This threat shows how hostile the public debate has become

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“You better pray I never find out where your husband or your kids work.”

Believe it or not, someone thought this threatening message was an acceptable thing to post to the personal Instagram page of our columnist Kate Halfpenny this week after she wrote about renting a small flat in the city.

Kate found herself on the pointy end of a social media skewering following that column, about “reverse sea changing”. A torrent of vitriol followed. I’m not talking about robust criticism or respectful disagreement. I’m talking about the kind of nasty and deeply personal comments Kate has endured before: threats of violence and rape, insults directed at her family, or her pets.

Columnist Kate Halfpenny received a flood of online abuse after writing a column about her reverse sea change. Credit: Leigh Henningham

This week Kate writes about the volume and nature of the hateful messages she received after that previous column. Somehow, she maintains her usual humour and wit in the process. In this article, she contends that the “tenor of public debate has never been more needlessly hostile”. I tend to agree with her.

The hurtful potential of public discussion is in focus this week following the decision of Stan Grant, the well known ABC journalist and Wiradjuri man, to step down from his hosting role on the Q+A program after he and his family were targeted with racist abuse and threats to his safety following his participation in the broadcaster’s coverage of King Charles’ coronation. I hope to see him back on our screens soon and wish him all the best.

Many journalists have been targeted with hate and vitriol, but women and racially diverse colleagues of mine have been the target of the lion’s share of it over the years.

Often they just carry on, don’t engage, don’t raise it, or ignore it as best they can. They change their names on social media, shut down their accounts or avoid public places – as if they are the ones who have something to be ashamed of, or have done something criminal, when in fact they are doing a job that most in society recognise as valuable.

That sense that reporters are considered “fair game” by angry keyboard (or typewriter) warriors has always been present, but since the pandemic years it has become particularly intense. Particularly malicious. Much of it comes from anonymous accounts too, which columnist Kerri Sackville argues should be banned to help clean up public discourse.

Twitter is a particularly bilious place where sensible, well-meaning discussion is seldom encountered and the people who shout the loudest are rewarded with “likes” and “shares” which are frequently misinterpreted as celebrity and influence. Hatred thrives on platforms like this.

But as Grant pointed out in his farewell Q+A speech, it’s not only social media that can have a negative impact on public debate. “The media” more broadly also has a responsibility to help maintain the standard of discussion.

We take that responsibility very seriously at The Age, as we do with our responsibility to report all sides of a story and provide a forum for respectful debate. That’s a difficult balance sometimes, but one we approach with care and good intentions. As other publications gravitate towards polemics and become further ideologically entrenched, our attempt to challenge people with a plurality of views and bring nuance and thoughtfulness to the discussion is becoming an increasingly lonely quest.

Our leaders, too, have a big part to play in lifting the tone. The way they speak to the public, to journalists and to each other, plays a large part in setting the tone for the way issues are discussed and debated. Heckling during parliamentary question time, getting personal at press conferences, or being unnecessarily aggressive towards opponents can pollute the discussion as well.

Journalists know their work will invite public critique and scrutiny. They expect it. It is simultaneously thrilling and daunting that, in 2023, we can receive instant feedback on our work.

And that is a good thing. More than ever we are part of a genuine conversation with readers. We should listen to them more often, in my view.

This message I send to you each week, for example, attracts many responses. And because it goes exclusively to an audience of loyal Age subscribers, the correspondence is almost entirely intelligent and respectful. Sometimes you disagree with me, but that’s OK. You mostly do it politely and I enjoy the discussion. I listen, too. Many of you have suggested ideas that have become stories. Some of you have influenced my thinking on editorial matters or brought something to my attention. So keep it coming!

I just wish all my colleagues at The Age and elsewhere in the media had the same healthy rapport and standard of debate that I have with you, dear subscribers.

Now, before I bid you an excellent weekend, there is something else I wanted to mention.

Several of the journalists you support through your subscription have been recognised for their hard work with nominations for the mid-year Walkley Awards.

As we reported today:

  • Political reporter Paul Sakkal is in contention in the short-form journalism category for a series of stories in November that revealed Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was privately quizzed by the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission during Operation Daintree investigations.
  • Melissa Fyfe and Jacqueline Maley’s April Good Weekend feature Rethinking Rape is vying for the Walkley Foundation’s Our Watch award. The piece examined how convictions for sexual assault in Australia remain low despite skyrocketing reports, with particular attention on the brutal legacy the legal process often leaves for complainants.
  • Another Good Weekend feature – Gabriella Coslovich’s The Art of the Steal – is shortlisted for the June Andrews award for arts journalism.

All of these reporters are more than deserving of the awards they are nominated for, I’m sure you’ll agree. Why don’t you drop them a line and tell them so? I’m sure they’d appreciate a positive message.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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