Where next for a centuries-old industry?

Originally published 29/05/2015

When Rupert Murdoch said in 2005 his “rivers of gold” that existed because of the revenue provided by newspaper advertising revenue had dried up (Plunkett, 2005), it highlighted the fraught position of modern journalism. Once dominated by newspaper barons, journalism in the digital world faces its greatest challenges. The newspaper industry’s downfall, perhaps the greatest challenge to journalism in the digital age, is one of many the profession must overcome in the coming decades to ensure the survival of professional journalism. This essay looks at the 24-hour news cycle’s effect on journalism, citizen journalism and media ownership concentration, all of which have challenged journalists and media owners to think of new ways through which to connect with their audiences.

Newspapers were rarely challenged as a news source until the digital age. Though radio and television were rivals for an audience, each medium has distinct qualities not shared by the other; newspapers are for written words, radio is for audio and television is for visuals. First published in 1605 (Weber, 2006), newspapers provided safe employment for journalists for 400 years. The internet challenged this. Bernstein states “by 2002, anyone who wanted to become a columnist or journalist could go online and do so” (Burnstein, 2013. P. 443). The speed of online news quickly shifted public preference from newspaper to digital. Online media, according to McChesney (2011, p. 3-4), “made the daily newspaper look slow and unresponsive” to the public. By 2011, North American newspaper yearly profits had dropped to less than half of those reported in the pre-digital 1990s (Newspaper Association of America, 2012). The challenge for journalism was thus: how can you maintain a rich journalistic/media empire in a digital world? An answer hasn’t been found with ease; job cuts have been the quick solution. North American newsroom employee number have dropped by nearly 30% in the last decade (Jurkowitz, 2014). Slimming the workforce and piling greater responsibility on the remnants has been the knee-jerk reaction to ensure the short-term survival of the newspaper industry. When 62 editorial roles were made redundant across Fairfax Media in Australia, the director of Australian Community Media said remaining journalists would “report local news across multi-media . . . [and] be trained to write headlines, captions and fact-boxes” (Mumbrella, 2015). The demand for more work from fewer people, coupled with the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, greatly increased the challenges placed on journalists worldwide.

Born during the first Gulf War (Sambrook & McGuire, 2014), the 24-hour news cycle is the result of an increasingly connected world. 25 years later the immediacy of the internet has created a public demand for minute-by-minute updates. With websites like Twitter allowing instantaneous updates, many journalists are expected to maintain an online presence through a constant supply of information to their readers. But with greater connectivity comes greater demand for news – and increased stress on journalists; accuracy is sometimes the casualty. Van Onselen said, “[w]hereas once we checked the news in the morning and evening, now we check it by the minute” (2015a), and “[m]uch news is now repetitious, so the race for news, however slight or thin, is intense” (ibid). In No Time To Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle, a former Washington Post correspondent laments the development of 24-hour news: “The problem with this cycle . . . is that reporters have to spend so much time doing other stuff like filing in for the online version . . . that there really isn’t time to think about the story. At a time when we are making huge reductions in the number of journalists at major papers, the impact on the reporter is enormous” (Rosenberg & Feldman, 2009. P. 135). The challenge for journalists is to work out a way to provide an up-to-date news service without sacrificing quality. It’s a challenge Rosenberg and Feldman don’t think is helped by job cutting. The pair say “[c]ost cutting and newspaper expansion into the internet has the average Fleet Street reporter tripling output since 1985. Is it possible that today’s Fleet Streeters are three times better than 23 years ago? More likely just three times as stressed” (Ibid, p. 136).

“For the first time in history,” Bernstein says, “someone in possession of a unique piece of knowledge can communicate it to the whole world via any combination of three routes: blog it directly, via other bloggers, or use the mainstream traditional media” (Bernstein, 2013, p. 472). Blogging and citizen journalism are phenomenon of the digital age and have “subverted the traditional journalistic paradigm in which news is exclusively produced by professional journalists and massively disseminated by organisations to reach audiences” (Kerric, 2014). One advantage it has, Kelly says, is “it makes possible the coverage of events that the mainstream media might otherwise miss” (Kelly, 2009. P. 26).  The change wasn’t received positively by many journalistic institutions. In The four critiques of ‘citizen journalism’, Stabe (2006) notes “recent objections have included protests that citizen journalism is not really journalism at all, notably because much of what users create seems to have little to do with the broader public interest”. 2010 estimates suggested there were about 26 million people who regularly read blogs in United States (Mitch, 2010). In 2015, according to WordPress, blogs are visited each month by approximately 409 million unique readers, with as many as 18.6 billion pages being visit in that time (WordPress, 2015). Despite the figures, the mainstream media was slow to integrate citizen journalism and user-generated content into its format (Kelly, 2009, p. 21), though by 2008 Hermida and Thurman “identified nine generic formats that British newspaper websites [had] put in place to encourage contributions from the public” (Herminda & Thurman, 2008). These included: polls, message boards, have your says, comments on stories, Q&As, blogs, reader-created blogs, user media uploads and user stories (ibid). Collaboration between professional journalists and citizen journalists has improved in recent years, with Steven Waldman, senior adviser to United States Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski, claiming “there is a tremendous amount of innovation going on now among former newspaper journalists, citizen journalists and local groups” (Eggerton, 2010). Citizen journalism, says Clyde Bentley, isn’t going away (Christian, 2006) and Friedland, of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says “. . . journalism is not completely within the newsroom anymore. The centre of thinking about public life – which is essentially what good journalism is – is moving out to hundreds of thousands of people” (ibid).

A lack of media diversity in modern journalism may concern some in the media. Harding-Smith (2011) says “[h]ighly concentrated media ownership can reduce the diversity of opinions which have a chance to be aired in public and, in the worst case, can make it less likely that public interest news stories will be published”. Mass-ownership of the media raises concerns regarding impartiality of news and restrictions on journalistic freedom. Of News Ltd owner Rupert Murdoch, van Onselen said “[t]here is evidence of clear preference for right of centre politics by Murdoch, and some evidence of using his opposition to ensure his views are reflected in editorial policy” (2015b, p. 7). In Australia the prevalence of mass media ownership is highly visible, with 98% of the country’s top-three most popular newspapers owned by News Ltd or Fairfax Media Limited (van Onselen, 2015c, p. 10); in contrast, a century ago Australia’s 21 most popular newspapers were owned by 17 separate owners (ibid). The challenge for journalism, then, is maintaining impartiality and relevance without being subjected to pressure from media owners. The issue is somewhat mitigated by the internet and citizen journalism, which opens up the world to a much less limited supply of news and opinions.  Cross-media ownership laws, designed to limit the number of platforms one media corporation can have over a populace by only allowing them any two of radio, print or television, “prevent the common ownership of newspapers, television and radio broadcasting licences that serve the same region” (Parliament of Australia, 2006), their purpose to “encourage diversity in the ownership of . . . the daily press and free-to-air television and radio” (ibid). A proposal by the Australian Federal Government in 2014 to remove cross-media ownership laws (ABC News, 2014a) stands as a major challenge for Australian journalism. Legislation that would allow one media company to own “print, television and radio in the same market” (ABC, 2014b) could potentially have negative impacts on media integrity and individual journalistic freedom.

The decline of the newspaper as the most popular source of news for the public is inevitable, but the associated fear of income loss that come with the newspaper’s demise needn’t be so great; Murdoch’s “rivers of gold” (Plunkett, 2005) haven’t necessarily completely left the riverbed. In his article “Are we ready to play with pay?” Smith (2010) highlighted wholly-online companies that recorded healthy profits through subscription services; “Online, users already pay for content . . . consumers spent $5.88 billion in 2009 on digital subscriptions” (ibid). The challenge for journalism and media corporations is to offer magazine or subscription services customers want to pay for. “The question isn’t whether people will (at last) pay for content. It is whether the publishers of general news . . . can create the kinds of content and – more importantly, experiences – people are already paying for” (ibid). Subscription based services such as Netflix have shown that people are still willing to pay for online products if they are seen as worth that subscription price. For Netflix, the subscription service earnt the company $71 million (USD) in 2013 (Richwine and Maan, 2014). Though Netflix and journalism offer different products (Netflix is an entertainment television/movie program), the former has shown the popularity of online subscription services if they can catch the attention of the public. But luring people to pay for information is the challenge. Specialist publications would seem to be one of the most popular medium for written pay-per-view online and print content. BBC History magazine, with over 83,000 subscribers, made 10.45% of its overall sales from January to June 2013 through digital subscriptions (Sedghi, 2013). New Scientist, a British-based weekly specialist magazine, boasted 29.76% of its 26,000 sales during that period through digital subscriptions. News journalism as we know it is unlikely prosper online as it did in the newspaper age, but the path to unlocking 21st century news media profits might lay in diversifying specialist content. Specialist material and subscriptions could even subsidise news journalism if need be. While moguls provide an affordable, entertaining written-and-photographic platform, not dissimilar to Netflix in its availability and (hopefully) demand, those profits can help maintain an established online newsroom. With increased funding, these online newsrooms might employ more journalists, publish more stories, receive more website ‘hits’ and, in turn, garner more advertising revenue.

Australian online magazine subscription service iSubscribe claims “over 2 million subscriptions” since 2000 (iSubscribe, 2015a). iSubscribe New Zealand claims to have sold “in excess of over $200 million worth of subscriptions” (iSubscribe, 2015b). But creating subscription services people want to pay for isn’t as easy as taking a print service, turning it online and slapping a price tag onto it. “So many sites seem to be a ‘cash grab’ for advertiser dollars,” says Ross (Kalman, 2012), “It’s important that whatever content is published, that it’s relevant to the audience you’re trying to reach, that it is written by writers who have passion and knowledge for the subject, and that it offers something new to the user”. Subscription success is about balancing demand and quality, with price and availability. Tablet ownership in the United States for people between 12- and 64-years-old grew from 20% in 2011 to 52% by 2013 (TabTimes, 2014), confirming that there are more than enough platforms ready to be supplied with digital subscriptions of specialist online magazine subscriptions. At the time of writing, a yearly online subscription to Time Magazine costs AU$130 (iSubscribe, 2015c), while purchasing 54-individual print magazines will set the consumer back AU$378 (ibid); a National Geographic Magazine 12-month online subscription saves the consumer $144.80 (iSubscribe, 2015d); a 24-issue online subscription to Vogue saves the consumer 33% off the recommended retail price (Magshop, 2015). Consumer savings are clear, but making digital subscriptions popular is a massive challenge. The popularity spike in devices over the last decade may provide an opportunity for media outlets to reel in profits more akin to previous decades. If digital news journalism is to survive, finding an avenue in which consumers are willing to pay for publications is crucial. Mulligan (2013) states, “All [popular media] companies [will] have to make the transition from being retail businesses to being subscription businesses”.

What do the public want? Is the billion-dollar question that would have Rupert Murdoch, James Packer and NBC Chairman Ted Harbert knocking on your door if you could answer it. American Association of Retired Persons magazine, a sort of cover-all magazine for the over-50s, recorded over 22 million sales per edition for its ”AARP The Magazine” publication (Said, 2013). A second publication by AARP, “AARP Bulletin”, records similar figures per issue (ibid). Sales for these magazines from June 2013 to June 2014 rose by 4.1% and 2.2% respectively (Lulofs, 2014). Niche publication American Rifleman recorded an 11.6% sales growth over the same period (ibid), while Better Homes and Gardens reported meagre 0.2% growth (ibid). The growth trend has been far from consistent, though; during the same period Reader’s Digest sales dropped 35.3% (ibid), Taste of Home dropped 22% (ibid), National Geographic dropped 10.7% (ibid) and Time Magazine, surely one of the world’s most respected weekly news magazines, fell 0.4% (ibid). There are growing markets for certain magazines and dwindling markets for others. The trend suggests a move away from home design publications and news magazines; even Time news stories can be found on the internet with enough searching. The key may be in the niche market: in the United Kingdom, Slimming World Magazine, a magazine that published by the self-proclaimed “most advanced slimming organisation in the UK” (Slimmingworld.com, 2015) recorded a 6.9% growth from 2013 to 2014 (BetterRetailing.com, 2015); Cbeebies Weekly recorded 41% sales growth from the same period (ibid); Lego Legends of Chima sales rose 25.2% (ibid); Disney’s Princess rose 8.8% (ibid), while publications such as House Beautiful and Good Housekeeping rose 9.2% and 5% respectively. In the United Kingdom, at least, there is a big market for children’s and women’s magazines. It’s dependent on the market and customer allegiance. Finding the niche the public wants is the key to finding profits. In the United States American Rifleman has taken off; where are Australian magazines for fans of craft beers, for example? Finding the community niche and plugging that magazine void could be a major profit finder for media organisations who’ve not yet branched into magazine publishing, and could provide the profits which could secure a solid future for digital media and online journalism.

The challenges facing journalism in the modern world are legion and have come about as a result of a worldwide increase in connectivity. Fuelled by the internet and the development of “smart” devices, this connectivity has left consumers demanding high-quality, instant news straight to their phones, tablets or computers. The growth of online media has seen the birth of citizen journalism, which provides on-the-scene Joe Public with an ability to spread news, instead of requiring qualified, employed journalists. The internet has seen the demise of newspaper sales and revenue, signalling the slow end of a 400-year-old institution that’s served the community somewhere in the world at least once a day for that period. The 24-hour news cycle places ever increasing demands and expectations on journalists, and the concentration of media ownership threatens potential conflicts of interests between employer and employee. But these changes do not necessarily signal the demise of professional journalism; the industry needs to find modern alternatives. High-quality, relevant, niche magazine services may provide the key to keeping the media industry and journalism afloat in the future. The world will become a digital-only platform eventually, meaning a mature evolutionary approach to securing journalism’s future is crucial. Are subscription services the answer? We’ll have to wait and see.

 

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Newspaper’s decline is just evolution

Originally published 10/04/2015

Cave-dwellers drew pictures on walls to record major events: the killing of a great mammoth and hunting dangerous predators (The Toronto Star, 2005); two thousand years ago Romans placed notices in public places (ibid) for community consumption. These may be the earliest examples of news publishing. Throughout history media formats have risen and have been felled by more refined, more accessible forms of news distribution. Today newspapers, the great news format of the last four centuries, face the fate of cave drawings and Rome’s public noticeboards. The evolution of publishing formats makes clear the demise of the newspaper is an inevitability and, instead of holding on to the old, we should be fully embracing the arrival of its digital successor.

In 2006 Rupert Murdoch acknowledged the growth of digital media had created “a new generation of media consumers . . . demanding content when they want it, how they want it, and very much as they want it” (Gibson, 2006), pointing to the decline of “the old elite [newspapers] in our industry” (ibid) and a move towards a digital future.

The newspaper age dawned 150 years after Gutenberg first began printing bibles and the first commercial paper was published in 1605, in Strassburg, Germany (Weber, 2006); this launched the world into an era of connectivity, allowing far-reaching dissemination of news, political discussion and talk on culture. By the second half of the seventeenth century newspapers were the most widely-read non-religious texts in the world (ibid).

The format remained virtually unchanged and unchallenged for 400 years: paper, ink, print, purchase. By the end of the 1990s US publishers were recording $50 billion-a-year profits (Newspaper Association of America, 2012). But digitalisation made its entrance into news media soon after and by 2011 newspaper profits dropped to less than half of those in the 90s (ibid).

Remember: newspaper’s losses haven’t been wholly unrecovered by digital news and, despite the doom-and-gloom attitude toward news’ conversion to digital media, the publishing world’s financial downturn isn’t necessarily as dire as it is perhaps purported to be in the mainstream. Worldwide digital advertising revenue for news publishers rose to $37.3 billion in 2012 (McCarthy, 2013), with worldwide advertising expenditure estimated to exceed $163 billion by 2016 (ibid). If they’re thrifty, online news outlets stand to grab a piece of this ever-growing cash cow.  Online news publishers must make themselves an appealing host for advertising space. If they can achieve this, journalism’s golden age needn’t die with the newspaper.

With the newspaper industry’s impending retirement (or redundancy) moving closer and with the media’s focus over the last decade having shifted toward developing digital news formats, why do so many call for the paper to be retained? If Rupert Murdoch, owner of the world’s fifth-largest media conglomerate (Milord, 2013), one who would stand to benefit massively from the newspaper’s survival, can see the future of news as a digital platform, why are so many clinging to the outdated?

Purely sentimental reasons, surely.

Google “How to save newspapers” and you enter a realm of misery and despair rivalling that of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Within pages of rescue packages for the dying format, madly-paling-water-out-of-the-sinking-ship-to-delay-her-going-under plans reign supreme. Ideas like bringing back “fun editorial personalities” (McAleenan Jr, 2013) to turning the paper online and “giv[ing] away 100 million iPads” (Young, 2011) to increase readership either fall short of the target or don’t even leave the archer’s bow. The end of newspapers is an evolutionary trend and the old will be replaced by the new.

The newspaper industry is declining faster than any other industry on earth (Barth, 2012) because evolution is pushing the media toward a superior platform. Digital media isn’t just the outlet of lazy or cheap consumers. Online news is the location for turned-on, news savvy readers who know what they want, when they want it, as they want it.

At 410-years-old, the newspaper is lying on its deathbed and its grave being readied. Any dreams its burial will be avoided are reserved only for the weeping widows of newspaper’s heyday – its owners, cashed-up editors and lavishly funded investigative journalists. The focus for publishers should be on transferring the positives from print news to online media, and all readers should embrace this new wave of news media. Without limits on the use of videos, audio cuts, photographs or story length, only online media can accommodate the immediacy demanded by modern human interest. The days of rummaging through a 100-page broadsheet have passed. An interest-piquing headline on Facebook will direct a reader to a website with all of the next day’s paper’s news, only now it’s free and obtainable without driving to the newsagent in the morning. In one click a newspaper reader is lost. With an estimated 1.23 billion monthly users on Facebook (Ross, 2014), a whole lot of papers are left sitting on the newsagent’s stand. News is now delivered to the reader based on set interests and reading history. Any newspaper-v-online debate is like Bjorn Borg using a wooden racquet against Alexander Volkov’s graphite – one may be a classic, but its successor is simply superior.

The newspaper achieved its goal from its 17th-century roots to the present. The quality of newspapers hasn’t dropped, but the format has been rendered impractical by digitalisation. We’re constantly developing new ways to interact, educate and provide more refined digital services. When superior technologies arrive the old is relegated to the history books. Why then are we trying to buck the trend and hold onto the out-dated paper? Today’s headlines are available at the click of a mouse or the tap of a screen. A theoretically endless catalogue of daily news from anywhere in the world is a click away, yet we’re trying to preserve the abacus over the calculator.

Digital media isn’t a passing trend; we should look forward and determine how to secure a solid future for online journalism. “Connectivity” is the buzz word of digital media and it’s time journalism adopts it with open arms. Media publishers no longer sit at the top of the tree, they’re picking up the fallen apples with the rest of the community. Rather than looking back at how great news production used to be, the focus should be on fully integrating journalism into an increasingly digital world.

Newspapers have had their place in media culture for four centuries and have played a major role in discussing the highest and lowest moments of human history, but the newspaper age has passed and, like Borg, maybe it’s time to retire the old racquet.

 

Bibliography

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McCarthy, Alison. 2013. Worldwide Ad Spending Forecast: Emerging Markets, Mobile Provide Opportunities for Growth. eMarketer. http://www.slideshare.net/catchadigital/emarketer-worldwideadspendingforecast

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Australian defamation law in contrast to America

Originally published 13/04/2015

Defamation is the area of civil law that deals with protection of reputation (The Law Handbook, 2015). It is the law designed to protect people and small organisations from harmful allegations. Throughout the world persons have been given the right to defend themselves against false accusations or comments, allowing them to protect their reputation against any damages that might resonate from untrue or malicious publications. But defamation law is not uniform across the world and what a person is permitted to publish in one country may not be permitted in another. This paper will discuss the differences between defamation laws in Australia and the United States of America, and looks at whether the US’s stronger defences for journalists result in a higher standard of reporting of public officials than in Australia.

The Australian Defamation Act 2005 outlines the protections available to defendants in the event of defamation action being raised. These are as follows – A defendant can defend themselves if: the ‘imputations carried by the matter of which the plaintiff complains are substantially true’ (Defamation Act 2005, Section 25); some untrue defamatory remarks are considered to be false, but are outweighed by ‘the substantial truth of the contextual imputations’ (ibid, Section 26); if ‘the matter is published in the course of the proceedings of a parliamentary body [or the courts]’ (ibid, section 27); if ‘the defendant proves the matter was contained in a public document . . . [or was a] fair summary of, or a fair extract from, a public document’ (ibid. Section 28); if a defendant can prove ‘the matter was, or was contained in, a fair report of any proceedings of public concern’ (ibid, Section 29); if ‘the recipient has an interest or apparent interest in having information on some subject . . . and the conduct of the defendant . . . is reasonable in the circumstances’ (ibid, Section 30); if ‘the matter was an expression of opinion rather than a statement of fact [that related to public interest]’ (ibid, Section 31); if ‘the defendant published the matter merely in the capacity, or as an employee or agent, of a subordinate distributor’ (ibid, section 32); or ‘if the defendant proves that the circumstances of publication were such that the plaintiff was unlikely to sustain any harm’ (ibid, Section 33).

Unlike in the United States (where freedom of speech is written into the nation’s Constitution), Australia does not explicitly promise freedom of speech to its citizens. This doesn’t mean Australians do not have an implied freedom of speech (FindLaw Australia, 2015). This implied right extends from two landmark cases in the Australian media law history: Theophanous and Lange. In 1994, the High Court ruled in Theophanous v Herald & Weekly Times there was a ‘constitutional defence’ (ibid) to defamation action, implying the right to free speech. Though this created clarity for the first time in Australian history regarding the right to speech, within five years it had been overturned and replaced with a new ruling: that of Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  In Lange, the High Court ruled “the protection of freedom of communication in the [Australian] Constitution is not absolute, and ‘[i]t is limited to what is necessary for the effective operation of that system of representative and responsible government provided for by the Constitution’” (ibid). Rather than enforcing the implicit right to free speech in the Constitution as a defence to defamatory allegations, Lange extended the right to qualified privilege (Defamation Act 2005, Section 30). The ruling created a defence to reporting defamatory material about public officials if ‘the recipient has an interest or apparent interest in having information on some subject . . . and the conduct of the defendant . . . is reasonable in the circumstances’ (ibid). Though Lange gave provisions to people when discussing persons in the public eye, it didn’t greatly increase journalists’ defences. But publishers were now allowed to disseminate information about people in the public eye if what they published was ‘reasonable’.

United States laws on reporting public figures were shaped by the landmark case New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). The outcome of this case, in which a public official claimed his image had been damaged in an advert within the New York Times, ruled in the plaintiff’s favour. Though Sullivan was awarded $500,000 in damages (Casebriefs, 2015a), the advert, which criticised the actions of the local police force (Cornell University Law School, 2015), (thus defaming the police commissioner) was found to have been published without malicious intent. Sullivan rules were then set for future defamation actions initiated by public officials; the ruling found ‘the Constitution guarantees require a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with actual malice – that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not’ (Casebriefs, 2015b). While in Australia a publisher is liable for any published defamatory material, public figures in the United States aren’t able to seek damages unless they are able to prove what has been published about them was done so with malicious intent or with a disregard for ensuring what they have written is mostly true. While it would appear the press are given greater freedoms to report public officials in the United States, this does not necessarily equate to a higher standard of reporting. As said by Smolla (1987), the defences available for journalists in the United States promote ‘sloppy and unprofessional journalism’.

To determine who can and cannot claim damages in the United States, a public figure test was introduced. Public figures are people who are: “involuntary public figures who attain . . . status through no purposeful action of his or her own” (Tobin, 1994. P. 388); “the all-purpose public figure who occupies a position of such pervasive power and influence, or such pervasive fame or notoriety that he or she must be deemed a public figure for all purposes and all contexts” (ibid), and “the voluntary, limited public figure who voluntarily injects himself or herself into a public issue or to the forefront of a particular public controversy” (ibid). The Supreme Court has said the public figure test represents “A profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open and that such debate may include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials” (Rosenblatt v Baer, 1966). A person who enters into common public debate in the US is a public figure and by entering debate they are surrendering many defamation protection rights.

United States defamation law exists to support its Constitution and its right to freedom of speech. The restriction on public figures to take publishers to court over each potentially defamatory remark is in place to promote the use of the right to speech. Public officials and figures, says Tobin (1994, p. 389) ‘enjoy great access to channels of effective communication relative to private plaintiffs. It is therefore assumed that this enables them to counteract any false statements directed against them. Second, by entering the public domain, public officials and figures are deemed to accept that as a necessary consequence of their position they will be subject to greater public scrutiny and criticism’.

It’s clear the increased defences for journalists creates a buffer for them with regards to publishing untrue, defamatory comments. With such a defence not available in Australia, there are those who regard the United States system as one that offers journalists too much protection. Kenyon (2004) wrote ‘In the US – where defamation plaintiffs face much heavier burdens than under the Anglo-Australian law – defamatory allegations against political and corporate actors are published more frequently than in Australia’ (p. 407) and ‘In [one] study’s sample . . . US articles contained defamatory allegations at nearly three times the rate of . . . Australian articles’ (p. 407).

The question persists: do Australia’s more strict laws on defamation result in less open, lower quality reporting on public figures than in the United States? Do our laws have a ‘chilling effect’ (Kenyon, 2010)? To do this we will look at two landmark cases in Australia and the United States. These are the 2014 Australian Treasurer for sale scandal and the 1988 Hustler Magazine v. Falwell case in the United States.

While the following cases are but two examples of defamation action being taken in a long history of media law, the pair contrast what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in the United States and in Australia. They may shed light on the level at which public figures are likely to take a publication to court in one country and potentially win, while another, much more defamatory remark, may see them lose in the other.

In Australia, the 2014 headline story in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times, “Treasurer for sale”, resulted in Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey taking legal action against the papers for defamation. Mr Hockey argues the articles imputed he “accepted, or was prepared to accept, bribes; that he corruptly solicited payments in order to influence his decisions; and that he corruptly sold privileged access to businesspeople and lobbyists in return for donations to the Liberal Party” (Rolph, 2014). Whether or not the alleged offences were imputed within the articles is up for debate, but this essay looks at the standards imposed upon journalists when reporting public officials. Would this article, which reported on actual events (imputations disregarded) have been enough for a public official in the United States to mount a case? It’s unlikely. A public official would have a hard time proving the articles were written with malice.

In the United States, in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988), Hustler was taken to court over an advert published within their magazine that claimed a US politician had admitted to “a drunken, incestuous encounter with his mother in an outhouse” (Casebriefs.com, 2015c). The satirical piece was posed as a genuine Q&A report, and described the politician’s supposed first sexual encounter in which he describes his mother as “looking better than a Baptist whore with a $100 donation” (Hustler, 1983). Falwell claimed the advert was “the most hurtful, damaging, despicable, low-type personal attack that [he could] imagine one human being can inflict upon another” (Linder, 2015). But despite the clear untruth behind what was published, Falwell’s place in the public eye meant he was unable to recover any damages from the allegations made. A unanimous Supreme Court decision found “many things done with motives that are less than admirable are protected by the First Amendment” (ibid) but that “at the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern” (ibid). Because of the protections afforded by the Constitution of the United States, Falwell was unable to recover any damages from what was a targeted, critical piece. Would such a publication have been accepted in Australian media law? There are no examples of similar defamatory remarks being made about Australian public officials, but that Hustler was able to avoid punishment for its publication is a strong example of the leniency of United States defamation law and the strong defences available to publishers.

It’s clear how Lange and Theophanus have influenced the potential outcome of the Treasurer for sale case. Were the articles defamatory or did the newspapers in question express their right to Lange’s qualified privilege extension? Was the United States Supreme Court correct in its judgement that the Constitution, and the Sullivan case, provide protection for journalists that should extend to protect them for articles as defamatory as in the Falwell case? While both outcomes were and will be judged because of the precedent for defamation law in each country, do the looser restrictions in the United States promote a higher standard of journalism? I think not, and my view is supported by a number of academics who concluded that having fewer restrictions on what can and cannot be published doesn’t increase the output of quality reporting for the public concern, but opens up a world wherein the media can report practically anything so long as the defamed can’t prove they acted with malice or disregard for fact-checking. Marjoribanks and Kenyon (2003) quoted an anonymous journalist who said “It inherently seems to me that the US media can say things that simply should not be published. And that leads to sloppy journalism”. I cannot disagree.

References

Casebriefs. 2015a. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/torts/torts-keyed-to-epstein/defamation/new-york-times-co-v-sullivan/

Casebriefs. 2015b. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/torts/torts-keyed-to-epstein/defamation/new-york-times-co-v-sullivan/2/

Casebriefs.com, 2015c. Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. http://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/torts/torts-keyed-to-epstein/privacy/hustler-magazine-v-falwell/

Cornell University Law School, 2015. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (No. 39). https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/376/254

Donnelly, R. History of Defamation. Wisconsin Law Review, 1949. Vol. 1949(1). P. 99, 104.

FindLaw  Australia. 2015. Do we have the right to freedom of speech in Australia? Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.findlaw.com.au/articles/4529/do-we-have-the-right-to-freedom-of-speech-in-austr.aspx

Hustler (Nov, 1983). © 1983 Hustler Magazine, Inc.

Kenyon, Andrew T. 2004. Lange and Reynolds Qualified privilege: Australian and English defamation law and practice. Melbourne University Law Review.

Kenyon, Andrew T. 2010. Investigating Chilling Effects: New Media and Public Speech in Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. International Journal of Communication 4. pp. 440-467.

Linder, D. 2014. The Falwell v Flynt Trial (1984). University of Missouri-Kansas City. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/falwell/trialaccount.html

Marjoribanks, T. & Kenyon, A. T. 2003. Negotiating News: Journalistic practice and defamation law in Australia and the US. Australian Journalism Review. Vol. 25(2). P. 31-49.

Rolph, D. 2014. Hockey’s defamation suit shows need for wider free speech debate. The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/hockeys-defamation-suit-shows-need-for-wider-free-speech-debate-27057

Smolla, R. 1987. Dunn & Bradstree, Hepps, and Liberty Lobby: A New Analytic Primer on the Future Course of defamation. Georgetown Law Journal 1519 at 1528.

The Law Handbook: Your practical guide to the law in Victoria. What is defamation? 2.4.2 Defamation. Fitzroy Legal Service Inc. 2015. http://www.lawhandbook.org.au/handbook/ch24s02s01.php

Tobin, John. 1994. The United States public figure test: Should it be introduced into Australia? UNSW Law Journal. pp. 388, 389, 392

Acts

Defamation Act 2005. Sections 25-33. http://www5.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/wa/consol_act/da200599/s28.html

Cases

Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1997) 189 CLR 520.

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) 372 U.S. 967 84 S. Ct. 1130 12 L. Ed. 2d 83 1964 U.S.

Rosenblatt v Baer (1966) 383 US 75 at 85 quoting New York Times v Sullivan 376 US 254 at 283

Theophanous v Herald & Weekly Times (1994) 182 CLR 104.

Anti-Islam protests highlight frustration on both sides

Originally published 08/05/2015.

As many as 3000 self-titled ‘patriots’ marched to Melbourne’s Federation Square on April 4, riding on a wave of nationalism. Like the Nights Templar a millennia before, these modern crusaders sought to protect of their own Holy Land from Eastern control. But in 2015, unlike in 1096, this was no Vatican-supported quest to preserve Christianity. There wasn’t an Eastern army to meet the Western aggressors, either. Contemporary Australian opposition to Islam in the Western world continues to gain momentum as images of Islamic State atrocities in Syria and Iraq circulate and demands to protect cultural norms from “Islamisation”, a pejorative term that’s grown in popularity since September 11, have regularly been made by protest groups and their supportive online communities. They insist Western culture’s destruction by Islamic extremists is imminent and denounce cultural cohesion between Islamic and non-Islamic society. In reality, once the rose-tinted glasses and Australian flag singlets are taken off, these groups incite more unrest than they suppress. Designating Islam as a religion of hatred and evil only bolsters resentment within the minority Muslim community, and rejecting Islam’s right to exist in Australia only stews discontent, which may lead to avoidable intercultural violence.

The Melbourne protesters weren’t alone. Demonstrations took place in 16 cities across Australia, though most attracted a small percentage of the numbers witnessed in Federation Square; up to 300 protested in Perth and only 25 protesters turned up in Canberra. Support for the protests was sporadic, but they showed the level of comfort many Australians had with rejecting foreign cultures.

In Melbourne, away from the protests, Durkhanai Ayubi said she was shocked by the number of people who attended the rallies.

“I looked at Reclaim Australia and wondered how it’s possible people can get to a point where they’re so brave that they can openly deny the right of a belief system to exist and it’s being done openly and . . . without any sort of condemnation from our political leaders.”

Durkhanai is a soft-spoken Afghan-Australian, whose place as a commentator on Muslim issues in Australia have brought her to a position of prominence within the Australian Muslim community. A member on the advisory board at the Melbourne Social Equity Institute and an assistant editor at Sultana’s Dream, a not-for-profit e-magazine that provides an outlet for Australian Muslim women to discuss social issues, Durkhanai embodies the strength, tenacity and outspokenness Muslims in Australia need from a leader. As an educated person, as a person not afraid to talk about Muslim issues, and as a woman, she exhibits the qualities Muslims in Australia need in a representative.

“It’s shocking that society has gotten to a point where that type of hatred can be put openly into the public domain and people are willing to get involved,” she says.

“If you have a movement where people feel like they can blame the problems of modern day Australia on a minority religious group . . . you’re going to have all sorts of problems.”

She warns Islam-targeted protests may lead to anger from normally non-violent members of the Muslim community who feel they are victims of discrimination; violence erupts more often from repression than from religious doctrine.

“For people who are already feeling marginalised, that creates real problems for them.”

Durkhanai is strong in her opposition to anti-Islam protest groups, but she’s only a single voice. With Reclaim Australia having amassed over 25,000 supporters, competing for a chance to provide a different view is a struggle for the vocal few in the Muslim community.

Australians Against Islam, a Facebook page with a name that leaves nothing open to misinterpretation, says the rallies were necessary to “raise concerns about Islamisation” in Australia.

The group, which boasts more than 6000 supporters since it was formed in December last year, says people who oppose Islamic influence in Australia have no outlet but the streets through which to voice their concerns. They argue modern political correctness doesn’t offer them the chance to publicly discuss their grievances with the growth of Islam.

“Write to the politicians, and [you get] no response. Write to the media [and] you’re labelled a racist,” a spokesperson from the group, who asked to be referred to as “the leader” of Australians Against Islam, says.

“Something needs to change.”

“There may be around 100 Islamic State members walking the streets of Australia. Nothing is being done about it.”

Herein lies the madness within the method of Australians Against Islam’s doctrine. By referring to Islamic State members as being indistinguishable from ‘normal’ Muslims, they create an intrinsic link between civil and extremist Muslims where a connection seldom exists. 100 combatants would equate to about 0.0002% of the Australian Muslim community.

Professor Samina Yasmeen, Director of the Centre of Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, says groups like Australians Against Islam are only perpetuating a historical trend of blame shifting.

“In some ways they’re doing what some Muslim communities have done [in the past], that at every stage they find a reason why they’re unhappy. [Muslims have said] yesterday they were unhappy because somebody bombed Iraq, today they are unhappy because somebody bombed Afghanistan. Tomorrow they’re unhappy because someone has done something else. I think it’s the same process,” Professor Yasmeen says.

“Foreign fighters are a phenomenon. There are foreign fighters from Muslim majority states and Muslim minority states and they’re posing a threat to all people. [Militants] pose a threat in Malaysia to Malaysians, Pakistan to Pakistanis, and Australia to Australians.”

According to Durkhanai Ayubi, the media’s subjectification of the Muslim community has given the illusion this fraction-of-a-percent is a much larger portion of the population.

“All Muslims have been placed in the spotlight [since September 11, 2001] and that adds to the pressure to justify who you are, where you are and your loyalties as a Muslim,” she says.

“Until we have a media that isn’t being driven by sales for sensationalist headlines, then we’re going to have a community and a society that is driven by fear.

“Why don’t we have the same level of condemnation for non-Muslim extremists? I think it brings forward something more dangerous – a political double-standard.”

“I shouldn’t have to condemn the behaviour of terrorist groups or individuals who carry out awful actions in the name of Islam. I shouldn’t have to do that because the underlying belief is that I agree with it because that’s what Islam is. That isn’t true,” Durkhanai says.

Her point is this: few condemn Protestantism for the actions of the Klu Klan, or criticise Buddhism for the attacks reported on Muslims by monks in India, or Hinduism for the 2008 anti-Christian attacks across India, which left as many as 100 dead and 18,000 injured. Why is it, then, that non-aggressive Muslims are often linked to atrocities committed by Middle Eastern militant groups?

“There’s this massive expectation on ‘moderate Muslims’ to condemn the actions of extremist Muslims in every corner of the globe. Until we lose that expectation it’s a failing of our society,” Durkhanai says.

According to Australians Against Islam, Australians need more avenues to facilitate discussions about Islam.

“In a free Western democracy we simply cannot have . . . intolerance of other views,” the group’s leader says.

“How can you fix any issue in society if you don’t acknowledge the issue exists in the first place?”

The assumption of an inherent “issue” within Islam fuels sweeping generalisations about Muslim people, and brews repression within the community. This “microaggression” often influences repressed people or persons to retaliate aggressively.

Durkhanai Ayubi says the true cause of extremism is larger than we realise, and we will not get to see the full extent of the mental effects it has on minorities for many years.

“The radicalisation of young people can’t be separated from the feeling of alienation and anxiety, and already being presumed guilty of all sorts of beliefs by the broader community,” she says.

“The focus on Muslims is intensifying, who knows what sort of things that is going to lead to.”

Ms Ayubi says she fears continued marginalisation could lead to further violence. Victims of exclusion or bullying are more vulnerable to propaganda from extremist organisations; Jake Bilardi, the 18-year-old Melbourne boy who is reported to have killed himself in a suicide mission in Ramadi, Iraq, left Australia to fight for Islamic State in Syria and was regularly bullied as a schoolchild. Numan Haider, who stabbed two counter-terrorism police in Melbourne last year before being gunned down, had been visited by police to discuss suspicious behaviour. Being pushed into a corner, or knowing you’re under surveillance, can lead to erratic retaliation.

Professor Yasmeen says the marginalisation of Muslims may make them vulnerable to militant propaganda.

“Militancy, where people decided they will use religious justification to harm others, even fellow Muslims, really happens if the groundwork exists already and someone gives them the idea ‘this is what Islam stands for’ and they pick it up like that. There’s a lot of factors that contribute,” she says.

“The doctor who left from Western Australia [Tareq Kamleh] – he’s not socially excluded. But at one level he’s mentally somehow excluded and he feels his sense of belonging is somewhere other than here. That sense of dislocation, to me suggests that . . . there are other factors that are at play.”

“If you’re not feeling included in the community, you’re [more] likely to get into this.”

But blaming isolation as the driving force that pushes some Australian Muslims to foreign extremist cultures is completely out of the question, according to Australians Against Islam, who insist Islam is inherently violent.

“Any suggestion of Muslims joining Islamic State because they were somehow ‘unfairly treated in Australia’ is completely absurd. We will not entertain it,” the leader says.

“It’s like saying ‘He couldn’t find a job so he had to go and join a group to behead people’.”

Where, then, do we look to guide impressionable Muslims away from extremist behaviour and radical foreign influences? Durkhanai Ayubi says the enormous diversity within Islam alone means it’s hard to pinpoint a single figure popular enough to provide a positive direction for all Muslims. She says Western nations which have intervened militarily in the Middle East need to acknowledge their actions have led to creating a rift between cultures, but admits the Muslim community does need to work together and promote positive change.

“Within the Muslim community there are so many different kinds of belief systems, different attachments, and different interpretations of religion, which is very normal in any sort of social group,” Ms Ayubi says.

She acknowledges the broader Islamic community has the responsibility of assuring a peaceful Muslim future in Australia. A lack of appropriate community services for those feeling alienated within Islam’s cultural structure, she says, is partly to blame for isolated outbursts from small pockets. The way Mosques are run, with an all-powerful, older, male figurehead, doesn’t give Muslim women a place to discuss the issues in their lives. Gender segregation also means men are less likely to open up about feelings of repression.

But, she says, Islamic cultures have many times felt the brunt of Western aggression, and that may lead to future reprisals.

“We’ve had a real failure of understanding how wars [Australia has] been involved in have contributed to the radicalisation, destruction and chaos in the Middle East.”

“I do think that needs to be talked about.”

“[The West has] been involved in endless, aimless wars, that have fuelled chaos and dissatisfaction and poverty and created generations of children that have seen their families killed and that are going to grow up carrying resentment and anger.”

The Gulf War (1990-1991) saw as many as 35,000 casualties within the Iraqi army, with over 5000 Iraqi and Kuwaiti civilians reported as having been killed; over 110,000 civilians died as a result of the Iraq War (2003-2011); 19,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. After a visit to Afghanistan in 2012 following the Coalition-initiated conflict, Durkhanai described Kabul as “a shambled mess, barely a city”.

Professor Yasmeen agrees: “Afghanistan and then Iraq . . . have played into the hands of some, especially in the case of Iraq. I believe Americans need to accept some sort of responsibility.”

“There’s a Western narrative that has emerged that looks at Muslims being divided and there’s a Muslim narrative that has emerged that looks at Shiites being better than Sunnis and Sunnis being better than Shiites and if you combine that with the Jihadi narrative it creates a concept of who needs to team up with whom to fight which culture.”

Unsurprising, then, that Western actions in the Middle East may be resented by refugees. It’s the sort of heated resentment not quickly cooled by the splash of ink from an Australian stamp in a refugee’s passport.

“There’s a massive gap in accountability of everything that’s happened in the last 10 to 20 years,” Durkhanai Ayubi agrees.

Predictably contrary to Durkhanai’s and Professor Yasmeen’s arguments, Australians Against Islam maintains the fault falls at the feet of Islamic culture.

The group’s leader insists “Islam is extreme by nature” and “If there is no extremist religion, then there aren’t extremists committing acts in the name of that religion.”

“Islam is completely unsuitable for a modern day Western democracy.”

It’s a view probably not shared by an overwhelming majority of the more-than-470,000 Muslims living peacefully within Australian boarders who have no interest in militant activity.

But while Australians Against Islam claim “the impact of Islamisation has been devastating” in Europe, and Islamic immigration to Australia “must be halted immediately”, for Durkhanai Ayubi the journey toward creating social cohesion – and eliminating the chance of violent reprisals from minorities within the Muslim community – is long overdue. Australia must look at cultural issues honestly and without delving into ignorant sensationalism or fear mongering.

“The only way to overcome all sorts of barriers is to have informed exchanges and debates and to give people who know what they’re talking about space in mainstream media,” she says.

“There should be an expectation of responsible, intelligent politics. I don’t think we’ve reached that level yet.”

Islam is going through troubled times in the eyes of the media and the perceptions of the Western public, but the issue is not necessarily contained entirely within Islam and is not only down to Islamic doctrine – it’s also within non-Muslim perceptions of Muslim people. Greater efforts for collaboration between cultures could increase harmony, but both sides must commit to working toward healthy change. A pinhead size of the Muslim community share similar views to groups like Islamic State, just as a very small minority within Christianity support the views of the Klu Klux Klan. Future cohesion requires a renewed perspective and a concerted effort to building a greater multicultural society.

Professor Yasmeen says ensuring peace in a multicultural Australia will take time, and that collaboration between the media, the government and the public is necessary to make the important steps.

“If we were looking at America – a teenager who picks up a gun and goes and kills schoolkids and the teachers is as much a threat to American society as a Muslim kid who decides to leave America and become a militant. You cannot focus more on that Muslim identity and less on [the American].”

“If you say militancy is a crime, you sick to that. If hatred is a crime, you stick to that. If mistreating citizens is a crime, you stick to that.”

“We need to say we will counter extremism full stop, of all cultures, all religions and all backgrounds. I don’t think as a multicultural society we can afford to not do that.”

The continued sexualisation of women in motor racing

Originally published 07/06/2015.

High-level international motor racing suffers with a culture of sexualising of female attendees, be they competitors, brand employees or members of the media. Sexualisation of women in motor sport has existed for decades, recorded since the sport’s earliest days to the modern era. The objectification of women as promotional “grid girls” stretches back decades, and is one that serves only to further strengthen the pro-male bias within the patriarchal motor racing community. On top of this, female competitors face stiff opposition in the form of the media’s attempt to objectify them to satisfy supposed urges for the perceived male-dominated community that contributes the bulk of motor racing viewership. Issues regarding sexualisation and objectification of women within motor racing don’t stop with women employed as eye-candy, either; even female journalists within motor-racing have admitted it hasn’t always been a quick process to enter into the fraternity, with the established powers often preferring male employees. This essay will use a variety of sources as well as anecdotal evidence to confirm the bias within the motor racing world and its media, focusing on Formula One and IndyCars in particular. For selected cases we will also look at how some competitions have already attempted to remedy the inequality. This essay does not stand to condemn the actions of those who continue the archaic practice of female objectification within motor racing, actions which may have been ingrained since their earliest contact with the sport, but hopes to highlight the issue constructively and lay the ground for the development of a less sexualised, pro-male culture within motor racing.

Before any investigation into the impacts of the objectification and sexualisation of women in professional motor racing can be begun, it is important to understand that motor racing drivers are predominantly male, and motor racing series organisations are predominantly male-run. In the history of motor racing, only one higher-level series dedicated to luring women to competition has existed. This competition, known as “Formula Woman”, ran from 2004 until 2007 when it was cancelled (presumably due to failing popularity). Though females compete in motor racing across the world (often in IndyCars and the World Endurance Championship for high-level competitions), men have historically dominated by some margin the numbers game. But while male competitors saturate motor racing, “women sometimes constitute up to 40 per cent of race spectators” (Baldwin, 2015); this is just one reason that it is important to push the need for a recognised equality of genders within high-level European and North American motor racing series, be it in competition or for media purposes.

The history of promotional girls, or ‘grid girls’, in motor racing is patchy at best. With few sources documenting the first instance of females being used for media promotion, it’s hard to ascertain the exact point at which glamorising females and handing them a flag or umbrella to hold became an acceptable standard. According to Holt, “Grid girls – also known as paddock girls or brolly dollies – – have been part of motorsport’s glamorous panoply for the last 40 years” (Hold, 2013). Their arrival in Formula One was following the “advent of sponsorship and advertising in the 1960s and soon became a popular promotional asset for the sport” (ibid). Holt continues to explain that the girls must at all times maintain a “do not speak unless you are spoken to” mantra while working, and that they must “not interact with race car drivers” (ibid). But while the superior-subordinate relationship clearly exists between the grid girl and the athlete (wherein the grid girl is there to provide sex appeal, while the athlete is there to play the dominant masculine role), some of these girls have  been recorded to have claimed they have no issues with being objectified to satisfy the desires of the media. In 2014 organisers of the Clipsal 500, an Australian V8 Supercar race, put together “interviews” with three selected grid girls for publication. The Clipsal 500 girls, “known for their skimpy outfits featuring keyhole cut-outs at the chest, tacky sashes and barely-there skirts” (O’Brien, 2015), remarkably stated how fond they were of the position. In a response that seems plucked from a public relations guide-to-dealing-with-questions-surrounding-negative-practices, one girl, a 25-year-old known only as “Kara”, explained “[g]rid girls are an exciting addition to the racing scene adding glitz and clamour to the Clipsal 500” (Leo, 2014). Another girl, 23-year-old “Jessica”, stated in defense of the practice, “[t]here will always be those few negative people no matter what you do but we are all very proud to represent Clipsal 500 and the event” (ibid). But recently criticisms of archaic practices like grid girls have come under criticism from the media, with many calling for their outright removal from events. Obrien (2015) states “[i]t’s the same old tired story: men do the real work of winning races while women are there merely to look good and watch them. He argues “I think the women are selling themselves short. I have no doubt they’re a bunch of talented, smart, educated and engaging young women who have much more to offer than a pair of long legs and a pretty face” (ibid). Following the 2015 Chinese Grand Prix in which race winner Lewis Hamilton sprayed champagne directly into the face of podium-presentation model Liu Siying (Medland, 2015), criticisms from the public were made vocal. Websites such as Independent.co.uk (Menezes, 2015), Daily Mail Australia (Mullin & Cockroft, 2015), The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media, 2015) and News.com.au (Sky Sports, 2015) all carried the story, condemning Hamilton’s actions and his subjectification of Ms Siying.

Speaking of the incident involving Lewis Hamilton and Liu Siying, The Daily Telegraph columnist, Petra Starke, pointed out Hamilton’s actions were merely on element of an ingrained sexism within motor racing. In her article Sexually objectified, ogled and dehumanised. Just another day on the podium, she commented “Complaining about women being mistreated on the F1 podium is rather missing the bigger issue, which is that women are systematically mistreated as an intrinsic part of motorsport in general, reduced to not much more than sexy props to please the male participants and spectators” (Starke, 2015). “[Y]ou can’t engage in a sport that’s in large part set up to objectify women, and then condemn one of the participants when he does so,” she said (ibid). In an article on the same topic, Smith claimed Formula One was stuck in a previous decade with regards to acceptable actions by drivers and the media. “Why is there a woman fulfilling a purely decorate function on the podium in the first place?” he asked (Smith, 2015). “[B]ecause it’s always 1973 in Formula One” (ibid). Following the event and the subsequent media backlash, Hamilton claimed there was no harm in the incident. “There is a sport that so many people love, for the show of character, fun. Perhaps it reflects just how great the sport is and that’s what I try and do” (Pugmire, 2015). Though he had left the podium, and the champagne-sodden hostess, shortly after the incident, he claimed “it was nice to know that the lady didn’t [take offense at the act]” (ibid).

But despite Formula One seeming hesitant to remove the practice of having grid girls at each event, the mood has changed does appear to be changing slowly; rather than removing the practice altogether, some series – including recently Formula One – have begun to move toward employing men to do the same promotional work. In 2015 the CEO of the World Endurance Championship, Gerard Neveu, announced the championship, which has been around under one name or another for much of the past 62 years, would no longer feature grid girls as part of the show (Dagys, 2015). “The condition of women is a little bit different now [to how it has been in the past],” Neveu is reported to have said (ibid). It’s a move supported by editor of popular F1 website F1fanatic.co.uk, who says the sport should follow WEC’s path (Collantine, 2015). In his article, Collantine states “F1 may not have women dress as provocatively as other categories do but the columns of applauding women who greet the exclusively male drivers at the end of every race sends an unequivocal message about F1’s view of the roles of the two genders” (ibid). The sport had previously tried to introduce “grid boys”, at the European Grand Prix in Valencia in previous years, but the one-off concept “didn’t prove popular with fans” (Walker, 2015). For the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix, the sport brought back grid guys – to mixed reactions. Four-time Formula One World Champion Sebastian Vettel, not unfamiliar to making sexist comments (he has previously driven with a helmet featuring a bikini-clad pin-up girl design (Huffington Post UK, 2013) and has referred to a female team-member as one who “looks after the boys” (FIA, 2013)), opposed the change (Moran, 2015). “What was that?” He asked of having men take the usual place of scantily-clad women on the grid. “You get there and you park behind George or Dave, what’s the point?” (Ibid). Mercedes boss Toto Wolff also admitted he was surprised by the change (ibid). But not all took the change poorly, with former F1 driver (and current WEC driver) Anthony Davidson praising the change. “Surely the world has moved on [from grid girls]?” he asked (Baldwin, 2015); “I think that’s a real nice touch, a modern touch as well . . . [having grid girls is] a bit sexist” (ibid). It would seem the archaic practice of having women in motor racing as physical attractions is slowly dying out and the change by the WEC to completely remove from the grid any flag/number-carrying beauties may well signal to the rest of the motor racing world that it is time for change. Though opinions from within the motor racing fraternity may vary, it would seem the big series are finally responding to public demand for change. No change has yet been decided on, or looks to be decided on in the short term, but with worldwide sport becoming more culturally aware of social change, the WEC move is one in the right direction. But even once grid girls are no longer a factor in objectification within motor racing, the objectification of females in motor racing isn’t over; even competitors within motor racing series have been targeted by media outlets as sex symbols and have many times been used as objects of desire more because of their physical properties than their sporting talent.

Across the Atlantic, in North America, women have more frequently found a place in motor racing than in Formula One. But even in a community seemingly more open to the idea of female racing drivers, Danica Patrick, perhaps the most prolific female racing driver in the world, says she has previously been regarded as inferior to male competitors. In a 2010 interview, Patrick claimed a former team boss had scolded his male drivers for being slower than a woman (Harris, 2010). “It wasn’t okay [for the men] to be slower than me. He would tell his wife to fetch him beers,” Patrick said of an early experience within the series. But Harris states Patrick’s femininity is also a drawing point for the media, who attempt to take advantage of her female form to gain public attention. “When she’s not wearing fire-resistant racing suits, it seems, she is posing in a bikini,” says Harris (ibid). But women aren’t completely innocent, says Sally, Lynn and Cuneen, and have been known – in North America at least – to use their sexuality to further their careers (Sally et al, 2009). “[Danica] Patrick has been successful in capitalising on her expertise and attractiveness to enhance her image and endorse products” (ibid, p. 204), according to their piece in the International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship 2009. The text goes on: “Research has found that attractive and traditionally feminine women athletes gain more media coverage and endorsement opportunities than those who are seen as less attractive and less feminine, regardless of their level of skill” (ibid, p. 207). Patrick has admitted to intentionally using the novelty of being a female racing driver to her advantage: “You use what you have . . . I’m a girl, I can promote products, and I’ll use that to my advantage…” (Inkrott et al, 2002, p. 38). Here we see a situation with Patrick in which, rather than opposing objectification, she actively engages with it to sell her own brand. It’s a choice Bassett (1998) would probably argue does more harm to the image of female racing drivers than good. In his piece “Sport, Triumph Displays and Masculinity” he explained “in representing the female athlete’s body as an object to be sexually appraised (by men) this significantly reproduces other gender inequalities in areas such as the workforce and the home,” and “images of sportswomen tend to be eroticised and framed in terms of the male gaze” (ibid). American culture remains conducive to this objectification of female athletes, according to Fairchild, who says “[m]any of the sports most highly valued by Americans continue to privilege males over females, structurally and ideologically” (Fairchild, 1994. p. 370).

Patrick isn’t the only woman racing driver in North America to have been objectified for media benefit in recent history. Retired racing driver Sarah Fisher, who raced in the IndyCar series from 1999 to 2010, was also an object of increased media attention and objectification because of being a woman. Cuneen says “equitable portrayals of the genders began to make a turn in 2005 with Fisher’s sexually suggestive Tag Heuer advertisement. While her previous advertising portrayals had been strong and athletic . . . her Tag Heuer watch advertisement appeared to be the change agent ushering in a new era for portrayal of women drivers” (Cuneen et al, 2007). The advert “featured Fisher standing in front of her car, dressed in her racing gear, legs bent, helmet on her lap, with an alluring facial expression” (Ross et al, 2009. P. 209). One might even argue that the focus on female sexuality provides female athletes with a boost to further develop their careers; the increased spotlight provides further income and exposure, potentially influencing future employers to sign them up. But despite employment benefits, according to Liang, female athletes who allow themselves to be sexualised by the media aren’t doing themselves or all women any favours. In her 2011 feature article The Media’s Sexualization of Female Athletes: A Bad Call for the Modern Game, she writes “Depicting female athletes in suggestive poses and clothing, or even nude, magazines and commercials basically project a ‘women first, athlete second’ attitude that challenges athletes’ achievements and self-esteem” and “[b]y sexualising female athletes and encouraging them to prioritise sex appeal over strength, the media not only degrade the athletes’ accomplishments and self-esteem, but also alienate viewers and impede the feminist movement” (Liang, 2011). Former racing driver Janet Guthrie, who raced professionally during the 1960s and 70s, condemned Patrick and other female drivers for resorting to using their bodies to gain interest and investment. In 2010 she said she has “not been happy with [Patrick’s] provocative photos that will be floating around on the web forever” and that “[i]t’s sort of been the gestalt forever and ever that women have nothing to sell but their bodies” (Stein, 2010).

According to St. James, Sarah Fisher’s feminine novelty in motor racing and her ability to be objectified by the media was ultimately her downfall in North American professional motor racing. Fisher, who contested 83 IndyCar races and failed to win any of them, became a victim of her own publicity value. “Women aren’t usually given the opportunity on the grass-roots level to make it and become a veteran. But because they’re attractive and the right age, they’re pushed through too soon,” said Lyn St. James, who contested five IndyCar races between 1996 and 2001 (Rieter, 2007).

It would seem that removing the incentive for women to allow themselves to be subjected to media sexualisation is key to removing the practice of objectifying female competitors within motor racing. In this instance the drivers who allow themselves to be made into objects are not in any way helping their gender’s push for equality, and are only risking damaging any progress that has been made so far. It’s important to for these competitors to understand that by allowing themselves to be taken advantage of for media benefit they are only mildly increasing their chances of career progression and are putting their own image and reputation, and the reputations of an entire gender, at risk. Allowing themselves to be objectified for media benefit may seem an easy payday or an easy way to gain exposure, but the positives are far outweighed by the negatives with regards to attaining gender equality within motor racing. By continuing to allow themselves to be objectified they are only ensuring the continuation of the archaic male-over-female ideology that is ingrained in motor racing psychology.

Contrary to the seemingly clear way in which females involved in the racing community are sexualised by the media, long-time motor racing commentator Louise Goodman said in 2004 that Formula One is not sexist. Though Formula One is in theory a unisex series, it has been since its creation a predominantly male community. In its 62 years in existence to 2012, 822 men had entered at least a single Grand Prix event; in the same period, only three women have ever managed to qualify for a race (Formula1-Dictionary, 2015). But the series is not devoid of women all together. In administration roles, Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn and Williams team deputy team principal Claire Williams (Benson, 2014) are two females in high-profile positions on the grid, defying the stereotype that women have a place in the series as little more than eye candy. Susie Wolff, wife of Mercedes boss Toto, has had a number of experiences in an F1 car during official race weekends (ibid). Louise Goodman, who was a regular journalist within the Formula One paddock between 1988 and 2008 (LouiseGoodman.com, 2015) said she “would not have lasted 15 minutes . . . if I’d had to put up with sexist attitudes or behaviour” (Goodman, 2004). In an article Goodman claimed men and women in European motor racing are treated no differently and that it is the value of their work which is honestly assessed. “The only sexism I encountered was . . . [w]hen Ian Phillips, the managing director of Leyton House [racing team], was told that his new press officer was a woman, he didn’t want to know about it. Suffice to say, within one race Phillips was only too happy to admit he had been wrong” (ibid). With regards to well-publicised sexually-active former racing driver Eddie Irvine, she stated “I would like to believe he respected me for the job I was doing” (ibid). Though Goodman defended the supposed incorrect sexualisation of women members of the media within motorsport, or more accurately within Formula One, she admitted the use of grid girls for show was a point she wasn’t entirely happy with. “I’m not a great fan of the scantily clad promotional girls . . . but then I’m not a fan of Page Three either,” she said. “I wouldn’t necessarily choose to make a living that way, but I don’t suppose anyone forced them to do it” (ibid). “[Formula One] thrives on its sexy image, but that doesn’t mean it is sexist. Sometimes people mistake one for the other. That’s a reflection on our society, not on F1” (ibid).

But Goodman conveniently left out a number of glaring flaws in her assessment of Formula One and its sexist culture. Prior to the 2000 Malaysian Grand Prix, then-race driver Johnny Herbert fondled one of her breasts on camera during a farewell (Youtube, 2013) – a move that was seemingly condemned by the umbrella-holding grid girl standing next to the pair and Louise herself (even if she did appear to laugh it off at the time). One year after her article was published, during an interview following qualifying for the 2005 Canadian Grand Prix, then-race driver David Coulthard, talking about using the speed-limiting button on his car, replied to Goodman’s question if he had been practicing using it, “I have; I’ve just been imagining it’s your nipples so I’m being a bit more gentle with it when I take my finger off of it at the end of the pit-lane” (Youtube, 2012). This comment was met with laughter from Goodman’s male colleagues in the next shot (ibid). Still on Coulthard, drawing toward the end of his career in Formula One he regarded his “biggest regret” was “two Argentinean twins at the [19]95 Grand Prix that I walked away from, and I wish I’d taken that opportunity” (Wilson, 2008). It’s clear that, despite Gooman’s defence of the series, there were or are still pockets of gender inequality within Formula One during the mid-2000s which may continue to the present day.

More than 100 years since the invention of the motor car, motor racing has evolved from participants being garage-run operations to them being multi-billion dollar corporations. Though racing cars are gerally far from as fragile as they once were, and can now travel at much higher speeds, one thing that has struggled to change has been the position of women within the competition. To have women as showpieces to complement the male show displays an archaic attitude toward the role of women in events historically seen as being “masculine”. By placing promotional models in front of spectators as objects to be ogled at, and that which – until very recently – must be female, a standard is created in which men are the actors and women are the prize, valued only for their physical qualities. The World Endurance Championship’s recent move to outlaw grid-people all together is one that finally signals progress for gender equality within motor sport. But it doesn’t stop there; female motor racing drivers need to be considered equal to men in all regards, not just on the racing track. Objectifying women for media gain, or promoting them to a more visible level of motor racing for them to be used as a marketing gimmick, is not in line with modern values of equality. Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, Claire Williams, to name a few, are all very accomplished drivers who’ve displayed an ability to show themselves as equal to most of their male counterparts. If male racing drivers are so rarely idolised for their physical beauty, what defence does the media have, then, for allowing the ongoing objectification of female athletes? The answer is that they have none. For true equality to be reached in the sport of motor racing, a transformation of media and cultural values is needed. Though Louise Goodman will attest to Formula One’s “sexy not sexist” persona, it’s important to recognise that for the most part she was caught up in the sport and accepted its sexualisation as a natural thing. Certainly, the incident with racing driver Johnny Herbert in which he publically touched one of her breasts during a hug shows the ingrained sexualisation of women within motor racing at least in the late 1990s. Motor racing is overwhelmingly popular across the world, but it is far from perfect especially in regards to gender equality. A comprehensive improvement with regards to assuring gender equality in motor racing series’ across the world is imperative to finding further equality between the sexes in motor racing.

 

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