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A matter of opinion

Opinion provides one of the main points of difference between media brands – but what is it like in the trenches for these warriors of the commentariat? In our most recent issue of The Bulletin, ELIZA GOETZE talks to some of Australasia’s most influential figures on the importance of opinion in the 24-hour news cycle.

FOR the uninitiated, public abuse is a humiliating, degrading experience. For columnists, such as Andrew Bolt, it is a barometer of success.

“The minute I get no hate is the minute I think I’ve lost it,” the Melbourne-based News Corp Australia columnist says.

Columnists, at least in the line of work, love to be hated. While at times they may polarise readers, they take pride in it if it causes people to think more deeply on issues that affect them and the nation. Editors rely on their opinion writers to provide context and insight to the news of the day.

It is a role that does not stop with the printed column. From a cloistered position with minimal interaction with readers as little as 15 years ago, the modern columnist has become a multi-platform interactive brand extension through blogs, social media and Twitter.

Without them, according The Australian’s editor Clive Mathieson, “a newspaper would be a wire feed. It would be a poor shadow of what a media outlet should be giving its readers and listeners.”

All context and insight would fall away and the ripple effect would be felt across the media landscape, he says. “There’s so much of the news that is exclusive and broken in Australia by the morning newspapers. It gets picked up by radio commentators and Sky News, and a strong voice of opinion…helps shape that debate in the morning.”

Bolt, who is syndicated through the Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The Courier- Mail and other News Corp Australia publications, says the work of opinion writers has become more influential than ever.

News Corp Australia columnist, TV presenter and broadcaster.
News Corp Australia columnist Andrew Bolt

“There is such a tidal wave of information and voices and you’d go absolutely deaf,” he says of the modern 24-hour news cycle.

“More people are looking to have someone that they trust to make sense of it all, that they think has put in the work to assess competing claims and come up with, hopefully, a synthesis of the truth of it all.”

Those that people trust varies wildly, he says. “There are some people who wouldn’t trust me to lie straight in bed,” he says, “and there are others that would trust me to tell it to them straight. A lot of that depends on your own predilections, prejudices, political views and social circle.”

Columns convey what 140 characters of a tweet cannot. At their most powerful, they can influence political outcomes for the better, or disrupt the political process.

“There are failings of leadership, of course,” The Australian Financial Review columnist Mark Latham says against the backdrop at the time of a motion for a leadership spill against Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

AFR columnist Mark Latham
AFR columnist Mark Latham

“But combined with the intensity of the media cycle, leadership has become virtually impossible.”

Latham knows what it is like to provoke – his recent essays dubbing feminists, including journalists Lisa Pryor and Annabel Crabb, “feminazis” achieved widespread outrage. However, he decries what he calls “zig-zag journalism”, a trend that has developed in a perpetual cycle of drama, making political leadership tougher than ever.

“To try to make an impact, journalists report the opposite of what they said yesterday,” he says. “It’s like a horse race caller. ‘Tony Abbott’s been checked at the four hundred metre mark, Bill Shorten is gaining ground’. The race, the election, is far from over but they’re telling us what’s happening between the 500 and 600 metre posts – not giving readers a coherent view of what’s actually happening.

“Most Australians are apathetic, so the political class talks to itself in a very intense way, and it’s created a cycle of instability. “The country would benefit from the media taking a deep breath and a step back.”

Many of the best known columnists are famous – or infamous – for stirring the pot, but Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman says outrage is never part of the agenda.

Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman
Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman

“I don’t set out to beef up my columns and say ‘if I add this I’ll spark a great reaction’,” he says. “I’m more concerned with presenting fairly unvarnished facts and a coherent argument, an articulate position.”

Akerman says he writes for “the ordinary, mature Australian” with a family, a mortgage and an interest in politics. Still, he generates an average of 500 comments per column, both positive and negative.

Andrew Bolt targets the emotions that he believes prevents people from recognising what he considers to be unpalatable facts.

“I think the current boat people policies…are compelling,” he offers in example, “but a lot of people don’t want to consider that, because they think it wouldn’t make them look compassionate.

“I therefore make a point of highlighting that the price of their compassion is in fact dead bodies floating in the sea.

“A lot of the worst abuses are excused on the grounds that it is a useful untruth in a good cause.”

Clive Mathieson says the best columnists are the ones with a loud and respected voice, a point that has come into sharp focus as conservative writers – from Bolt and Akerman to The Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine and The Australian’s Niki Savva – have lately turned to criticise the Australian Liberal Party- led coalition government.

“A lot of people are very surprised by that – but why should they be? These people are not barrackers for one side of politics or another,” Mathieson points out.

“They have values and views and are perfectly within their right to criticise. Good columnists should be independent thinkers without fear or favour.”

Miranda Devine says she does not write in a different voice or try to pretend she is something she is not. “But each column is like a performance,” she says. “You are sharpening the focus, sharpening your opinion. There’s no grey area you can introduce in a column. You can’t sit on the fence, you have to state an opinion, whereas in real life there’s more nuance.”

Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine
Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine

But for those 850 words, she says, you have to get pretty quickly to the point.

“You give them the food for thought straight up. You make the argument as coherently and cogently as you can, and people make up their own minds.”

Weaving together an argument is essential to a successful column.

“A lot of bad thinking gets disguised in good writing,” says Fairfax Media commentator Waleed Aly, who took out the 2014 Walkley award for commentary, analysis, opinion and critique – and the opposite is also true.

Aly takes an academic approach, examining “the bigger picture” to tease out angles that haven’t been covered – a challenge in today’s constantly churning news cycle.

Fairfax Media commentator Waleed Aly
Fairfax Media commentator Waleed Aly

His preparation is often a search for “that one quote, that one idea, that unlocks an intellectual road – that makes me realise, ‘that’s where this column goes’.”

Aly is also a rare breed. “People might not believe me when I say this, but I take on writing for me,” he says. “I write to figure out what I think.”

For many columnists, audience is everything. “If you’re not writing for your readers then the whole thing is a joke,” Miranda Devine says.

“You’re not writing for other journalists, or for your ego. It’s always about the readers. You find newspapers that lose their way because they’ve forgotten who their readers are.”

Daily Telegraph columnist Sarrah Le Marquand also warns of falling into the trap of writing for other journalists. She compares this situation to the film industry.

Daily Telegraph columnist Sarrah Le Marquand
Daily Telegraph columnist Sarrah Le Marquand

“A lot of directors and screenwriters are producing films to impress their mates. All their industry mates are going to come along and say ‘mate, that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen’ and nobody in the heartland of Australia is going to see it.”

Writing for your audience does not mean they have to agree with everything you say, Le Marquand adds: “They don’t.” She says she is often at odds with her readers, “but they have come to know me,” she explains.

“Sometimes the readers enjoy tussling with me on different issues. Connecting with a wide audience is a skill that I’m really proud to have developed working for a tabloid.”

Just as the internet has accelerated the media cycle, it has broken down a wall that once existed between reader and columnist.

Now, with the instant feedback provided by email and social media, there is a more democratic, egalitarian system: when they don’t agree with you, you know about it.

However, with that comes a dark side that descends beyond legitimate debate to harassment and trolling.

Type “Miranda Devine” and “die” into your Twitter search bar and some of the results are not for the faint-hearted. Devine resolves not to waste her time engaging with those who make threatening attacks.

“People who wilfully misinterpret or misquote what you’ve written, calling you a racist or a homophobe, when often they haven’t even read the article really rile me,” she says.

“It used to annoy me more than it does now. It’s just water off a duck’s back – Twitter is a bit of a sewer anyway. Without the block button it would be unusable.

“I talk about it like weeding the garden,” she says. “I block people who are abusive or just stupid or annoying.”

Sarrah Le Marquand – who has campaigned strongly for causes such as parental leave and vaccination – also cops abuse on Twitter from those who “subscribe to the News Corp stereotype” – that all News journalists are conservative extremists or minions of Rupert Murdoch.

“They are like listening to the crazy drunk uncle,” Le Marquand sighs. “You’re looking around thinking ‘how can I get out of this conversation?’, and then you do, and you go and talk to someone sensible.”

It also is easy to easy make mistakes in a heated environment, as New Zealand satirist and 2014 Canon Media Award winner Steve Braunias found out the hard way.

Former Saturday Star-Times columnist (now with the New Zealand Herald) Steve Braunias
Former Saturday Star-Times columnist (now with the New Zealand Herald) Steve Braunias

Braunias, who now writes a syndicated weekly satirical diary from the fictional perspective of public figures for NZME’s New Zealand Herald, made a “shocking blunder” in 2011 which spelled the end of his contract as a weekly columnist at the Sunday Star-Times.

A reader emailed Braunias calling him an “ugly f—er”. “She made an insult about the way I looked and I wasn’t standing for it,” he recalls. Braunias replied in kind with a short, expletive-included, retort.

The woman turned out to be a police prosecutor in the New Zealand town of Gisborne, and her complaint to the editor cost Braunias his job.

“It was my own damn fault, of course – I shouldn’t have responded.

“It was very upsetting at the time, but I look back on it with much fondness,” he says.

Another New Zealand columnist Joe Bennett, who weaves rich, descriptive narratives in his columns for Fairfax’s New Zealand papers on everything from politics to pets, had a Twitter impostor – the one thing that has ever got under his thick skin.

Fairfax Media NZ columnist Joe Bennett
Fairfax Media NZ columnist Joe Bennett

“I’ve never been on Twitter and a friend commented in an email that they were enjoying my tweets,” he says of how it began.

“The account had my picture, my name and it was subtly done; it was plausible that it was me – but it was hateful. Getting it shut down was extraordinarily hard. I had to get a letter from lawyers to send to Twitter and it all seemed very much on his side.

“There were numerous people replying to him on Twitter as though he were me – and I don’t know if you can appreciate how loathsome that is. I’d happily have taken his head from his shoulders.

“When I make my living from writing, to have someone hijacking my name and being read as me…even as I speak now, it makes me feel bilious.”

Still, reader interaction is not always a raging catfight. Tracey Spicer’s piece in November for Fairfax NIM Sunday Life, headed ‘This is what I look like without make-up’, was a challenge to the expectations placed upon women to look a certain way.

Her starkly contrasted photos ignited a variety of responses, some unkind and many supportive – but an unexpected point of view came in an email from a young woman from India.

Tracey Spicer, who wrote in Fairfax's Sunday Life magazine
Tracey Spicer, who wrote in Fairfax’s Sunday Life magazine

Spicer recalls: “She said, ‘I really respect your point of view and I appreciate what you’re trying to do for women – but you’ve got to understand, in New Delhi, in my family, my community and my country, the only power I feel I have is to dress myself up every day. To do my hair, my make-up, to wear jewellery and a beautiful sari. The decoration of Indian women is how we feel we’re empowering ourselves.’

“I’d never thought about it like that,” she says.

So amid the constant circus of vitriol and criticism why be a columnist?

Miranda Devine describes it as “an incredibly free environment” in which “you have the opportunity to express an idea that the readers are probably thinking, and you think, and people you know might think – but doesn’t get much of an airing otherwise”.

There is also the desire to enact change or help others.

“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes,” Piers Akerman says.

“People at their wits end with personal problems, or butting their heads at the bureaucratic bulwarks for years, ask if they can use your column to intervene, and from time to time, I’ve found that I’ve been able to help people.”

Tracey Spicer says it is important to speak out for those who may lack the confidence to do so. “It’s important there are women who have thick skin and who do speak out to give a voice to other women; who give a voice to the disenfranchised, the disempowered and those who don’t have a voice. I think it’s really important to remind myself of that.

“And when I’m upset about something, it’s good to get it out there – it’s quite therapeutic like that.”

Sarrah Le Marquand dealt with backlash from anti-vaccine campaigners when she led the Telegraph’s “No Jab No Play” campaign, which led to laws making immunisation compulsory in childcare centres across NSW. She says at its best, opinion writing leads to a tangible result – “that’s why you stick your neck out”.

Today, more than ever, the world needs loud voices to cut through the chatter.

“You have to be fearless,” she says. “You have to form a view, shut out the white noise and go with it.”

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