The Rebel Wilson uproar shows that gossip columns belong in a bygone era

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 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 both 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 that make it the absolutely addictive gutter that it is. The schadenfreude was palpable.

From the start, it was hard to understand why Shields was fighting so hard to defend a gossip column. It seemed like an odd hill to die on. The SMH’s decision to pursue and publish a gossip column in an era when the internet exists is baffling.

To understand just how odd it is that the Herald is still holding on to a gossip column, it is worth examining the history of the genre. Gossip columns first appeared in the 17th century, when print publications emerged. As Joseph Epstein has written, early gossip columns focused on “the wretched behaviour of the rich and wellborn”. As the lower classes learned to read, gossip columns allowed readers to see that “one’s betters weren’t, at bottom, really any better at all”. The point, in other words, was to mock the rich.

Prominent people who had something to hide were especially vulnerable to gossipmongers who saw the best stories as those politicians and senior figures did not want revealed. There was something 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.

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 was emerging 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 increasingly overbearing. Gossip was easy money – celebrity lives sold papers and were relatively cheap to document.

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, and the Daily Mail even promised not to feature photos taken by paparazzi in its pages. This is a promise it has not been able to keep.

Still, the period following Diana’s death signalled a shift in public sentiment away from the tabloids, at least temporarily. Gossip columns were still being consumed but it seemed that the “rich and wellborn” were no longer such an easy target.

In the 2000s, the internet democratised the dissemination of information and made it impossible for anyone to claim a monopoly on gossip as a whole host of new websites popped up, covering exclusively the ins and outs of celebrity life.

Broadsheets, on the other hand, 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 really invested, 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 he had been wronged by Wilson 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 organisations, Wilson’s decision to take control of her own 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: to challenge 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.

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