Mad As Belle: The Media’s Lost Accountability

Words By Jane Gilmore
April 28, 2015
Scott McIntyre’s expulsion is a fascinating juxtaposition to the other recently declared pariah, Belle Gibson; where one journalist was fired for speaking truths, others were never called to account for perpetuating lies. Jane Gilmore discusses the role of outrage, social media and journalistic accountability.

The most recent (at the time of writing) sinner we have judged and found wanting is Scott McIntyre, who had the temerity to cast aspersions on Our Diggers on ANZAC day. And indeed his sin is great. ANZAC day is a commemoration for the soldiers who died in the various mismanaged and horrific wars declared by and upon Australia and its allies by powerful men who know they will never be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Those tragic deaths and so many wasted young lives certainly should not be cavalierly dismissed, and the fact that McIntyre did not do so has no bearing on the opprobrium he suffered. The sin he committed was, in fact, to question the ANZAC myth: that brave and noble larrikin lad, heroic beneath his raffish veneer, who joked as he dauntlessly walked forward to a courageous death, knowing that the sacrifice would be worth it to protect Our Way Of Life. Who doesn’t want to identify with him as the embodiment of the Australian spirit? He is who we all are; an attack on him is an attack on us all.

The truth of war, any war, is far less agreeable, as Mel Campbell has so comprehensively covered yesterday. And it is interesting that McIntyre was fired for questioning the ANZAC myth only days after SBS aired a program that explicitly suggested we should do exactly that, because surely it is the job of journalists to question, push back against the commonly accepted myths and present unpalatable truths? (And god help the next poor ABC or SBS journalist who seeks to question the myths we hold dear; the Twitter mob knows its power now.)

“… where one journalist was fired for speaking truths, others were never called to account for perpetuating lies.”

McIntyre’s expulsion is also a fascinating juxtaposition to the other recently declared pariah, Belle Gibson; where one journalist was fired for speaking truths, others were never called to account for perpetuating lies.

For anyone who has been living under a rock or inside a pleasant world that has no interest in wellness bloggers, Belle Gibson garnered fame and fortune by blogging and instagramming about her ability to cure cancer with vegetables and water. Look, it may have been more complex than that and if you’re interested in the full story you can find it here, here, here, and just about everywhere else on the internet. Basically she claimed to have cancer, claimed to have cured it with a special diet, made a buckets of cash by selling apps and recipe books, raised money for charities that never found its way to any charity and was finally revealed to be a charlatan.

It’s not difficult to understand why Belle’s message was so welcomed at first. Cancer is one of the last few diseases that can kill the young and otherwise healthy beneficiaries of first world medicine. It is all the more terrifying in our sanitised world where disease and dying are usually only the prevue of the elderly and the medical staff who fight to keep them tied to life.

Belle Gibson, glowing with youthful health and beauty, offered an alluring alternative to painful undignified death and it’s no wonder so many people latched on to hope that she offered. And even less wondrous that their sense of betrayal manifested itself as rage when her deceptions were uncovered.
What is odd is the lack of accountability from the media outlets that unquestioningly promoted her message that vegetables can cure cancer.

Elle Magazine was one of the many women’s magazines that lauded Gibson and her wellness message. She was the subject of a feature article, entitled ‘The Most Inspiring Woman You’ve Met This Year’. After the magazine was published, Elle received an email from someone who claimed to have known Belle as a child and warning them that many of the things she had said in the article were untrue. Vanessa Lawrence of Elle wrote of the email:

The listed dates, ages and educational information also seemed too specific – and detailed – to be the fabrications of a jealous former friend, or stranger. Further digging did little to shed more light on the situation, returning only a few obscure blog posts that weren’t linked to any names or contact information we could use to follow up. So we left it, writing off the email as a bunch of lies.

A bunch of lies? Because it seemed far more credible that a 20-year-old could cure terminal brain cancer that had failed to respond to chemotherapy and radiation by “eating ‘clean’ by cutting gluten, dairy and GMO products from her diet, oxygen therapy, colonics, Ayurvedic treatments and more”?

Elle, of course, is not alone: Woman’s Weekly and Cosmo, while they were careful to not blatantly join the pitchfork and pillory brigade, have provided them with fodder by outing Gibson for her lies, while not ever accounting for their own responsibility in the unchecked spread of those lies.

“We like to think of ourselves as truth-tellers, not just storytellers. But we forget sometimes that implicit in that is a responsibility to our audience to in fact, tell the truth.”

Journalists like to take themselves seriously; we like to think of ourselves as truth-tellers, not just storytellers. But we forget sometimes that implicit in that is a responsibility to our audience to in fact, tell the truth. It seems incredible now that so many publications feted Gibson without ever questioning the highly unlikely scenario that “clean eating” and colonics could cure advanced cancer. Surely, to a journalist, just wanting to believe it should not be enough?

Whether Gibson was being coldly fraudulent or psychologically unstable is not something that can be determined by the media. But, as with the Rolling Stone “investigation” into campus rape, which eschewed actual investigation in favour of salacious details, the journalists and publications that enabled Gibson’s public deception of vulnerable cancer sufferers bear far more responsibility than they are currently admitting.

We might all be willing to join the pitchfork crowd on their way to the pillory, but maybe we can and should take a moment to think about who and why we are putting in stocks before we turn the key in that lock.

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