The more things change, the more they stay the same

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One of my early PR mentors used to use a relatively simple tale to illustrate the transition in journalism from news to opinion over time, a shift she predicted early in the days of the Internet (she was an early user of the phrase “clickbait” before the Daily Mail ever heard of the word). If I tell you Claire from accounts is off work sick: news. If I tell you Claire from accounts is off work sick but don’t tell anyone else, she’s pregnant, I’ve given you news and gossip. If I tell you the above, but I have no idea if it’s true, I’ve given you news, gossip and speculation. If I do all of that, and throw in a comment on her morals or lack of a father, all in one sentence, you have the full journalist package – news, gossip, speculation, opinion AND something for you to react to, positive or negative. Plus I’ve buried the lead, which was boring, and given you something else to talk about and react to. And that, she would say, is modern journalism.

My mentor would often say journalists wrestled on a daily basis with striking a balance between news, gossip and speculation, aware that the former gained them credibility and awards no one really cared about, but the latter was a powerful tool, painting people as villains and heroes, simplifying stories, engaging the audience. Heroes, villains, tears, moved emotions, something that makes you feel enough to leave a comment, reply to a tweet…these are the simple tools of media manipulation. Even in PR we work in manipulation – only MY client can represent your business. Don’t like facts? Well did you hear about that other guys corporate talk…talk about boring…

I wrestle with this all the time, not just at work, but these days as a personal fascination. After all – news is pretty much dead. I’m not breaking news to you (ironically enough), but basic narrative news isn’t where the money is at. If you are in journalism to break stories, you are a dinosaur. Sure, you might find something out that’s newsworthy, but you need to add gossip, speculation, your own slant. You need fireworks. Australian TV is a prime example of the cultural shift: 60 minutes in the 80s? Ian Leslie pursuing rebel fighters in dangerous situations, George Negus interviewing politicians? So passe. What now? Chinese auction buyers are evil, here’s an inspirational story with a close up for some tears…light and shade, simplistic stuff, speculative and occasionally reckless.

It’s the same with football: this is a week where Mark Robinson only half joking said “we need some scandal” to Gerard Whateley on 360, because all they had to talk about was relatively interesting football, and that’s nowhere near enough. The excellent/terrible (delete as appropriate) Dan Le Batard will often roll his eyes on boring days and say “we’re only talking about this because it’s Wednesday”, on days devoid of scandal or heroic deeds. I’m not breaking new ground to tell you sports writers can hate the very sport they write about. As we’ve discussed before, an entire Channel 9 show, Footy Classified, exists because it wants to talk around football, that hates football, that sacks panelists for talking too much about football. It’s in the speculation game, the gossip game, the everyone is this way because I say so Hutchy game…

So what happens when “the #1 newsbreaker in the game” (tm James Brayshaw) gives up on news altogether? Does it mean anything?

Because to be clear, Damien Barrett has made a full transition to opinion maker, and it’s worth tracing, impersonally, where it leaves football media in 2017.

The Journalist

Because to be also clear, there was a time Damian Barrett was a journalist. If you don’t believe me, you might want to check out the fact that he was a hero of North Melbourne fans during the period the AFL was trying to get them to move to the Gold Coast – relentless and tenacious, credit where it is due (and rewarded by award through the North Melbourne Football Club – interesting link, given the effusive praise James Brayshaw, leading that campaign, has praised on Barrett ever since. I digress). Also, there are in the archives some fairly interesting interviews he has done. Paul Chapman on not going to the Sari Club. Spida Everitt on drugs in football. All evidence of…journalism. As you knew it. News without opinion. Even his “biggest blunder” (the Hawthorn dossier about its Brisbane tinged rebuild) was an attempt to tell a news story.

But since his induction (or indoctrination) into the cult of Triple M, that’s gradually faded. Barrett has become a rapid fire pellet gun, misinforming and misdirecting the public with each IPAD clinging appearance on the Footy Show, each random “Damo” bombshell on Triple M. Each appearance chips away at the notion of credibility a little more. Each time he ruminates on a contract or someones trade value, it’s less about the news, and more about himself, his own self importance, his own discord becoming part of the story.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that – after all, it’s a career. But it’s not a career as a newsbreaker – that’s fundamentally important. Because in settling for being the Triple M “straight man”, he’s built a support network that props up his flaws, exaggerates his value. There would be nothing fundamentally wrong with a transition to “character” if it was backed up with substance as a newsbreaker, if there was credence to the claim of journalism. After all, Adam Schefter, about as credible a newsbreaking source as there is, has done some skits on NFL related shows, and still maintains his integrity. Barrett though has made the fundamental shift to full time “personality” – Gilligan outfits, boxes of Brian Taylor tapes, “Purple”, “Damo”, 360 feedback, and a lot of giggling. And you know what? That’s all fine – because news is dead. Opinion is where the money is. Once someone breaks a story, it’s immediately “on the agenda” with all that entails. Who initially broke the story? That’s a fools game in Australian football media. What’s not fine? Claiming to be a journalist when you make the transition.

As an example, did you know Craig Hutchison, by the technical letter of the law, “broke” the Wayne Carey affair story? Set aside notions of morality and decency in breaking the story, but that was journalism by its very definition? Breaking the story? Now think – did anyone care? It was swamped immediately by opinion – the boys club rallying around Wayne Carey, the articles of piety vs the articles about knock shops and boys code. Hutchison is open there’s no money in news anymore, that everyone is trying to switch to become Australia’s Skip Bayless. And Barrett has made the shift. He’s learned the lesson. It’s just surprising that this transition isn’t more fully studied and understood. We’re aware we’re victims to narrative construct paraded up as news, but we still participate in it. Hell, I participate in it. Participate with every click and shared link, every comment…

The Opinion Shift

Now, Barrett still claims the newsbreaker tag, without justification. He’s made a significant and permanent shift to opinion. Speculation. The most basic of guesswork. The easiest trick for anyone who wants to claim they are making news? Speculation. Trade speculation is a god-send. Did you hear Josh Kelly is heading to Carlton? No? Well you just did, because I stated it. It doesn’t need a lot of factual foundation. It’s the worst of English Premier League transfer speculation, the worst of man in the car park vox pops, and free agency is a godsend for this type of news. A quick check of Barretts archives shows how easy this is, and to claim news and journalism through random tangents and rumours and scuttlebutt. Josh Jenkins to Richmond? Ollie Wines to Carlton? Brent Harvey to Hawthorn? Harley Bennell will win a Brownlow? It doesn’t matter if any of this is legitimate, as long as you read and digest it. It’s built to click, to share. And the game is reaction – hell, this is a reaction, I’m self aware of that. The ability to generate a reaction, positive or negative, that’s what counts. Anything is better than being ignored…

Most of Barretts output now is easy to write – his trademark column on the AFL website is after all “Sliding Doors” which is a simple if X then Y column that takes around 5 minutes to come up with. “If we’re right about Paddy McCartin…we expect him to kick a bag this week”. Groundbreaking stuff. Even his feature articles on the website aren’t news, but opinion. To take a news slant on the Marc Murphy sledging story? Who’s going to click on that? Best to be strident, angry and opinionated. That’ll get some clicks. Barrett doesn’t even extend himself to feature stories, to such things are Mark Robinsons profile on Willie Dick. Robinson at least, for all his faults, writes about football stories from time to time, showing interest in it’s history.

Barrett doesn’t even give extend himself to that anymore – he seems dis-interested in football. He could easily have been a gossip columnist, a confidential writer, a Womens Day stirrer. What he writes is speculative, punts, guesses on Dylan Robertons contract. Brent Harvey hasn’t re-signed yet? Here’s 500 words on that…maybe he’ll go to Hawthorn after all? It’s not surprising Barrett is all over “Trade Radio”, which gives a veneer to journalistic credibility. Speculation and padding with “knowledge” and “trust” and mutual backpatting. It’s the game Terry Wallace is playing as “the list manager” or David King is with his fuzzy logic and stats based guess work – how can you ever prove them wrong? The sneaky secret of such things is – you could do this for a living. It’s not difficult. You could do it now. Let me give it a try: Port Adelaide should trade Hamish Hartlett. His disposals aren’t damaging. That’s a completely made up sentence, but it sounds good yeah?

What it isn’t – journalism. News. A story. It’s a Bigfooty thread officially endorsed and stamped as credible. And weirdly, there’s a thirst and appetite FOR an actual newsbreaker among readers and viewers. A Schefter. A Wojnarowski. The more the footy media shifts to opinion, there more there is an opportunity for someone to differentiate through being what is being resisted – a newsbreaker. A genuine one. The current crop of journalists are too damaged to make that shift: but it’s interesting that Barrett traded in his journalistic integrity to talk recipes on The Sounding Board and playfully banter with Garry Lyon on Access All Areas. What he didn’t do? Break the Garry Lyon story. Break any stories really….

The Outcome

To answer the original question – does any of this matter? It’s frippery after all, a man dressed as Gilligan on the Footy Show may not be worthy of study, and my passion for football media isn’t shared by everyone? Well, once you become part of the narrative Barrett spins as journalism, it’s hard to break free, and it can be personally damaging. In 2015 and 2016, Barrett began a personal attack on Tom Rockliff that has fundamentally changed the perception of Rockliff as a player and person. Tom Rockliff had a fight with Dayne Zorko? That was Barrett. Both parties denied it, but it’s still out there. Tom Rockliff is a terrible coach killing captain. Is it true? Who knows? It’s part of a construct, a profile build. It paints people as black or white, villains or heroes. No room for nuance. It cost Rockliff the captaincy in the end, and trade value. Rockliff isn’t blameless, but you end up fighting opinion and narrative. And what can a player do about it? Take to Twitter? That plays into the narrative. Say nothing? The rumour grows? Realistically how do you fight it?

And then there was Sean Dempster – if you missed it, Sean Dempster, one of the best team-mates, universally respected etc, retired early in 2017. Dempster was concussed in a pre-season game against Port Adelaide and felt the risk was too great to continue. What should have been a celebration of Seans career was immediately hijacked by mis-information stated as “news” and “fact”, that Dempster had retired due to throwing his toys out of the cot after falling out of St Kildas best 22. It was a nonsense, a complete guess, but Garry Lyon parroted it as fact. And that’s where this speculation becomes damaging, damaging to reputation, living forever on the Internet. And that’s what Barrett has become – erratic. Guessing. Mis-informed since clubs began limiting his access as the Western Bulldogs have….

It’s been interesting to note more and more people are seeing through the act…you wonder where it leaves him? You wonder if he cares…

And finally…

Just to complete something from the last post – Dale Simmons, the Cervantes Sharks club president who called Eleni Glouftsis a “dopey mole” and a “stupid bitch” in a display of banter and humour unsurpassed lost his presidency. You have to admire Gil McLachlan for stepping in on this one, and not letting it slide. But there was an interesting little sidebar, if you are interested in media monitoring. Simmons was panned in a Daily Mail article. Before you go anywhere else, yes yes, it’s the Daily Mail, we’re not dealing with journalistic excellence, but go with me. So the theme of the article? Sexism? Rubbish! Innit! Dale Simmons is a terrible man! Yay women! Except they chose to put in the article several pictures of Eleni they’d nicked from her Facebook page. And yes, they were the ones where she was glammed up, suitably “ladylike” and in flippy summer frocks…

Fight the good fight fellas. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…

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2 thoughts on “The more things change, the more they stay the same”

  1. Very interesting read; I don’t engage with Barrett or any of those shows at all, because I am actually interested in football. But I am aware that just ignoring them is not going to help. They are damaging football and footballers, and it’s very good that someone with your skills is paying attention to their modus operandi and calling them on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there’s an absolute need/want now for a pure football show. Don’t forget, Fox Footy axed “Insider” which talked about how the game was played. It’s a tough one because if you ignore then, you are letting nonsense and rumour pass unchecked. If you reply, they get what they want. It’s a tough one, but the drip feed is absolutely damaging.

      Liked by 1 person

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