Sympathy for Catherine Deveny

Catherine Deveny TwitterAlthough I have not met Catherine Deveny, I have followed her path in journalism with some interest. Some years ago she wrote for our sister publication, Australian Catholics, and I have a tribal interest in her subsequent career, like that of others among 'our writers'.

Even from infrequent reading of her columns in The Age, I noticed that she wrote often on the Catholic Church, but that her later writing could scarcely be described as 'Catholic journalism'. The Catholic Church indeed became one of her regular targets. In her early newspaper writing I admired the strength of some of the moral positions she took. More recently, her writing appeared less personally involved, and based more on appearing outrageous.

When I heard that she had been sacked from The Age for her outrageous Logie night tweets, I felt some sympathy for her. She seemed the victim of the culture of media commentary. In her column she was encouraged to write stridently and to cross the boundaries of good taste and of ordinary human sympathy. The response expected from the column was, 'Ooh, isn't she awful?'.

Such columns are attractive to newspapers because of their capacity to polarise, and so to grow, their audience, with some people being outraged, while others identify with the causes adopted. I personally did not find Catherine Deveny's column humorous, but those who did saw humour in her over the top critique, particularly of religion, and in her uninhibited sexual reference.

The challenge of this kind of writing is that what yesterday was outrageous is pedestrian today. The ante needs to be upped. Deveny's tweets, which in part served to draw readers to her blog and column, duly upped it. But then she was sacked by the newspaper which set her along this path in the first place. The sacking smells of hypocrisy. Some will say that it was fair enough that those who live by the sword die by the sword. But in this case it appeared that those who provided her with the sword and encouraged her to use it liberally, stabbed her in the back with it.

The incident might make us reflect on a larger point: the increasing amount of commentary in newspapers and their blogs. Many of the commentators, like Deveny, present a public face that is rebarbative and disrespectful of people. People who know the columnists often say that this public face does not represent the personality of the writer.

The columns usually react to groups in the community whom they believe to hold wrong ideas or to be socially odious. They then try to turn their readers against these groups by presenting them simplistically, taking the wrongdoing or foolishness of the few as representative of the many, and setting a brutally 'realistic' view of the world against the imagined soft-headedness of their opponents.

The columns ultimately appeal to the fears, hatreds and disdain of their audience rather than to reason. The effect of the column is to narrow human sympathy and curiosity, not to extend it.

Columnists who write about political and social affairs are rarely at risk of being sacked. But we might still ask if writing, whether humorous or serious, that depends on sweeping claims, brutal suggestions and dismissal of one's opponents will do anything to encourage a public conversation that is respectful and exploratory. It might sell newspapers, but ought we not to expect something more of our newspapers?

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Catherine Deveny, Twitter, God is Bullshit, Bindi Irwin, Rove McManus, Tasma Walton



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Existing comments

In Deveny's early days I looked forward to her articles, especially those showing her disagreement with my beliefs and values. I like to be challenged and being forced to defend is a great way to learn and consolidate ones views. Over time I perceived Deveny as sliding towards articles that were meant to be controversial rather than challenging - "look at me", FIGJAM etc.

This course of action inevitably becomes a slippery slope, and Deveny has found out the hard way that the accumulation of small offences leads to the same end as a large offence.

Mike | 07 May 2010  

Catherine Deveny became famous, which is a famously fickle and fatal thing. Famous in Melbourne, at least. She discovered she had a comic formula that can successfully stick the tail on the sacred cow. Sometimes this is funny, sometimes it's pathetic, depending on who you are and what mood you're in. She is the Sophisticate from the People's Republic of Moreland.

Perhaps there is something 'precious' about the Age sacking Deveny over her Bindi remark, but there is something much more precious than that and it's the welfare of children. We are living in the post-freudian world where the word paedophilia is used not just in manuals of psychosexual behaviour but in newspaper headlines worldwide.

Catherine Deveny, like the rest of us, knows this but oddly makes an unfunny joke that lacks careful reflection. This is not the first time that she has tried to make comic capital in her columns out of the vulnerablity of children and it could be described as a blind spot on her part. We'll be hearing plenty more from Catherine Deveny though, just watch. She is curious, original,and offensive. Question is, does a satirist have to have any respect for anyone?

Desiderius Erasmus | 07 May 2010  

I agree with Andrew. Catherine was encouraged to be more and more outrageous. When she did what the Age asked her to do and gain attention by making over-the-top tweets as she watched the 'holy logies' she gets the boot. All she needed was a chat. She may have a remedy, but it won't be through a column in the Herald Sun. There the outrageous remarks - 'hang Carl Williams' corpse from the gibbet' was one of his latest - are completely hogged by Andrew Bolt.

And yes, Virginia, the disparate response to each of their 'offences' does exist. I speak, of course, as one who was sacked as a columnist under Bruce Guthrie's editorship because, as his assistant editor remarked to me, I gave him the "s#*ts"! She deserves a second chance.

Moira Rayner | 07 May 2010  

How coherent (as well as predictable) of ES to defend both Deveney and Kennedy in the same issue.
My forebears are rolling in their graves.

Leander Gonzaga | 07 May 2010  

The bounds of journalism have limits. Deveny, as a writer (as she deems herself), should know this. Free speech has limits. Even in the playground one learns to moderate oneself. Off-colour epithets and expletives in print are becoming more accepted and less censored. That may be part of social evolution. Catherine Deveney went too far though, not only on Twitter, but also in her Age column. Her editors gave her far too much latitude. Her persona, already offensive, became obscene. It was a development from one to the other, but there are laws regarding obscenity, and they are there for good reason. No sympathy here.

Larina | 07 May 2010  

Deveny's sin was her tastelessness and it was always going to end in tears. Narcissism and stupidity usually go hand in hand, so I'm not sure to what extent you can blame The Age or Twitter technology for giving Ms Deveny enough rope to hang herself with.

But to show that Ms Deveny isn't the only media victim on the planet today, I notice that David Oldfield has also been suspended as radio host for tasteless remarks. And what you have written in reference to Deveny could also be said to apply equally to Oldfield, even if he has never had the honor of writing for Australian Catholics. Any sympathy for him also?

Nathan Socci | 07 May 2010  

I fully agree with Larina's comments. I have long avoided reading Catherine Deveny's contibution to The Age newspaper. Her lack of respect for people, places and things have never tickled my fancy.

Catherine's comment about Bindi Irwin was disgusting, all the more so because it was about a child.
Catherine certainly overstepped the mark here and has suffered the consequences. Thank God The Age has shown some leadership in reminding her that there are some lines that should not be crossed.

Rosemary | 07 May 2010  

Andrew great article - I too was starting to lose interest in the 'over antics' of Deveny - shock jocks mostly of right, but even from the left - in the case of CD - just begin to lose sense of what is good constructive social commentary … I think also seeing her on Q&A almost boorish. Recently she attended a local gathering of speakers here in Ballarat – a fund raiser for disadvantaged/homeless – not impressed as she trotted out something from the past, good on her that she came, but she did look out of place/bored somewhat. I guess she will live to fight another day – whether The Age has done the hypocritical thing? – they no doubt were tiring of her too.

Tarn Kruger | 07 May 2010  

If this story was only about crossing boundaries by inviting ridicule and outrageous comments to sell newspapers and hypocrisy by sacking then I would say OK. I believe the whole point is being missed. Even if taken out of context, I believe the comment on Bindi Irwin was outrageous! Children should be a 'no go' zone and it amounts to verbal child abuse when a child is attacked in this way. All children are sacred and no child should be attacked by comedians or others. The potential damage to the psyche of this child is frightening...

Di | 07 May 2010  

What if we read Deveny's comment on Bindi Irwin as satire? As believers, can we accept a commentator stating "I believe that a child of 11 has no place in the sexualised culture of the Logies," but not a statement like Deveny's?

H. W. Fowler said that the aim of satire was to bring about change, its field was morals and manners, and its audience the self-satisfied. A number of people who have responded to Deveny's comment about Irwin seem to fall into that category.

I don't for a moment believe that Deveny was advocating sex for Bindy on Logie night. Satirists push boundaries and shock us into a new perspective.

The people who keep telling us that it is irresponsible to advocate sex for an 11-year-old girl are, of course, right, even while appearing smug, but surely they have missed the point.

Anna Summerfield | 07 May 2010  

I don't understand the defence.
Where is personal responsibility here?

Catherine Deveny deserved to be fired.
Her comment on Bindi Irwin was sufficient.

As well,as an experienced journalist, she would have known something of the law of defamation.

Her writing disrepects.....and encourages such behavior.

She is not a young and inexperienced journalist.

Could she not have said no to the supposed encouragement of her employer?

Confused | 07 May 2010  

The 'sacking' of a satirist like Deveny simple exposes the hybrid qualities of what it is being Australian. We're very fond of parading our national 'larrikin' characteristics, thumbing our nose at authority. Yet deep inside our psyche lies that conservatism that we inherit from our Anglo-celtic ancestors, the island people. Although ours is a an island continent, we can't help the fortress mentality that we inherit .Our libel laws are anathema to satire, at least unless they're targeting certain ethnic groups ( early Bulletin cartoons).

Just as we invent our 'Australianess', we also invent our sense of humour. Deveny's sin is that she broke the fragile myth that is Australian humour.

Alex Njoo | 07 May 2010  

Of course The Age is hypocritical for promoting Catherine Deveny's offensive views for so long, and then sacking her for doing what she has always done. But this feeble scruple over her sacking should not be allowed to obscure the real issue of whether or not her public writings and statements are acceptable in our society. To what extent is bigotry, bullying and belittling to be accepted or ignored?

That's the big picture. It's what Eureka Street should be addressing, rather than expressing sympathy for the bully or the bigot when they are finally on the receiving end themselves. You are missing the point.

Jack Fawkner | 07 May 2010  

Surely Andrew has asked us to look at the big picture/question "Does shock journalism of the Deveny (or AndrewBolt) kind encourage a public conversation that is respectful and exploratory?" Of course it doesn't, it maintains and exploits those character defects of human beings which make the search for social harmony a daily struggle.

As to the particularities of Deveny's tweets they read to me like the sort of badinage one might hear in the public bar of many an Australian pub late on a Friday night. Deveny was thoughtless enough, for whatever reason, to commit her barroom witticisms to Twitter.

Uncle Pat | 08 May 2010  

Her appearance on Q&A a couple of months back should have sent alarm bells ringing for her and those close to her. It was an appalling piece of bigotry which added nothing of value but diminished the program and its listeners for the night.I agree with the thrust of Andy's comments but do wonder when personal responsibility and values should kick in.

Tom Cranitch | 08 May 2010  

Thank goodness for the intelligent comment of Anna Summerfield.I too believe that Deveny was satirising the appropriateness of Bindi Irwin's presence at the Logies. I am dismayed at the moral outrage over Deveny's comments while so little concern is expressed about a child whose life has been commercialised by those who should care about her welfare.

I consider Deveny's sacking by the Age hypocritical. The paper has fed off the fruits of her provocation and satire in the past. It is also ethically inconsistent. This is the paper that provided us with the edifying pictures and print coverage of Carl William's funeral on the front page!

Frankly I would sack the editor of a paper which purports to be a broadsheet but produced tabloid sensationalism with Roberta William's hairstyle and comments on the front page following Carl's murder and then highlighted the funeral in such mindless detail.

Jan Campbell | 08 May 2010  

The best is Anna Summerfield's comment, since satire is designed to draw attention to the paradox of a particular situation. It seems Deveny has been sacrificed on the basis of morals and manners when in fact she was drawing attention to pain and loss: in Bindi's case it is the tragic loss of childhood innocence; in Rove McManus's case it is the tragic loss (still fresh)of his first wife. I think The Age has sadly missed the point.

Trish Martin | 08 May 2010  

Catherine is a lost soul and in need of prayer. She has been unravelling slowly spiralling downwards for years.It is a pity no one intervened earlier on in her lfe.Instead of careful mentoring The Age gave her free rein particularly in her bitterly antiCatholic rants which became boringly predictable.

Little Girl Lost | 09 May 2010  

I always enjoyed reading Catherine Deveny. Forgive me but I liked her sense of humour.

I also liked some of her comments as a spokesperson for atheism, such as :

"I'm sick of religion taking the credit for the innate goodness of people".

Now's there' a clever topic for debate!

Joe | 10 May 2010  

Beneath Deveny’s writing is a social critique that challenges the objectification of women, consumerism, capitalism, institutional religion and the lack of community values. I have found her recent method of expression increasingly caustic, but I wonder, facing the next stage of her career, if she might not be free to plunge into a deeper critique without the need to ‘entertain’ at her back.

She definitely has the capacity to profoundly challenge and if this skill was honed, rather than sidetracked into ‘outrageousness’, her writing might become even more powerful and influential than it is now. Then again, that might be exactly what the powers-that- be wish she refrained from.....

Bronwyn Lay | 10 May 2010  

I think you have missed the point - it is one thing to be outrageous another to suggest someone should have sex with an eleven year old girl

V. Henderson | 13 May 2010  

I don't think The Age actually profited from her work. The columns were so spiteful and dismissive of good people that they undermined the paper's integrity. Deveny is not without talent - and it's sad she was dumped - but it was all her own doing.

patyah | 06 June 2010  


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