Media Study: Bingle v Markson, Fraser-Kirk v McInnes, and sexism in the Australian media
Model Lara Bingle is out of a plum job this Christmas and so is publicist Kristy Fraser-Kirk. Both young, blonde and ambitious, they're the unfortunate poster girls for what happens when you put your trust in people who don't have your best interests at heart, and also for the maltreatment of women by our nation's media, more particularly beyond the ailing lad-mag genre.
While both women have ultimately made some of the decisions that led to their respective contractural issues – gosh knows that once a woman enters public life, her sexual misdemeanours, relationship choices and fashion faux pas will be forever on the record (for the rest of us, there's Facebook) – they undoubtedly have been let down by institutionalised sexism (some might say misogynism) and a blokey Australian culture that's yet to catch up with more sophisticated parts of the developed world, even at a time when we have a female Prime Minister and Governor General who are outspoken about such issues (last week Gillard told The Courier Mail, "I meet fantastic women who are doing amazing things using their intelligence and using their capacity for hard work [every day]").
This isn't necessarily a feminist matter (as Damon Young notes for the ABC, "gender, like class and ethnicity, is one dimension of social and psychological injustice"). It is about a shared world view that says, "Fair go for all", and that won't tolerate women being belittled to the point where they are rendered silent or incapacitated in a professional way because of fear, intimidation and shame. It's about being aware of an insidious culture of bullying – perpetrated by both men and women – and requiring those in positions of power – in media, in government, in law – to be held to account for practises that undermine any person's ability to live a full and rewarding life.
Good Weekend magazine – Australia's Newspaper Magazine of the Year 2010 published by Fairfax Media – has provided us with an excellent study in media representations of men and women in the past two weeks. Last weekend, the magazine published a cover feature on Kristy Fraser-Kirk by senior writer Fenella Souter; the weekend before Mark Dapin's profile of Max Markson.
Lara Bingle v Max Markson v the media
First, a quick recap of events: in March Woman's Day magazine (which has since undergone a major values check) published the now-infamous exclusive shots of Lara Bingle in the shower taken by her ex-boyfriend, footballer Brendan Fevola. Bingle was reportedly courted by publicist Max Markson after the event (I wondered whether he'd planted the pictures himself; News.com.au reported it was an AFL footballer).
Markson then took matters in his own hands, organising an interview with Woman's Day to try to salvage her image. The fallout included her relationship breakdown (the strain was apparently too much for Michael Clarke) and a less than flattering public profile for Bingle (the reported $200,000 fee for the story plant just painted her as a gold-digger... yet another commonality she shares with Kristy Fraser-Kirk, but more on that soon). In the process, she became a mute victim; a pretty girl who'd made silly decisions (and don't we all).
Along came Grazia. The ACP (now Nine Entertainment Co.) produced fashion weekly took Bingle aside at Australian Fashion Week and scored itself a scoop, as well as a cover image of the blue-eyed damzel in distress. Editor Alison Veness McGourty was empathetic: "last week, as Lara bravely fronted fashion week in Sydney, we saw a new side to her. She is prepared to learn from her mistakes and is committed to working hard and hoping to slowly earn respect again in an industry she loves. She is only 22. She's had a lot of bad advice and a tough time of it. We say it's time to give her a break."
November 7 cover and a sympathetic feature by Jonathon Moran.
Then another blow: 'Lara's designer flaws' read The Sunday Telegraph's lead society page column, followed by details of her "dumping" as the face and body of Speedo, "which has moved on to the ultimate girl-next-door, Miss Universe Australia 2009 Rachael Finch, whose biggest scandal of late was being knocked out early from Dancing With The Stars."
(The reportage called to mind another recent Sunday Telegraph piece pitting "taller, thinner and younger" Nicole Trunfio against the pregnant Miranda Kerr).
But let's skip back to Max Markson. In the four-page Good Weekend feature, 'Max Exposure', writer Mark Dapin (who coincidentally once worked at Woman's Day) is frank: "Specifically, this year, he is best known as 'the publicist who turned Australia against Lara Bingle', a remarkable feat since the model had the sympathy of a nation only one week before."
Further on: "Markson, 54, is good at what he does and it has made him rich, but he attracts contempt because he sells his clients' stories to the media. Reporters hate this, because it exposes journalism as an arm of the celebrity publicity machine, an accessory to cultural violence. There is also a feeling that Markson is not overly burdened by principles and qualms. He recently launched Pauline Hanson on a career as a public speaker but on the day we have lunch, he has a meeting about organising an indigenous small-business awards night. When later I tell him he cannot work for both Aboriginal people and Pauline Hanson, he turns up his palms and lifts his hands in the air... 'Pauline could be a guest speaker,' he says. 'She could present a prize."
Even in jest, repugnant. (Add to that: "I did a number of Tiger Woods's mistresses," says Markson. "I didn't do them in that way, but I arranged media deals for them globally.")
When probed about the Bingle Bungle, Markson – who is pictured wearing his favourite yellow/gold tie, black suit, cufflinks and sunglasses ensemble in the back of a darkened car cab, whisky in hand (read lionised) – is typically spin friendly:
"That was a good story, wasn't it? It ran and ran and ran... I'd been looking after Lara for about two weeks. When I started representing her we were getting an enormously positive response. I could've made an absolute fortune for her. Then, when the bloody photograph appeared, the whole thing soured."
Was it wrong to sell her story to Woman's Day, asks Dapin. "Nah, everybody wanted the story. Take away selling the story. She had to tell her story. She had to stand up and say something publicly. She knows she'll cop a lot of money - more than most people will earn in a year or two years - for four hours' work, and she gets her story out there in eight pages, all approved by her."
And the collateral damage results in the end of her Seafolly contract and in turn more bad press.
At the time of Bingle's trial-by-press, Markson was as scarce as Christopher Skase: "[A Current Affair reporter] Ben Fordham fronted up to me in Mauritius in the middle of the Lara Bingle thing, and he said to me, 'Is there any such thing as bad publicity?' And I said, 'All that people remember is your name at the end of it, so if you have some bad publicity – unless you've done something quite dreadful like murder someone – you'll find out all that will happen is they'll move on to the next story.' You can't dwell on it. You just have to keep going. Some stories'll be bad, some'll be good, some'll criticise you, some'll praise you. Welcome to life. This is what happens. You can't bear grudges. Don't burn bridges. Just keep going."
Markson told Dapin his nonchalant attitude is the result of losing his father: "That was the line in the sand for me. After that, what's the worst that can happen?"
How about hell? And how about thinking of Bingle, who also lost her father? Here's hoping Good Weekend's good readers take up their pens and write a word or two in response to Markson's remarks.
Kristy Fraser-Kirk v Mark McInnes v the media
The subject of Australia's landmark sexual harassment lawsuit, Kristy Fraser-Kirk, and the man who helped bring about her professional demise, former David Jones CEO Mark McInnes (also, notably, out of a job this Christmas, and with a new baby to care for), is even more contentious.
The cover of Good Weekend pictured Fraser-Kirk in black and white, an image that lends her a certain hardness, unlike the full-colour, smiling Markson, while also likely delighted David Jones competitor Myer, who advertised on the back page with sweet, angelic Jennifer Hawkins holding a gift box.
The cover feature, 'The Damage Done', has its title in blood red. This is not a soft character profile, mind: former Good Weekend editor Fenella Souter handles the feature with expectant journalistic aplomb, painting in anecdotes and quotes around the factual details we know ("the parties are now gagged by a strict confidentiality agreement") as the story's chronology unfolds.
Souter attempts to answer the questions, "Was the pretty publicist a gold-digger, or a heroine? Was the DJs CEO a harmless flirt, or a serial sexual harasser?", over four solid pages of copy. She leads in by describing a formerly mighty McInnes at a lunch function crossing the line with the young publicist, then writes:
"The case would never make it to court, but it would feel as if it had. Between June and October, it played out almost daily in the media, each party's hired PR flacks feverishly practising the dark arts of spin, an alchemy that can transform a merely flawed man into a monster, and a victim into a scheming temptress."
Noting that David Jones was the first to go public with the case ("the board notified the ASX and called a press conference on June 18 to explain McInnes' sudden departure"), effectively bringing on the trial by media (The Sunday Telegraph published Fraser-Kirk's name first), Souter paints a picture of a touchy-feely divorcee with a penchant for "any blonde under 25 with a Louis Vuitton bag" desperately trying to cling to his career and a "very boisterous, very outspoken... quite aggressive and confronting" Fraser-Kirk, with lawyers and spin doctors surrounding them.
Of the punitive damages claim of $37 million (explained well by Shannon at Mamamia), Souter writes:
"Many lawyers Good Weekend spoke to thought the punitive damages claim was misguided, lying somewhere between "corporate blackmail", as one put it, American-style, supersized compensation and bravado. At the very least, it seemed a calculated play to keep the case on the front page for as long as possible. The less cynical view was that it was a way to drive home the point, hard, that corporations are responsible for safe workplaces and need to take sexual harassment seriously... Whatever the real purpose of the punitive damages claim, and there have been several - barrister rachel Francois acknowledging only the most noble - the distinction between "punitive" and "general" damages was largely lost on the public, and the media."
Of course, the case was settled meaning those punitive damages – which Fraser-Kirk had planned to donate to charity – were never awarded. One reason for settling Souter cites, via Melbourne workplace lawyer and former Victorian Commissioner for Equal Opportunity Moira Rayner, is the stress of going to court: "You can say all you like about making a point, but I don't think a young woman would benefit by going through a trial, subjected to nasty stuff, stuff about her background, allegations she 'asked for it' and so on."
Like the stress caused by the nasty stuff that gets bandied about in the media and destroys young women's reputations and careers?
Which brings us to... what can we do, as media consumers and practitioners, to remedy this unfortunate state of affairs? To change the culture?
It's refusing to buy into the degradation of women (or, indeed, men) through opportunistic exploitation of their private lives; not buying publications that ridicule the vulnerable and lionise the powerful; choosing to say "That's not right" when we see images of women pitted against women, or women treated in a way that undermines their humanity; and turning off trashy TV that profits from turning people into convenient, trivialised caricatures for our mind-numbing consumption.
But, in light of the fact that we do not live in Utopia and humans are inclined to latch onto gossip – particularly about young, pretty blondes – as if our lives depended on it, we should also be talking to younger women and men about what it means to be in the public eye: the risk, the scrutiny, the vulnerability that comes with that – and ensuring they have appropriate media training and support – while also increasing the literacy and filtering mechanisms of young media consumers.
Idealistic? Sure. But if we can take anything away from the sorry mess of Bingle v Markson and Fraser-Kirk v McInnes, it's that societal "norms" and standard media practises need to be challenged. Case closed? No way.
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Glossy Talk: Lara Bingle, Woman's Day, ACA
Glossy Talk: Grazia and NW love/hate the single girl
Girl Talk: Lad mags only part of the problem
Girl With a Satchel