke from Whoopi Goldberg on The View. Even Star Trek actor George Takei and Irish pop singer Ronan Keating chimed in.

There was no video feed of the meeting on Tuesday so only those in the office could attend. Some who did have spoken to Guardian Australia about the shockwaves that went through the newsroom as the story went viral.

This wasn’t a News Corp tabloid, this was the revered Herald, affectionately known as “Granny” when it was owned by Fairfax Media, and staff were not used to being treated as pariahs.

Attendees said the mood was sombre as Maguire, who has oversight of the national coverage of both the Herald and the Age in Melbourne, was emotional, angry even. She implored journalists to lend emotional support to Shields and Hornery, who had been subjected to “horrific attacks” online, death threats even. There was a great deal of sympathy for the two among staff at the meeting.

How did a short piece in a gossip column lead to these tumultuous events, events which saw the paper publish three apologies in as many days?

On the Saturday of a long weekend Hornery, a highly experienced journalist of some three decades, had published his Private Sydney column online and on page 36 of the paper. Although he had reported the day before that Rebel Wilson had revealed on Instagram that she was dating a woman, Hornery returned to the story to tell his readers how he had missed out on a global scoop. He had known about Wilson’s relationship and had approached her agent for a comment, he explained.

“PS erred on the side of caution and emailed Rebel Wilson’s representatives on Thursday morning, giving her two days to comment on her new relationship with another woman, LA designer Ramona Agruma, before publishing a single word,” Hornery wrote in PS’s trademark snarky tone.

“Big mistake. Wilson opted to gazump the story, posting about her new ‘Disney Princess’ on Instagram early yesterday, the same platform she had previously used to brag about her handsome ex-boyfriend, wealthy American beer baron Jacob Busch.”

The backlash was swift and brutal. The column was seen as a threat to out Wilson, who had publicly only dated men before, and the disgust at the paper only grew when Wilson herself said on Twitter it was a “very hard situation” that she was trying to handle with grace.

So apparently it wasn't @RebelWilson's choice to come out... The @smh/@theage have admitted to giving her a heads up 2 days in advance that they were going to "out" her. What's worse, openly gay men at the Sydney Morning Herald were involved in this. 🤦🏼‍♀️ https://t.co/Zl80zg01SW

— Kate Doak (@katedoak) June 11, 2022

Shields’ first reaction to the outrage was to protect his journalist, and he wrote a short editor’s note, which was published in Monday’s paper.

“Our weekly Private Sydney celebrity column last week asked Wilson if she wished to comment about her new partner,” Shields wrote. “We would have asked the same questions had Wilson’s new partner been a man.

“To say that the Herald ‘outed’ Wilson is wrong.

“Like other mastheads do every day, we simply asked questions and as standard practice included a deadline for a response. I had made no decision about whether or what to publish, and the Herald’s decision about what to do would have been informed by any response Wilson supplied.”

The assertion that the newspaper had done nothing wrong fuelled the anger of critics, as well as some staff, many of whom were uncomfortable with the position Shields was taking, and felt he wasn’t listening to critics.

LGBTIQ+ Health Australia’s chief executive officer, Nicky Bath, told the Guardian Wilson was put in “an appalling situation” when the Herald contacted her.

Bath said there was a process people went through to reveal their sexuality and it was an intensely personal and vulnerable time.

“They are personal decisions,” she said. “Who you disclose to first, how you do that, and when you do that.”

⁩“oh we just ask the questions..”

What exactly do you think she would have thought when you asked the questions?

Disingenuous

Low rent behaviour

How would these journalists and editors feel if these questions were asked about their private life? pic.twitter.com/9MivpB1E1L

— Raf Epstein (@Raf_Epstein) June 12, 2022

Hornery responded to the outcry with a mea culpa published online on Monday, writing that, as a gay man, he was aware of the pain of discrimination and that he regretted that “Rebel has found this hard”.

“It is not the Herald’s business to ‘‘out’’ people and that is not what we set out to do. But I understand why my email has been seen as a threat. The framing of it was a mistake. The Herald and I will approach things differently from now on to make sure we always take into consideration the extra layer of complexities people face when it comes to their sexuality.”

Shields tweeted Hornery’s apology and said the original column, which he had defended in an editor’s note only a day earlier, had been taken down.

The Herald made mistakes over Rebel Wilson, and will learn from them. Saturday’s piece has been retracted and Andrew Hornery goes into detail here about what we didn’t get right https://t.co/jrnBpbJ4ne

— Bevan Shields (@BevanShields) June 13, 2022

One SMH staffer who wasn’t at the meeting said Shields’ initial reaction was “typically knee jerk” and similar to his reaction to criticism on another issue in February. Then, Shields did eventually apologise after he wrongly insisted a train network shutdown ordered by the state government was a strike.

“Some critics have tried to portray the use of the word ‘strike’ as some kind of conspiracy but this was simply a stuff-up, which was later corrected,” Shield wrote in his apology in March.

“Any assessment of our coverage over the following hours and days would detect no sign of anti-union bias.”

Shields’ failure to read the room on Rebel Wilson went on for another two days, prompting an anonymous staffer to send an all-staff email to colleagues claiming the paper’s reputation was being “trashed”.

“Here we are again – our newsroom has become the story,” the email sent on Monday afternoon stated.

“With the ‘strike’ fiasco, we were a national laughing stock – but now we’ve attracted international attention,” the email, signed “staff reporter”, said. “One doesn’t have to search far to find the common denominator in those editorial decisions.”

Shields responded to the email by telling staff his door was always open to anyone who had concerns.

“Since I started as editor in January, I have regularly stressed that I am always available to talk to anyone in the newsroom about anything,” Shields wrote.

“Many of you who have come to me with issues – professional or personal – know that I am a decent and fair person, and committed to the Herald and everyone who works here. We are a great masthead and in a great position. I have obviously seen the anonymous note sent this afternoon.”

But it wasn’t until Wednesday’s paper that Shields published a comprehensive apology which acknowledged that the PS column “should not have been published and that is ultimately on me as editor”. “For that, I apologise to Wilson and anyone offended by it,” Shields said.

The Guardian understands this final – and third – apology may have saved the paper from another embarrassing leak. SMH staff had discussed writing an open letter to distance themselves from what they saw as unethical journalism but decided against it after Shields published his second note, and they felt he finally “got it”.

While there was widespread support for Shields at the meeting, the newsrooms of the SMH and the Age in general seem to be split between those who have sympathy for Hornery and Shields, both hard-working and principled journalists, and those who say the incident reveals Shields, 36, is out of his depth and has made a series of mistakes since he was appointed editor.

Shields was a surprise appointment in December and replaced a popular editor, Lisa Davies, who resigned abruptly in October after five years.

The SMH deputy editor, Cosima Marriner, who had been running the paper since Davies’ departure, was overlooked for the top job.

Shields, who is known as a somewhat prickly character on Twitter, where he has had some run-ins, was described by Maguire as an “exceptionally talented journalist and editor” who understood the history of the masthead.

While some colleagues say Shields has had a rough start in a tough role, another says the number of leaks indicate disquiet.

“Do I think the editors of the Herald got together and wanted to out Rebel Wilson?,” one staffer said. “No, but the problem for Bevan is he’s had a series of fuck-ups over six months and he has a massive target on his back now.”

The inappropriate tone of the PS column, which got through all the usual editorial checks, was one thing, but the delay in apologising for it turned the incident into the biggest journalism scandal at the paper since Herald columnist Paul Sheehan was suspended six years ago.

Sheehan had admitted he did not sufficiently check the facts of an incendiary column reporting a Sydney woman’s claim she was gang-raped by six Arabic-speaking men.

Although the latest incident has been damaging for the masthead’s reputation, the Guardian understands Shields’ position as editor is safe.

The managing director of publishing at Nine, James Chessell, who appointed Shields and Maguire, is said to have been “furious” about the debacle but is standing by them.

The paper’s most famous journalist, Kate McClymont, defended Shields over the strike incident, saying “Can I ask that people please give @BevanShields a decent go. He’s only been in the job a couple of weeks”.

Her sentiments appear to convey the way Nine management is thinking.

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