John Quiggin

About John Quiggin

John Quiggin is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow and a Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

The ‘fall’ of Fireman Paul is a microcosm of how the nation handles politics

The to-and-fro regarding Fireman Paul is how our media mishandles identity and politics in miniature.

 

 

The latest kerfuffle over volunteer firefighter Paul Parker manages to encapsulate, in a single vignette, the way the Australian media handles politics. It’s not an edifying story. After shooting to fame with an expletive tirade against Prime Minister Morrison at the height of the bushfire catastrophe, Parker attained the status of a minor folk hero.

That was that, until he appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project to say that he had been “sacked” for his actions. The Rural Fire Service (which had earlier suggested Parker had been “stood down due to exhaustion”)  issued a not-quite denial, which was eagerly embraced by the PM.

Predictably enough, the left-wing of Twitter erupted and generated a trending hashtag #IStandWithPaul. Equally predictably, the government’s supporters mobilised in response, exploiting the revelation that Parker was a One Nation voter. The usual leader in such a case would be The Australian, which (as Crikey has documented) routinely sets its attack dogs on anyone who gets in the way of the government. This time, however, the job was done by Chris Uhlmann, political correspondent for Ten’s rival, Channel 9.

Uhlmann had the brilliant idea of pwning Twitter by tweeting the information about Parker with the observation that ‘There is only one politician in Australia he doesn’t think should “get f-ed”. Guess who?’

The idea was that the left Twitterati would react with horror and dump their erstwhile hero.

 

Some journalists, with such a large amount of egg on their faces, might simply delete the tweet and move on, or even admit error.  But Uhlmann is made of sterner stuff.

 

Sadly for Uhlmann, things didn’t go to plan. His Tweet got over 1000 comments, far more than the 471 retweets it generated (the Twitter term for such a fail is “ratiod”) and, almost without exception, the tenor of those comments was summed up by this one: “Literally nobody cares who he supports politically, Chris. Nobody but you. This changes nothing.”

Some journalists, with such a large amount of egg on their faces, might simply delete the tweet and move on, or even admit error.  But Uhlmann is made of sterner stuff. He published a follow-up account in the Sydney Morning Herald, in which everything went to plan. According to Uhlmann

When this nugget hit Twitter, it was like watching a train pull into Central Station as most of the mob got off. In the all or nothing era, St Paul can’t be part of what we hope for, he has to be with us on everything. He can’t be blemished by views that trigger delicate sensibilities.”

On Twitter of course, this fabrication was derided, and Uhlmann himself became a trending topic (presumably this will be material for a later piece decrying social media pile-ons). But readers of the SMH learned nothing of this. Amid more than a hundred supportive comments (“So true” “Best article I’ve read in a long time! “) only a handful of readers pointed out that Uhlmann’s Twitter story was the opposite of truth.

What accounts for this striking difference? It would be tempting to assume that it is the result of the partisan bubbles about which Uhlmann was writing. Sadly a more prosaic explanation presents itself. In a tradition dating back to the days of the Letters to the Editor page, the SMH moderators (whose implied role is one of deleting obscene and abusive comments), can simply delete comments they don’t like, producing a selection that suits the response they would prefer to receive.  I tested this with a couple of politely worded comments calling for a retraction, neither of which was published.

Apart from some echoes on Twitter (which has a marginally longer attention span than the mainstream media), this episode is fading into the rear view mirror. The social fabric is frayed a little more, and trust in the media justifiably eroded. And so it goes.

Update: I was too quick to let the Oz off the hook. There’s a piece enjoying the imaginary discomfort of lefties over the great exposé saying (with zero evidence) “I suspect has suddenly had a change of heart about Fireman Paul.”

 

 

 

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