Rebel with a cause

My stomach lurched when Rebel Wilson won her defamation trial against Bauer Media yesterday.

It was just so huge. I can’t imagine how the editors involved must be feeling, wondering what it means for their futures.

The judge won’t decide what damages to award until a later date, but I expect they will be astronomical. Rebel claims the impact on her reputation means she can no longer command $5million pay cheques.

She maintains a series of magazine articles published by Bauer resulted in her being sacked from the animated films Trolls and Kung Fu Panda 3 for being “too divisive”, and led to her begging to work for free.

The all female jury of six returned unanimous verdicts in favour of Rebel. In closing his case, Dr Matthew Collins, QC, said the actress was taking a stand against “toxic” journalism.

It’s ironic that what the magazines had accused Rebel of doing – inventing stories to make it in Hollywood – was Bauer’s own downfall.

But I don’t think it was simply about magazines being punished for publishing lies. There’s been backlash about fake stories and headlines, but also a growing belief that mean spirit is involved. And not just magazines – Daily Mail has been copping it big time for its treatment of celebrities.

More and more Aussie celebrities have been calling out the lies and cruelty. They take to social media to decry the latest coverlines and assure followers that the articles are untrue and written without their input.

I’m not without sin – I edited hundreds of issues of weekly magazines. I learned the art of enticing coverlines and the power of clever photo selection. But there were things I was told to do that disturbed me and a few people I worked with whose behaviour I found reprehensible.

It was a different story when I first started out at Woman’s Day. Those were such exciting years. Admittedly, they involved spending crazy amounts of money on paparazzi photographs, something that always bothered me when the sum topped the yearly salary of the photo editor bidding on them. But it was my job, so I got on with it.

My first Woman’s Day cover was Liza Minelli’s wedding to David Guest, with Michael Jackson as best man and Liz Taylor as Matron of Honour. There were proper, official photographs to buy and a fantastical story to go with it … except it was real. I decided it was proof the truth was way more compelling than fiction. In the months that followed, I discovered editing a tabloid was a little more complicated if you were to keep 500,000 readers buying each week.

Over the next five years, circulation rallied after years of decline. Those were giddy times, until circ started to fall again and I became collateral damage in the panic to stay on top.

When I left magazines, I couldn’t stop thinking about smarter ways to cover the cult of celebrity. I was sure a magazine could survive and thrive without paparazzi photographs or dodgy stories. There’s so much real stuff happening in celebrity lives, you don’t need to make it up.

I made a few pitches to publishers on a change of direction. I suggested featuring a “100% paparazzi free” stamp on the cover and a marketing campaign that promised truthful reporting and opinion pieces. Instead of spending outrageous sums on paparazzi photos, I floated the idea of doing “stunt” covers. Remember when The X-Files was in its prime and the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully was high? Rolling Stone put them in bed together on its cover and got Andrew Denton to do a clever accompanying interview. The results blew my mind. I figured if you came up with a few covers like that – fulfilling reader fantasies or sparking them – it could fill the void when George and Amal weren’t having twins.

But they insisted it wouldn’t work. And maybe they’re right, but I’d like to have given it a red hot go.

Instead, I started reporting on real celebrity stories for the digital market at Mamamia and Escape and Kidspot. They went OFF. But I was too old and expensive for digital journalism, so I moved on. And these days I rarely look at celebrity magazines or websites.

Closing his case on behalf of Wilson, Dr Matthew Collins said there wasn’t any evidence that Wilson had ever lied about herself or her history.

“Why was Bauer Media, with all of its worldwide resources, unable to identify a single person anywhere in the world to whom the supposed lie had been said — a friend, a former friend, a colleague, an agent, a producer, a publicist, a member of the public, anyone?” he said.

“This proceeding has been reported in the press every day over the past three weeks. Why hasn’t someone come out of the woodwork to corroborate this allegation that Rebel Wilson is a liar?

“The reason why they came up with nothing, of course, is obvious. Rebel Wilson has not lied.”

“She doesn’t say that these articles are the worst thing that have ever happened in her life and that you should all feel sorry for her. She says that she is not a serial liar, as alleged by this defendant, and she seeks your verdict to tell that to the world, to tell the world that what this defendant did to her was wrong. Rebel Wilson came here to stand up to a bully.”

And she won.

I wonder what happens now? 

Song of the day: Cold Chisel “Ita”

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