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From the outer sanctum

IT WASN’T UNTIL my young daughter asked why Sam Newman was calling me and the rest of The Outer Sanctum’s podcasters ‘excrement’ on national television that the full impact of our role in the Eddie McGuire–Caroline Wilson controversy struck me. This followed the ‘drowning joke’ made by McGuire during the Triple M coverage of the MND Big Freeze. As one sixth of the all-female podcast (comprising Kate Seear, Felicity Race, Lucy Race, Emma Race, and Alicia Sometimes and myself) that broke the story the weekend before The Footy Show aired, I’d been largely bemused by the furore that followed. There were six of us, for a start, and we’d become fast friends over the months that led to the formation of The Outer Sanctum, cemented more recently by the almost out-of-body experience of being part of a viral media storm. We had each other’s back. We checked in and supported each other throughout the ensuing chaos, sharing the media responsibilities and personal missives that flooded in – the interviews, the Twitter feed, the barrage of emails and Facebook messages – divvying them up according to whose work and family commitments at that moment were manageable, and whose were not. It had been a team effort from start to finish and reminded me, again, how resilient and rewarding this collaboration had been.

But seeing Sam Newman’s comments through the eyes of my twelve-year-old daughter was confronting and unexpectedly upsetting. My daughter was horrified, but also confused. In her world, adults don’t speak like that about other people – but here was a man, a total stranger, calling her mother a piece of shit. On national television.

I quickly turned Sam Newman and his ‘perfumed excrement’ monologue off. But it shook me. It shook us all.

I WILL NOT pretend that The Outer Sanctum team were ever fans of The Footy Show. As a podcast that focuses on AFL, we feel an obligation to be across the mainstream and independent footy media, and although the ratings have slumped over the years, The Footy Show still attracts big-name players and has a prominent place on prime-time TV – albeit an unwarranted one, considering the ratings and the casual disregard for football content. (Particularly when you consider the long-running, thoughtful and entertaining Marngrook Footy Show broadcast on NITV.)

We view The Footy Show as a necessary evil, and so we take turns watching it. Whoever performs this task generally suffers for the first twenty or thirty minutes, before they are free to turn it off. Duty performed, job done.

That was how we felt about the show before Sam Newman called us ‘second-tier’ media, and perfumed excrement.

For the record, this is what he said:

If you search for a cause to fit a narrative that you are pedalling eventually you will convince yourself that you have stumbled onto something, as most of the cowardly excrement have.

Those excrement who have weighed into this, I would like to mention their names but as no one reads, watches or listens to them because they are in second-tier media outlets I won’t bother.

But if you spray a piece of excrement with perfume or put aftershave on a piece of excrement, at the end of the day it is still a piece of excrement.

That night, as the team became aware of his comments, we turned to our phones, checking in with each other, registering our shock and disbelief – and also the predictability. We were treading on privileged and typically all-male turf, and the incumbents were unlikely to roll over without a fight. So we SMSed and DMed a flurry of reassurances, missives and, thankfully, jokes, because that was what had brought us together in the first place. The thing that had forged this powerful bond: laughter. Even in the height of the madness we could make each other laugh – and I remember thinking, thank god there are six of us. But I also worried that Erin Riley, whose blog about our podcast had sent the social media world into overdrive, was operating under her own name. This made her a wider, more vulnerable target for the indolent trolls who wouldn’t deign to investigate who The Outer Sanctum members actually were. As it turned out, ever the professional, Erin refused to kowtow to the abuse, conducting interviews on mainstream and independent media, and delving deeper into the issue in follow-up articles despite an onslaught of personalised attacks.

A WEEK EARLIER, when we recorded the now infamous Episode 14, the prospect of coming under the belligerent gaze of an angry Sam Newman wasn’t even on our radars. The week had been unlike any other for The Outer Sanctum – for all women, I’d wager, but for entirely different reasons. That Wednesday, the AFL launched the inaugural women’s league, an event we’d watched live with genuine excitement and anticipation. Finally, finally, we were seeing the AFL acknowledge the importance of women’s footy – not just to the women who play, the girls who want to, or even those never allowed to, but also, significantly, its importance for the future of the AFL. (I’d argue, for the future of sport in this nation.)

It was long overdue, but it was happening – and the momentum was building. The AFL community seemed genuinely pumped about this development, which was why we’d deemed it the focus of this episode. That is, until our planning meeting that morning.

Every week, half an hour before we record the show, we gather at Lucy Race’s house to discuss the issues we want to include in the day’s episode. On this day, Kate Seear, our sixth member, had work commitments, and we were joking about how the show would be shorter without (the ever thoughtful and articulate) Dr Seear around. Then Lucy showed us the MSN article criticising the comments about Caroline Wilson made by Eddie McGuire, Danny Frawley and James Brayshaw, and there was a decided shift in the room.

In case you haven’t seen or heard them yet:

McGuire: In fact I reckon we should start the campaign for a one-person slide next year. Caroline Wilson. And I’ll put in ten grand straight away – make it twenty. [laughter] And if she stays under, fifty. [laughter] What do you reckon guys? Who else is up there? I know you’re in JB?
James Brayshaw: No, yep. Straight in.
Danny Frawley: I’ll be in amongst it Ed.
McGuire: Is Duck there?
Wayne Carey: Yes, I’m here mate.
McGuire: Duck’s in. Danny’s in – already spoken up.
Frawley: Yeah I’m in Ed.
McGuire: I could do an auction here today.
Frawley: I’ll actually jump in and make sure she doesn’t – I’ll hold her under, Ed.
McGuire: I reckon we could charge ten thousand for everyone to stand around the outside and bomb her.
Damien Barrett: I’m on Caro’s side now, Ed. I’m on Caro’s side these days, Ed. [indecipherable]
McGuire: She’ll burn you like everyone else, mate. She’s like the black widow. She just sucks you in and gets you and you start talking to her and then bang! She gets you.
Brayshaw: If you ran that auction from down there, I reckon you’d start grabbing some bids out of the seats too. There’d be money piling in everywhere
McGuire: It’ll be magnificent. I think we should do that next year. It’s all good for footy.
Brayshaw: Bloody oath.

We decided, unanimously, that we’d talk about McGuire’s comments on the show. This was exactly the kind of issue that The Outer Sanctum team cared most deeply about – our raison d’être. The only question that arose, the only hesitation in covering it, was whether it had actually happened, because we could find no other coverage of the comments anywhere else. It seemed impossible that such provocative and controversial language from high-profile personalities – commentators of the game, but also two club presidents – could slip by the mainstream media unreported. But we investigated, established their veracity, and included it in our run sheet.

Importantly, we didn’t open with this story. We were reluctant to dampen the excitement we all felt around the women’s league announcement, the glow of seeing women in AFL guernseys featured in an AFL broadcast still warm on our cheeks. But we also understood the Triple M incident could not pass unchecked.

We went into some detail about which clubs secured teams, the surprises, the disappointments, as well as the individuals involved in the process, which led, quite naturally, to the comments Eddie McGuire had made about Caroline Wilson. If you listen to our podcast, you can hear a slight tremor in Lucy’s voice as she describes the language he used. We all felt shaken by it. Confronted and offended, but also hurt.

It is worth listening all the way through the Triple M segment. Too often ignored is that, after the commentary team leaves McGuire, you can hear Wayne Carey quickly remove himself from the ‘team bid’ the moment he understood what had just transpired: ‘Just to clarify, when he [Eddie] said, “Duck, are you in?” I thought he meant would I go down the slide… [I’m] not in on the bid on Caroline.’

If Wayne Carey, a former footballer who has previously been accused of violence against women, and has on one occasion been convicted of indecent assault, could identify the toxicity of the ‘banter’, then surely it should have been obvious to a media-savvy, highly influential broadcasting professional like Eddie McGuire.

In our discussion, each of us had concerns with the content, the tone and the generally ugly ‘stacks on’ mentality of the segment. We expressed surprise and disappointment that the commentary ‘was disrespectful to’ a very worthy event – a Motor Neurone Disease awareness campaign – as well as at the hypocrisy that McGuire and company would ‘fall over themselves’ to help Geelong Footballer Jimmy Bartel raise awareness around family violence in his excellent #FaceUpToDV campaign, and yet joke about drowning a female colleague. We were particularly concerned that it had the potential to ruin what was a momentous week for women’s footy. We finished the episode with an interview with Bridget Barker, who had headed North Melbourne’s (unsuccessful) bid for a women’s team.

The podcast went live the next day, Friday. On Saturday night, Erin Riley, a listener of The Outer Sanctum, contacted us about the McGuire comments and our take on it, then put together her article Eddie McGuire, Caroline Wilson, and violence against women: the AFL must act, which promptly went viral. Social media backed the blog and the podcast via Twitter and, with the support of fellow podcasters at The Footy Gospel, as well as encouragement and advice from Fairfax journalist and excellent human Andrew Stafford, by Monday it was front-page news and the central conversation point for mainstream and social media around the country. There were reports as far flung as the United Kingdom, and as it was only a couple of weeks out from the federal election, questions about McGuire’s comments even permeated the prime minister’s campaign.

FOR THE MOST part, commentators recognised that the comments were out of order, and understood they represented a larger, more complex social issue surrounding casual sexism and the evidential correlation between misogynistic language and violence against women. However, there was also a significant proportion of the community who criticised Caroline Wilson for ‘bringing it on herself’, due to the robustness of her particular style of journalism. Journalism, it must be noted, that has won awards and broken stories that have changed the sport, arguably forever. (The Essendon Football Club’s peptides controversy being one of the more recent ones.) When you unpack this criticism – the scale of it, the language employed and the vitriol underlying it – it provides yet another example of the consistently gendered response saved for female journalists. This point has played out in many forums over the years, but most recently, and most relevant to the Australian media landscape, was the research carried out by the Guardian into the nature of its own comments thread, which demonstrated, categorically, ‘that articles written by women attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men, regardless of what the article is about’.

In an even clearer demonstration of how to miss the point, much of the attention, when it finally came, focused on the personalities involved. That Eddie McGuire and, to a lesser degree, Danny Frawley had form in using divisive and problematic language in the past only aggravated the situation, as too many claimed the problem lies with McGuire, Frawley, and Brayshaw, or even Triple M, rather than the system and society itself. At one point, the entire debate seemed stuck on whether these men should be removed from their posts – as if that would present some kind of solution – rather than acknowledging that the issue is bigger than any of these individuals, and more complex. Indeed, that it reaches beyond footy, beyond sport, extending well into the reaches of broader society – including the media itself.

This point was exemplified by the ever predictable Murdoch columnist Andrew Bolt, who demonstrated the pervasiveness of the very issue at play when he referred to the women of The Outer Sanctum and Erin Riley as ‘mummy bloggers’, opining that our commentary was sexist itself: ‘the outrage machine – the likes of Rosie Batty, the huffpuffing Age and the mummy bloggers – are making far too much of McGuire’s joke…’

‘Mummy blogger’ is itself a deeply problematic and loaded term, reflecting a misogynistic view that carries with it an accusation of amateurism and inferiority due to gender and the (incorrect) presumption that women of a certain age are invariably mothers and therefore not professional. Moreover, though, his comments indicate a total lack of research – the very foundation of quality journalism. Rather than uncovering whom ‘the outrage machine’ might comprise, he simply writes us off as aspirants and amateurs, gendering this dismissiveness to boot. What is the likelihood that Bolt would refer to six men producing a podcast about AFL as ‘daddy bloggers’? Further, it echoes the implication underlying Sam Newman’s second-tier media’ and ‘excrement’ attack, that only certain people are entitled to speak (‘first-tier media’) and that those people already control the microphone.

For the record, the ‘mummy bloggers’ Bolt refused to rate includes award-winning broadcaster, producer and entrepreneur Emma Race, who has more than fifteen years’ experience in commercial and community radio and TV. Alicia Sometimes is a poet, writer and broadcaster who has produced and presented media across commercial and community networks for almost two decades, most recently co-editing an anthology of footy stories featuring some of Australia’s most highly regarded writers and thinkers. Felicity Race and Lucy Race jointly run a business and each have more than a decade’s experience in marketing and communications, respectively. Academic and practising lawyer Dr Kate Seear’s curriculum vitae would fill pages – suffice to say, she is an expert in the intersections between drug and alcohol use, gender, family violence and the law, and had (incidentally) spent the days before the podcast broadcast reading the Royal Commission on Family Violence’s 1,900-page report for an academic paper she was co-authoring on the subject.

Guests of The Outer Sanctum have included, among others, award-winning sports journalist Sam Lane; first ‘out’ (male) AFL footballer and LGBTIQ activist Jason Ball; federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins; Marngrook Footy Show panellist and Indigenous activist Shelley Ware; the first female AFL Club president, Peggy O’Neal; Bulldogs Vice-President Dr Susan Alberti; the AFL’s first female goal umpire to officiate a grand final, Chelsea Roffey; and, as a direct result of this controversy, an extended conversation with Caroline Wilson, which we included in the follow-up episode.

Also, none of us blog.

Erin Riley, whose post about the issue went viral, is a highly regarded journalist who has written for the Guardian, the Age, Sydney Morning Herald, and The Drum, among others, and has written widely about sport, politics and gender. At least she could, in fairness, be referred to as a blogger, given she also writes a blog. But based on that definition, so too could Andrew Bolt. (The circularity and hypocrisy of Bolt’s argument is truly dizzying.)

WHILE NONE OF us had the slightest notion of the scale of controversy our podcast would engender, when we first formed The Outer Sanctum we knew it would give voice to stories not ordinarily heard. The point was to have fun while creating a safe and welcoming space for everyone; but mostly, we wanted to discuss the issues that matter to us, as women, as parents, as people – though always, ultimately, as fans of the game.

This was our position prior to that first episode, and remains our position today.

Incredibly, the effect of the episode and the ensuing fallout seems to be lasting. In the immediate aftermath of the story, the Victoria Police released a memo reminding members of the power of language and the role it plays in enabling a culture of violence. Holden reconsidered its sponsorship of the Collingwood Football Club, deciding in the end to redirect a significant portion of the funds to support women’s football at Collingwood. In response to Newman’s comments, there are reports that Nissan’s sponsorship of The Footy Show is in doubt, and the AFL has invited anti-violence advocates Our Watch to present at the next AFL presidents and CEOs’ meeting on the prevention of violence against women and children. The invitation referred directly to the McGuire comments, which, according to Commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick, ‘show how much more work there is to be done’. The Richmond Football Club players took it upon themselves to boycott Triple M’s coverage that week and McGuire publicly apologised ‘unreservedly’, and to Caroline Wilson privately (albeit after some delay and on a third attempt), before taking an extended leave of absence from the media. As a result, reporter Sarah Jones debuted as anchor for Fox Footy.

Perhaps more poignant, though, are the countless anecdotes shared by people we know and people we don’t about how they’re rethinking the way they address each other, and how they use language. People who are asking questions and seeking feedback in the hope of ensuring that what they want to say reflects what is actually heard. This, more than anything, is the measure of how far we’ve come. At the very least, I hope it will mean I never again have to explain to my daughter why a complete stranger would call her mum perfumed excrement on national television.


From Griffith Review Edition 53: Our Sporting Life © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review