The Sydney Morning Herald has done a disservice to journalism with its Rebel Wilson stance

The Australian newspaper took a public tantrum when Rebel Wilson chose to reveal her relationship status on her own terms - and they’ve done more damage to public perceptions of the way media companies operate

<p>Rebel Wilson shared a photo of herself and Ramona Agruma with the hashtag #loveislove. (Photo: Rebel Wilson/Instagram)</p>

Rebel Wilson shared a photo of herself and Ramona Agruma with the hashtag #loveislove. (Photo: Rebel Wilson/Instagram)

Journalists are a self-protective bunch. The unspoken consensus in the industry, dating back to the Fleet Street days, is that it’s bad form to call each other out. Circling the wagons is the modus operandi.

I’ve never really understood this logic, but presumably the thinking is that the industry takes enough flak from politicians, regulators and readers, so why pile more pressure on each other?

It’s why you rarely saw much sustained and serious coverage from large swathes of the media about the phone hacking scandal, with a few notable exceptions, or the Leveson Inquiry that followed it.

But if the media really wants to win, or indeed hold on to any shred of trust placed in it by the public, it needs to do a far better job of holding itself to account, and fronting up when it gets things wrong.

If we make a mistake on NationalWorld, as well as publishing a correction we’d expect other publications to point it out - and equally we highlight inaccurate reporting if we see other titles make mistakes that lead to real-world implications - whether it’s an honest mistake, a wilful distortion of the truth, or simply bad data analysis.

On the subject of inclusivity, newspapers have learned a lot over recent years, and much of the disgusting misogyny, homophobia and racism that lurked behind the headlines has gone from most titles - again, with a few notable exceptions.

The Rebel Wilson story

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), by contrast, appears to be stuck somewhere in the early 1980s, as it endures a global backlash from its handling of a story about Rebel Wilson’s personal life.

In case you missed this saga unfold over the weekend, here’s a recap: a journalist at the SMH, Andrew Hornery, found out that the Sydney-born Hollywood star was in a relationship with a woman, the Los Angeles-based designer Ramona Agruma. Wilson had never previously spoken openly about her sexuality.

In a since-deleted column published on Saturday, Hornery complained with a remarkable lack of grace that Wilson had “gazumped” his big exclusive by daring to reveal her relationship news herself. In an Instagram post on Friday morning, Wilson wrote: “I thought I was searching for a Disney Prince… but maybe what I really needed all this time was a Disney Princess”.

Hornery also let slip that he had given Wilson two days to comment on his story - an ultimatum that carried a threat, effectively, rather than a right of reply.

The newspaper has since deleted the column. Editor Bevan Shields wrote that they “made mistakes” and “will learn from them”.  But in his initial response, he fell short of apologising: “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.”

An anonymous staffer at the Herald later sent an email to colleagues, complaining that the title’s reputation was being “trashed”, adding, “here we are again – our newsroom has become the story”.

They are correct, and the truth is that the Sydney Morning Herald only apologised once it realised it had become the centre of a worldwide backlash.

They used one of the oldest tabloid tactics in the book - threatening to go public with a story about a celebrity’s personal life if they didn’t get the exclusive comment - then, somewhat amazingly, revealed their own outrage that the celebrity in question had dared to use their own (much bigger) platform to “gazump” them.

Although Wilson and Agruma had been pictured at events together, they had not spoken about a relationship, and it wasn’t the Herald’s job to “out” them. But the fact is that Hornery’s intervention meant that Wilson felt the need to go public, not at a time of her choosing necessarily, but because she wanted to share her news on her terms, before he could.

It’s a sorry story that says a lot about where real power lies in the world of popular culture in 2022, and why parts of the media are still so out of step with how the public realm has changed over the past 40 years.

What makes this one even more noteworthy is that the Herald, having got it badly wrong, then published a column expressing their sour grapes. It raises the question of how often this sort of thing goes on in private emails, between tabloids and celebrities. Far more transparency is needed, or we can forget about trust for good.