It all started when a contact at the ABC forwarded me a memo which had been circulated to all ABC News and Radio staff. The email reminded journalists that some 40 per cent of Australians do not support same-sex marriage and it was the taxpayer-funded broadcaster’s statutory duty to remain impartial on this matter, including across employees’ social media accounts. This was the second time the broadcaster had issued such a warning; one had also gone out last September, before the first bill for a plebiscite was about to go before parliament. The same contact told me back then, policy staff were ‘harassed’ by their journalist colleagues who disagreed.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long to find several examples of ABC staff still flagrantly breaching the directive. Hell, in the six hours after the latest memo was sent, ABC News’ own official Facebook page published five posts from the pro-SSM side, one that was neutral and none from the No case. But the most high-profile of those who’d gone rogue was Emma Alberici, the host of Lateline. Days earlier, she’d begun an interview with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann suggesting party room bickering was endangering vulnerable young gay people. She went on to claim the wider public doesn’t want a plebiscite, although anyone who’s taken even a cursory glance at the polls knows this to be patently false. But it was Alberici’s social media activity which proved most illuminating: she regularly lashes out at defenders of traditional marriage and openly admits she can’t get her head around why some may oppose change.It’s a stance you’d expect from an outlet such as the Guardian, whose Australian editor Lenore Taylor declared she would not be publishing balanced journalism on the issue because she couldn’t personally see a reasonable case for No, but not from one whose recently appointed chairman dismissed claims of bias out of hand.
In the same week, comedian Tim Minchin penned a ditty smearing Australians as ‘a little bit homophobic’ and labelling those in favour of retaining the traditional definition of marriage ‘bigoted c—s’, while hundreds of advertisers signed up to a campaign vowing not to work for anyone on the No campaign.
By the time I sat down to write my regular column for the Daily Telegraph, one theory had been percolating in my mind for a while: was gay marriage Australia’s Brexit/Trump moment? Certainly, the arrogance in some sections of the mainstream media about assured victory and moral superiority, coupled with the taunting of those opposed to change as deplorable, were eerily familiar. I watched one openly gay friend post on his private Facebook page that he was abstaining from the plebiscite because he was personally against same-sex marriage. He was so viciously attacked by his own so-called friends, he deleted the post. Meanwhile, Mia Freedman was torn to shreds over a failed attempt to start a viral #marriedformarriageequality selfie movement, all because she wasn’t campaigning in the ‘right’ way. So I knew writing the piece would open me up to similar criticism and pressure from the SSM thought police. I made it clear from the start I was sympathetic to gay marriage, to the point of mentally planning my wedding guest outfits, but went on to point out that some Yes campaigners’ strategy of intimidation and suppression of other views would almost certainly push not just the undecided away, but many inclined to be supportive, too.
I was well-acquainted with Twitter lynch mobs after years of writing columns, but even I was taken aback by the ferocity of the online attacks that ensued. This was more brutal than the times I’d argued the merits of capital punishment, written in support of Israel and taken on bloodthirsty jihadists put together. The flogging kicked off with Alberici posting a tweet about the column complete with the expletive ‘WTF’’ to her 67,000 followers. What was she so outraged over? Did she take exception to the accusation she had been blatantly campaigning on this issue, thereby breaching the ABC’s charter? Nope, she was livid that – according to her, anyway – I’d announced I would be voting No. Aside from the fact I deliberately did not disclose how I would vote (not least because, as a foreign national, I can’t), the personal attacks in Alberici’s countless tweets that followed only served to reinforce the central point of the piece.
When fellow Tele columnist Miranda Devine accused Alberici of acting like a bully, the presenter resorted to every schoolkid’s favoured retort of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I, claiming I was the real bully. Her echo chamber enthusiastically leapt aboard, some labelling me a ‘closet homophobe’, other humourless scolds blasting me for only caring about my closet.
Speaking of which, is white still considered a faux-pas? Should I go short or long?
But there’ll always be a special place in my heart for the brave soul who trawled through my Instagram feed to find a photograph of my baby nephew under which he could comment: ‘hope he’s not gay’. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking I’d argued homosexuals should be hanged, drawn and quartered at dawn. My favourite critics, though, had to be the ones who angrily accused me of ‘stereotyping’ my gay friends as fabulous. If it’s any consolation, I happen to harbour the equally insufferable view that my straight friends are pretty darn fabulous, too.
One of my Sky News colleagues also took the opportunity to have a crack online, feigning surprise at the piece and accusing me of ‘voting’ to deny rights to same-sex couples out of spite. But he failed to mention we’d discussed the column the day before off-air, during which I recall him laughing about hoping the Yes vote failed as it would cause havoc for the government. Pots and kettles. In any case, it was when former prime minister Tony Abbott weighed in, calling out ‘bullying’ by the usual suspects, that things really blew up and the Twitter ugliness became the subject of various news reports. An online storm usually passes after a good 24 hours, but the attacks began afresh on Day 2 when high-profile same-sex marriage campaigner Kerryn Phelps rebuked me for my apparent ‘admission’ I was voting No, which she called ‘truly disturbing’.
A public shaming by the rainbow thought police is hardly going to dissuade me from speaking out, but you can bet it will make others think twice about expressing their views openly if they don’t conform unequivocally to the groupthink.
All the more reason to suspect we may well see a silent revolt at the postbox.
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