Sorry, @mirandadevine: @catharinelumby reflects on Twitter ethics


By Catharine Lumby 

May 11, 2013

A couple of nights ago I rang the News Limited columnist Miranda Devine. I had gone to some lengths to obtain her mobile number. I needed to apologise to her in person for retweeting a tweet by Mike Carlton that I did not read carefully enough before flipping it on to the Twittersphere.

Carlton’s original tweet read: “@mirandadevine is ‘embedded’ with the Police Riot Squad, as she puts it. What, all of them at once? Must be exhausting”. What caught my eye at first glance was the notion that the Australian police had adopted the practice, familiar from the invasion of Iraq, of ‘embedding’ journalists. I retweeted it  and less than a minute later, I read my retweet and realised that Carlton’s original tweet included a very offensive sexual subtext that I missed when I first read it. I immediately retracted my retweet and apologised on Twitter.

Like many people who inhabit the Twittersphere, I was working on my laptop while scrolling the Twitter feed on my phone when I sent the retweet. I wasn’t prepared to excuse my retweet as mere carelessness because I knew that there was a real person at the other end of the tweet and my retweet.

Miranda and I are at very different ends of the political spectrum and she has been less than kind about my views in some of her columns – as she is entitled to be. I don’t know her well but when we have bumped into each other socially I’ve been impressed by her warmth and her openness to dialogue. When I rang her she was gracious enough to accept my apology. Others on the right, however, saw my retraction as ‘bizarre’ and implied that I was intentionally maligning Miranda because I thought it was OK to cast a slur on someone with different opinions.  So I copped my own abuse that same day and it behoved me to take it on the chin.

It’s a small story that contains the seeds of a much larger story about the world of potential pain which unfolds every day on social media. Miranda Devine and I are from the same generation. When I started in journalism at the Sydney Morning Herald, in 1987, Remington typewriters were still lying around the newsroom among the computers. At one point in my endless apprenticeship to what was still called a trade, I was assigned to the Letters page. My major task, apart from deciphering the spidery handwriting of Retired High School Principals from East Lindfield, was to call the writers chosen for publication and verify their identity and get them to agree to me editing their copy down to one paragraph.

It seems a world away now. The public sphere has been democratised in ways we could never have imagined before the digital, online and social media era. The media no longer operates one-to-many. Everyone with access to a computer or a mobile phone can have their say – even if they are sitting in a café sending 5,000 angry tweets frustrated that only have five followers. As someone who passionately believes in dialogue – and most importantly civilised dialogue – I love the fact that the public podium has been opened up to everyone. What I don’t like is the level of vitriol and abuse that so often characterises debate.

I suspect many people feel the same way. Neither the Left or the Right have a monopoly on ethical engagement. As a left-leaning  feminist commentator, I have had far more abuse and defamatory comments angled at me from people who are supposedly on my ‘side’ of politics. My problem, perhaps, is that I refuse to take sides. I genuinely care about having a conversation.

Twitter is a fabulously ambiguous space where you can tweet a wry comment about something you saw at a bus stop one moment and the next engage in serious political debate. As with television and radio before it, we haven’t worked out how to work the medium yet. We are still experimenting.

What matters is that we exercise some generosity in this relatively new space. We should openly admit it when we get something wrong. We should not abuse other people on the basis of their politics, gender, race, religion or any other status. And we should recognise that the new virtual agora is still filled with real people who are affected by what other people say.

Miranda and I are both journalists – at least I was for 20 years. We’ve both experienced hate mail and have learnt to dump the letters with ugly sexual slurs written on the back of the envelope in the bin. Female journalists are targets for sexual abuse and there are still too many men out there who don’t understand how undermining that is.

Miranda tweeted that Mike Carlton had messaged her when she asked him to retract his original tweet and that he replied: “What a fragile little plant you are. Ultterly (sic) devoid of any style, wit or grace or humour. And a fool to boot”.

Mike Carlton and I are far more on the same political page than Miranda Devine and I. But I am totally in her corner on this issue. Miranda is gloves off with people and has been with me. But I will not stand by while someone is spoken to in that tone in ways that are now public.

Miranda will probably print robust attacks on my views in the future. I don’t mind – as long as she plays the ball and not the girl. I may well write critical assessments of her views in the future.

In assessing the ethics of engagement on Twitter, I think we also need to make room for satire and black humour. How that is possible remains to be seen. Like email, tweets are prone to literal readings. And I’d hate to see humour disappear from Twitter – it’s the only thing that gets me out of bed besides jogging…and checking my Twitter feed.

Read more:  Counsel Carlton on tweet: Deveny (paywall)

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  1. Very interesting post, not only on the ethics of twitter Catharine, but also how easy it is to misinterpret tweets. Because tweets are short, rapid and diverse it can be very easy to take a tweet out of context or completely misconstrue what has actually been said. It is not unusual for me to have to read a tweet several tines or take time to assign a tweet to a particular conversation. I have seen many instances of disagreement over apples and oranges.

  2. Reblogged this on Miles Heffernan and commented:
    How a quick retweet can have consequences

  3. Nice of you to apologise, Catherine. Ms Devine once called me, and many others “useful idiots”. We were the people who marched in 2003 against Howard’s decision to take us into the Iraq debacle. She apparently believed his statement to the House of Reps that the Government “knew” that Saddam had WMDs. Honest John in fact, “knew” nothing of the sort. Just one more example of shameless dishonesty. We were the people whose judgement proved to be correct. We were right. She was wrong. We were not the “idiots”.

    It would be an exaggeration to say that I’ve been waiting ten years for an apology from Ms Devine. Nonetheless, an apology would not be inappropriate. But having set such a precedent, she would obviously be embarking on an endless task. I wonder whether she has ever felt it necessary to apologise to anybody.

  4. Reblogged this on lmrh5.

  5. Thank you for your thoughts on this. In fact, I would say your apology & the efforts you went to by way of making an apology actually say a hell of a lot more about you yourself and your ethics than any damage done to Ms Devine.

    I do not condone what Carlton said in any way shape or form, though have to admit I was pretty unhappy on the weekend seeing so many up in arms on Ms Devine’s defence. Obviously this was different as many journalists and industry insiders were involved having their say, and as I said, I don’t condone what Mr Carlton said, though would be nice to see that sort of defence of some of the ‘punters’ that Ms Devine has been absolutely horrible to on twitter?

    There has been many a time I have seen a punter ‘politely’ question Ms Devine in regard to particular statements she has made in one of her blog posts and the response from Miranda has been reprehensible. Worse, if there is anger in return, Ms Devine will have twitter suspend that person, as obviously blocking is not enough for her :(

    As I said, I am not going to condone what was said as that really would be lowering myself to a level I do not wish to achieve. It does have to be noted though that Mr Carlton did actually publicly apologise on Twitter, though I am sure this will not stop Ms Devine making hay out of this to further her victimisation further.

    I guess it would just be nice if on the odd ocassion when Journalists & Industry people noticed Miranda being abhorrant to a ‘punter’ on Twitter that maybe they could actually stand up in defence of them too? I mean, we read the pieces produced by Journalists & Professional writers, so the same sort of respect would be nice too.

  6. Thanks Great view of the way it all works, must admit I only just stumbled onto Miranda via SKW talking about Goodes and really was annoyed that she was sticking the boots into him as well, then this link. The joys of living in country Victoria and my digital subscription is fairfax and freebies at News run out after my footy (AFL) reads.