It 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 out her romantic relationship with a woman. The fallout was swift, with readers pointing out that his conduct was tone-deaf and unethical.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s editor Bevan Shields joined the fray early in the week, backing Hornery in a tone that came across as dismissive and passive-aggressive. The response was predictable: Shields was pilloried by fellow journalists and readers alike, and the issue became a global story.
Hornery issued an apology (of sorts). This was not enough, though, so Shields wrote a “note to subscribers”, offering his own heavily caveated apology. By this time, Twitter was electric with that combination of glee and outrage, making it the addictive gutter. The schadenfreude was palpable.
It was hard to understand why Shields fought to defend a gossip column from the start. The SMH’s decision to pursue and publish a gossip column in an era when the internet exists is baffling. It seemed like an odd hill to die on.
It is worth examining the genre’s history to understand just how odd it is that the Herald is still holding on to a gossip column. Gossip columns first appeared in the 17th century, when print publications emerged. As Joseph Epstein has written, early gossip columns focused on “the wretched behavior of the rich and wellborn”. As the lower classes learned to read, gossip columns showed readers that “one’s betters weren’t, at the bottom, really any better at all”. The point, in other words, was to mock the rich.
Prominent people with something to hide were especially vulnerable to gossipmongers who saw the best stories as those politicians and senior figures did not want to be revealed. Something was thrilling about laying low those who believed they were mighty. Then as now, gossip columnists often assumed a position of moral superiority over their subjects.
Gossip was easy money – celebrity lives sold papers and were relatively cheap to document. As the printing press expanded, gossip grew in popularity. By the 1940s, the focus shifted from politicians and landed gentry to celebrities, especially in America, where Hollywood emerged as an important social force. By the 1960s, people in the UK were similarly hooked to celebrity news, mainly because of the explosion of interest in shows such as Coronation Street. By the 1980s, tabloids were unavoidable, and their tactics were increasingly overbearing.
As powerful women increasingly push back against how they are treated in the media, the Herald should have seen this uproar coming.
The tabloid model reigned supreme for a few decades until 1997, when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash as she attempted to flee a pack of paparazzi—in the weeks following Diana’s death, sales figures for both the Sun and the Mirror plummeted to their lowest figures since 1962. The Daily Mail even promised not to feature photos taken by paparazzi on its pages. This is a promise it has not been able to keep.
Still, the period following Diana’s death signaled a shift in public sentiment away from the tabloids, at least temporarily. Gossip columns were still being consumed, but the “rich and wellborn” seemed no longer such an easy target.
In the 2000s, the internet democratized the dissemination of information. It made it impossible for anyone to claim a monopoly on gossip as many new websites popping up, covering the ins and outs of celebrity life exclusively.
On the other hand, Broadsheets continued to cover the arts and entertainment but usually drew the line at 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 invested, they could follow their social media accounts.
There were many problems with the Rebel Wilson piece. Perhaps the most glaring was the columnist’s assumption that Wilson had wronged him because she had decided not to play by the rules of a game that did not work for her. At a time when many celebrities have personal platforms that are bigger than those of media organizations, Wilson’s decision to take control of her narrative was entirely predictable. In addition, as powerful women increasingly push back against how they are treated in the media, the Herald should have seen this uproar coming.
The Rebel Wilson affair indicates the Herald has not adapted to the times. Australia is a vastly different country now. Hornery’s initial piece reflected the judgmental tone that has been the mainstay of gossip columns since they were first published in Victorian-era England.
When gossip columns began, they served a titillating and important social function: challenging the rich. Now, in a reversal of roles, the media is increasingly seen as out of touch and elitist while the rich and famous portray themselves as accessible and relatable.
Times have changed. The culture has moved on, and the Herald would be well advised to do the same.
Sisonke Msimang is a Guardian Australia columnist. She is the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (2017) and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (2018)