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Leigh Sales' bullying claims don't stack up

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ABC presenter Leigh Sales has received criticism over her complaints of online bullying (Screenshot via YouTube)

Does “Left” Twitter engage in vile abuse of senior female journalists? Leigh Sales seems to think so, but Dr Martin Hirst says the evidence doesn’t stack up.

ABC 7.30 HOST Leigh Sales came out swinging recently when she accused the “Left” on Twitter of orchestrating a campaign of bullying and abuse against her, particularly over her coverage and tweeting about COVID-19, the Victorian lockdowns and how damaging the virus is to young children.

She described the campaign against her as ‘unhinged’ and asserted that ‘almost hourly’ she is:

‘...abused for doing my job, with a stream of tweets goading me to quit, demanding the ABC sack me, telling me I’m useless, stupid, biased and incompetent.’

Taking this a step further, Ms Sales then claims:

‘...it is overwhelmingly Left-leaning Twitter users who are targeting ABC journalists for abuse.’

Sales goes on to suggest that the Indigenous journalist/commentator Stan Grant is also subject to ‘a form of racial vilification’ and that he is ‘regularly derided for his imagined Liberal sympathies’. The implication being that it is the ‘so-called “progressives”’ who are responsible for these ‘offensive slurs’.

If it’s true, this is a remarkable claim and one that any serious Lefty should examine. How can it be that the side of politics that is informed by feminism, anti-racism and pro-LGBTQI ideologies is carrying on like a pack of rabid Right-wingers hurling sexist and racist abuse at these towering figures of respect and neutrality?

The key thing here is if it’s true — and there’s a lot to unpack here.

Leigh Sales says that she is relatively thick-skinned but that she is now subject to online bullying that is ‘non-stop, personal, often vile, frequently unhinged and regularly based on fabrications’ and that is ‘far more insidious and increasingly challenging to bear’ than anything she copped from politicians and staffers in the past.

Well, to forensically examine these claims would take a small army of researchers a long time, so forgive me if I go down the anecdotal evidence track. But in fairness, this is Leigh Sales’ technique, too.

Let’s just take her tweet promoting the article she wrote for the ABC website. Now, this is not perfect because Ms Sales limits comments on her tweets, but there were 125 responses when I last looked.

None of them was abuse; some were supportive of her stance, but there was a lot of criticism and commentary along the lines of this:

A couple of days earlier, there were 98 responses to a tweet promoting a book she co-wrote with Annabelle Crabb. Again, no abuse, just some robust criticism along the same lines.

Where is this torrent of horrible abuse that Ms Sales claims to be battling through on an hourly basis? I put out a call on Twitter to see if anybody could supply screenshots of the type of abuse Leigh Sales is claiming to receive. I had zero responses.

I decided to look a little further. Former Murdoch journalist and now Victorian political editor for The Age Annika Smethurst also tweeted a link to the Sales article and got well over 300 replies. A similar pattern emerged here. Some critical comments, but no personal attacks against either woman. It’s remarkable how restrained the responders were, or maybe the abusers and bully trolls were just having a couple of hours off.

I have no doubt that Leigh Sales and many other female journalists are abused on social media. In fact, there have been research reports written on this topic. Most recently by the Reuters Institute for Journalism Director of Research Julie Posetti and her colleagues in a report published by UNESCO.

While the reported abuse of female journalists is real, the bulk of it is against women of colour targeted by racist Right-wingers. Some of it is coordinated by political parties and their leaders and some of it leads to actual threats of violence. What this global survey discovered is that the bulk of the abuse comes from Right-wing actors and accounts and is motivated by far-Right figures promoting disinformation campaigns.

The report says:

Racialised and religiously bigoted misogynistic abuse hurled at women journalists online by the far-Right is a global phenomenon and many of our interviewees linked this problem to elected officials creating the enabling environment for this pattern to become entrenched. The broader role of “patriotic trolling” and the weaponisation of social media platforms to advance far-Right ideologies have also been explored by other researchers.

This finding is also broadly applicable in Australia where similar research has demonstrated an active and violent core of Right-wing social media accounts that coordinate their campaigns. For example, a brand-new paper by researchers from QUT in Brisbane has shown that it was the Victorian Liberals who started the hashtag wars in Victoria during the 2020 extended lockdowns.

These accounts were able to leverage support from sympathetic journalists to amplify their anti-lockdown, anti-Dan Andrews messages:

After this initial spike of #DictatorDan tweets, @TimSmithMP posted no further tweets containing the hashtag and the overall hashtag volume subsided for some time. Following this initial burst of activity, however, the activities that contributed the most to subsequent growth in hashtag activity were tweets and articles by far-Right commentator Avi Yemini, who describes himself as a journalist reporting for fringe outlets TR News and Rebel News, and by a loosely coordinated group of highly active fringe accounts.

The pro-Dan hashtag #IStandWithDan was a response to this campaign that involved both mainstream Liberal politicians and a fascist thug who proudly claims to be the only Jewish Nazi in Australia.

This is significant because one of the accusations levelled by Leigh Sales is that the ‘#istandwithdan movement ruthlessly targeted journalists who questioned the Victorian State Government’s responses to its COVID outbreak’. This is a disingenuous move by Sales because her retelling of this episode is built on a false premise.

She claims that her own role was to ‘probe the circumstances that led to the deaths of hundreds of people’ in Victoria, but she doesn’t mention that the bulk of these deaths were in aged care homes run by the Federal Government. Leigh Sales’ sanitised version is not how many Victorians remember 2020.

Leigh Sales travelled to Melbourne to question Premier Dan Andrews at a media conference – much like Peta Credlin did for Sky – but there has been no similar hostile interrogation of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. In fact, as many people have pointed out, the treatment of Victoria and NSW on 7.30 has been chalk and cheese. The Victorian Government has faced a barrage of criticism, yet (outside of Laura Tingle) 7.30 has taken a softly-softly approach to the NSW Premier.

Sales complains that many of the attacks on her were triggered by her reporting and tweeting about pandemic related issues; she frames this to suggest that all her work was legitimate, unbiased reporting:

‘...data from official sources that highlight the minimal risk to children... the unintended costs of lockdowns... about how safe the AstraZeneca vaccine is... whether... hard border closures... are proportionate to the risk.’

What’s missing from this is just how politicised Sales’ commentary and tweets were on these issues. She was a vocal champion of the idea that COVID-19 is relatively harmless to children and linked this to the idea that schools should re-open. This is contested and not by any means settled science. Leigh Sales should not be surprised that she got pushback on this stuff.

These cherry-picked examples are spun into a narrative that there is a ‘hardcore mob of bullies’ who claim to campaign for ‘fair and balanced journalism, when in fact they want no such thing’.

Leaving aside the use of the widely derided Fox News slogan, this is a fallacy, but Sales digs in:

‘...these Twitterati want journalists cowed and afraid to question anything to do with Labor.’

Really? What reason-abandoned online universe does Ms Sales occupy? It certainly isn’t the Twittersphere I know where most Left-leaning people have a healthy dose of scepticism about the current Federal ALP leadership and its failure to act like an Opposition Party.

Leigh Sales’ claims of merciless and constant online bullying just don’t stack up. Instead promoting this false narrative is a tactic to shutdown legitimate criticism of her (and others) performance.

For example, Leigh defends radio breakfast host Fran Kelly who is ‘respected’ but also ‘attacked as a mouthpiece for the Liberal Party’, even though she was once ‘public enemy number one for the Howard Government’.

Sales then comments:

‘What an incredible political conversion Fran has apparently had!’

Well, yes, actually this is true. How do I know? I gave Fran Kelly her first job at the ABC when I hired her as a reporter on Triple J’s The Drum in about 1990. She was a Lefty firebrand in those days; she has undergone something of an ideological transformation since then.

I have taught two generations of Australian journalists over a period of almost 30 years and the news industry has changed substantially in that time. My advice to the young, hopeful first-years was always: “Talk back at the television.”

The point of this seemingly pointless exercise was to encourage the young idealists in critical thinking — don’t passively accept what the newsreader is telling you and if you disagree, say so.

We didn’t have Twitter or even Facebook when I started in academia. There was almost no way to have your say. Sure, there was talkback radio, but it’s difficult to access and favours an older, conservative demographic; the same applies to letters to newspapers. The news discourse was effectively one-way transmission and, to be honest, that’s how the journalists liked it.

If you’re not being challenged for your bias or mistakes, it can very easily feel like you can never be wrong. Journalists have always had a superiority complex and they enjoyed an unquestioned status as the suppositories of wisdom for a long time before social media upset the apple cart.

Now the public square is no longer a silent void into which the quasi-intellectual reporter casts their pearls of wisdom before the unvoiced sewer rats. The public square today is noisy, loud and sometimes obnoxious; a bit like the agora of ancient Greece. The sages and the oracles compete with the snake oil merchants and the peddlers of disinformation. Worst of all for the once unassailable voices of “reason” – the journalists – the citizens are talking back and insisting that they not only be heard, but that they be listened to.

This is great for the citizens, but the oracles don’t like it. Too bad.

Dr Martin Hirst is an Independent Australia columnist, a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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