Best of the Week: No winners in the Craig McLachlan court case; The atomised trade press
Welcome to Unmade, mostly written on Friday at beautiful Sisters Beach, Tasmania, and wrapped up on Saturday morning ahead of popping out to my local polling station.
Also, happy International Tea Day.
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So is that the end of Craig McLachlan’s career?
We’ll see. Yesterday afternoon he dropped his defamation case against the ABC and the Sydney Morning Herald midway through the trial, just before the women accusing him of sexual misconduct began to testify.
In early 2018 the SMH and the ABC published a carefully researched investigation from investigative reporter Kate McClymont.
Although that leaves McLachlan with legal costs of perhaps $2m, it means that there was no legal ruling by a jury about whether on balance of probabilities he committed the many acts of sexual harassment of which he was accused.
It will be interesting to see now whether the media organisations actually get their costs back. If the cost bankrupts McLachlan and there are no assets in his name, then they won’t.
The outcome also means that one day, when memories have faded, McLachlan will be able to claim that he dropped the case because of the strain, not because he realised he was about to lose. He’ll be able to point to having been previously cleared at a criminal trial. He won’t point to the comments by the magistrate at that trial in 2020 that if he had been tried against the current law on consent the outcome might have been different.
It’s the second time in a couple of years that a high profile person accused by the media of sexual misconduct has sued, then dropped the case. Last year former attorney general Christian Porter sued the ABC which reported that an unnamed cabinet minister had been accused of rape. When he dropped the case, he later claimed vindication, and that the settlement was a “humiliating backdown” for the ABC despite not getting a retraction or apology.
The defamation process is used as a way to stifle reporting. For the media companies involved, it’s hugely expensive, and hugely distracting.
I’m going to be necessarily vague in this example. When I worked elsewhere, we published a piece of analysis predicting that something a certain organisation was about to do would be a disaster.
The boss of that organisation threatened to sue (it’s easier to sue for defamation as an individual than as an entity). We stood our ground.
They sued. We filed a full defence.
They offered to settle, so long as we removed the article. Our insurer told us that if we did not do so, we’d be on our own for any costs in defending a case. So we removed the article, with each side paying its own costs.
The organisation suing us got the outcome it wanted because the article was removed, and it was able to go ahead with doing the thing that we predicted would be a disaster, without any awkward SEO showing up as people were doing their due diligence.
When the thing did indeed prove to be a disaster, it was of little comfort, particularly when the insurer declined to renew our cover.
It was an expensive, time consuming, distracting few months that was absolutely discouraging for the pursuit of journalism.
And the time wasting distraction on the part of the media is a major factor.
Without prejudging the outcome of Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial against The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times, it will have been an all-consuming distraction for the journalists seeking to prove their allegations.
But they have to do it. If they were ever to get a reputation for backing down, they’d only invite more cases whenever somebody wanted to silence them.
By the time it is over, it will have been at least a couple of years of their professional lives. Who knows what their investigative journalism might have turned up elsewhere if they hadn’t been sucked into this legal case.
But that’s as nothing to bystanders sucked into such cases. As Tory Maguire, executive editor of The SMH and The Age put it yesterday:
"The Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC published their investigation on Craig McLachlan during the height of the #MeToo movement. McLachlan’s claim against one of his victims, Christie Whelan Browne, and the media outlets, utilising Australia’s defamation laws, has had a chilling effect on victims’ willingness to tell their stories about other abusers, and the media’s ability to report on these serious allegations. The victims, the media and the public’s right to know has been damaged by this case, more than any costs order can ever repay. This result today is vindication of both McLachlan's victims and our public interest journalism."
Applying the law as it stands, the Australian courts are no friends of public interest media reporting. Just over a week ago the NSW Supreme Court intervened before allegations had even been published, to force The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes to hand over draft copies of an investigation into the cosmetic surgery industry.
The reputation of the media industry has fallen in recent years, often through its own doing. Investigative journalism is the area where the media rebalances the ledger, exposing corruption, predators and injustices that would otherwise go uncorrected. Ironically, it’s also the place where media gets the least help from the system.
Too often, defamation law works for the rich. Not the victims.
This week, Mumbrella broke the news that there will soon be another player in the trade press space. Little Black Book Online is launching down under for what is at least the third, and possibly fourth time. Which isn’t bad going for a masthead that’s not been around for much more than a decade.
Launched out of London around 2010, LBB started life a repository of creative work from around the world.
Over the years, it entered the Australian market in a few different ways. In 2011, it was bought by AdStream, the company best known at the time for distributing creative advertising material to media outlets.
That lasted roughly three years until 2014 when AdStream decided to focus on the technology side of its business and offloaded LBB again.
Then in 2015, Campaign Brief picked up the local franchise of LBB Online.
The model by then was one of asking companies - mainly creative agencies and production companies - to take out LBB memberships in order to post their creative work, and press releases about their achievements, or - as LBB put it “facilitate better brand coverage, talent exposure and creative fame”. Never underestimate the size of creative egos.
It must have been a complicated relationship, as the model was a similar one to Campaign Brief’s sister publication Best Ads On TV, which also invites agencies and production companies to upload their work. (Admittedly, it’s been a while since the Best Ads On TV website has seen much of an update. It still offers as a selling point of registration the ability to “link your work to your MySpace page”. I kid you not.)
An incentive for companies to financially support LBB and Best Ads on TV was the increasing expectation that if they wanted to see their press releases featured on Campaign Brief, they’d need to be financial supporters. Pay to play, if you will.
In the end, LBB decided the arrangement wasn’t working, so has now ended the Campaign Brief alliance, appointing Toby Hemming, until recently communications chief at WPP Australia, as its APAC boss.
LBB will be launching a local newsletter and website. And there will be no “toxic comment sections”, Hemming said this week. Who on earth could he be talking about?
For those watching the creative agency space, it’s a crowded specialty market, what with Candide McDonald’s The Stable too.
That’s a lot of people writing about ads every week.
More widely, it’s becoming an atomised publishing landscape, more so than any other B2B sector I can think of.
Those in the PR world have got Social Diary, Telum and Source Bottle to turn to locally.
Marketers might look at CMO online or Marketing Mag.
In the media owner space, Media Week is the grand old lady with more than 30 years under its belt. Back when it was a weekly publication, Media Week’s core, subscribing audience was executives at media companies. Since that print model has fallen away, Media Week has tried to widen its focus to media agencies too, which creates a better advertising story, as there are more advertisers who want to talk to media agency staff than they do media companies.
Then there are the specialist TV publications like TV Tonight, TV Blackbox and Dan Barrett’s Always Be Watching newsletter. Just last month a local franchise of Variety joined the battle, covering the screen sector too
For those working in martech, I suspect there are very few people who are not already signed up to The Martech Weekly, written by Juan Mendoza in Melbourne.
And then you get the mastheads which straddle the entire communications industry.
The two with print roots are AdNews and B&T. AdNews celebrates its centenary in six years time. B&T has been around for more than 70 years.
And the more recent arrivals, covering the space less comprehensively but typically in more depth are Mi3, which launched in 2019 and Unmade which we launched about nine months ago.
There are a couple of factors that explain why our B2B niche is unlike any other. One is that there are more advertisers out there than in many other industries. Media and technology companies want to spruik their wares to the marketers and media agencies who might be reading.
It’s also an industry built on the validation that comes with winning awards - sometimes as a legitimate proof point in a pitch, and other times for creative ego. That’s often a part of the publishing business model.
Those with more than a passing interest in the local industry would also be obliged to stay on top of the Monday media and marketing sections of The Age / SMH, the Australian Financial Review and The Australian, plus Friday’s Weekly Beast in The Guardian. And while they’re doing their Monday homework, watch Media Watch on the ABC too.
It’s a lot to stay on top of. And that’s before we take into account international media and marketing publications. A CMO told me that he felt it was his job to be a bit like a doctor, staying on top of the latest journals. He reckoned it was a day per week of work.
And that’s all without taking into account the output of the international trade press, particularly those in the UK and US.
And yet, as the cost barriers of publishing have got lower, and the number of outlets has increased, the quantity and quality of original content has fallen.
One challenge for all of the above publishers is hanging on to journalists once they get even a couple of years of experience. Public relations tends to pay better than journalism. If you were to look at who was employed in the sector as journalists three years ago, more than half of them are now doing PR, mainly for agencies.
The same agency bosses who complain about the poor quality of the trade press these days, have often just poached somebody who was only just coming up to speed in writing about the sector. No wonder (with some honourable exceptions) there aren’t that many big stories out of the trade press at the moment.
Compared to even a decade ago, there are fewer writers with journalistic skills and experience working in the sector, and even fewer again who’ve been covering the beat long enough to be able to offer context and history.
So the business model has mostly devolved to one that preferences quick rewrites of agency and media owner press releases (usually crafted by the former journalists now working PRside). It explains the homogeneity of coverage across the trade press on a typical day.
Interestingly, I’m not sure this atomisation of the trade press is a global phenomenon - certainly not to the same extent. In the UK, Haymarket’s Campaign is still a big, authoritative voice (in part fuelled by gradually folding in sister publications like Media Week, PR Week and Marketing mag as they became commercially unviable). In the US, people still talk about AdAge with reverence. These publications may have been helped by the decision to go behind paywalls early, and to create enough high quality exclusive content that their professional audiences feel obliged to subscribe.
If I were to be an optimist, I hope that’s a route to more high quality trade publishing here. The market gets what the market pays for. Paywalls are a mechanism that only works for quality content, otherwise people don’t subscribe. If the market rewarded publications that created unique content, it would get more of it.
In the meantime, I welcome Toby and LBB to the fray. The public may complain about Australia’s concentrated mainstream media. There’s no such problem in the trade press.
Dr Spin: Scrum or scum?
Scrum. The word that Judith Nielson Institute was actually going for in this email was scrum.
Umade Index: Falling knives
It was a wild one on The Unmade Index this week.
On Thursday, the Unmade Index outpaced the ASX All Ords in the race downwards, falling nearly 3.1%. Then it dropped another 0.69% yesterday.
There were a couple of unwelcome milestones this week. Seven briefly fell below a $1bn market cap again, before edging back above it yesterday. HT&E, parent company of ARN, fell below half a billion dollars valuation. Southern Cross Austereo dropped below $400m before crawling back above it yesterday.
The only ASX-listed media and marketing company that had a great week was research company Pure Profile, up nearly 14% for the week including more than 6% yesterday.
Never mind the ballots
Time to let you go about your weekend. I’m off to vote as an Australian citizen for the first time. I’m in the marginal seat of Braddon, which makes it even more exciting.
If you value what you read - and you want to support independent industry analysis - please do sign up for the paid tier of Unmade. Your membership includes getting most posts at least an hour before anyone else, plus exclusive member-only content. You also get a hefty discount on our events.
Speaking of our events, a final reminder: Cost of living is going to be the marketing theme of the coming months. It’s the subject of Unmade’s first event, in Sydney next Tuesday evening at Forresters in Surry Hills.
Tickets are $69, or just $10 for Unmade’s paying subscribers. It’s a great panel. You can find out all the details here.
Given that it’s not a massive venue, I reckon we’ll have to close off ticket sales shortly. If you don’t get one over the weekend, you’ll probably be too late.
You have been warned!
In the unlikely event you’re in the mood to hear more from me, I was a guest on Marie El Daghl’s Commical podcast this week. We chatted about my time with Mumbrella and starting Unmade, and the marketing lessons I accidentally learned along the way.
I’ll be back on the Start the Week podcast with my colleague Damian Francis first thing on Monday.
Have a great weekend.