Some Words on Character Assassination

A man falls from an office building

*****NOTE: this article went up on 24th November 2020, but due to matters outside my immediate control, had to be taken down. Thankfully those matters have now come to a conclusion, and I’m able to offer this post to you in full and unredacted.*****

A lot has been written about News Corporation’s character assassination campaigns. They can provide a potent disincentive for people to enter public life and express views that differ from the papers’ positions. Names like Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Ros Ward are synonymous with the huge consequences News Corporation exacts on people expressing certain views in public. 

For over two years I’ve mulled over how I’d talk about the time this happened to me. I’ve contemplated discussing the rubbery, weaponised morality these campaigns use, and how the targets are held to a disingenuous interpretation of their own standards. I’ve wanted to explore how these articles’ analysis rarely goes deeper than accusing the targets of hypocrisy and moral inconsistency, how they rarely have a higher mission than simply humiliating people and using them as a vehicle to demolish and demonise left wing viewpoints. But maybe all that can come later. After 24 months of agonising over how I would respond, I’ve decided the first thing I should do is simply explain what happened, and how it affected me.

In November 2018, I was working as an advisor to Victorian Greens MP Lidia Thorpe in the leadup to the State Election. I received a message from a friend, who told me an ALP campaigner had approached him in the early voting queue and said “that Paul guy who works for Lidia is going to have a bad week”. In reality, I was about to have several bad years.

Either he, some other campaigners, or someone else entirely — I still can’t bring myself to really delve into this — had searched my Twitter account to find posts that could be compiled and shopped around to journalists — what some have called a ‘shit sheet’. The tweets they found were a mix of things. Some were ironic jokes which, presented out of context, could be made to look like they were expressing the opposite of their intention. Others were serious posts made in the context of, for example, a discussion on ABC’s Q&A about pornography and sexuality in society, which again, presented out of context and scattered in among the other material, helped create a profoundly untrue and defamatory picture of what I believe and who I am as a person.

In one example, people were reacting to an appalling article which tried to minimise child exploitation material and depict its consumers as innocent victims. In response to screen shots of the article, I posted a parody to demonstrate how sick and plainly wrong the article’s premise was. Here is my contribution in full context:

That last post, stripped of that context and placed in isolation, looked very bad indeed.

They found a post I made using the hashtag #TweetLikeHelen, where hard-left writer and journalist Helen Razer had asked people to parody her posting style. My attempt simply fused together some of her catchphrases of the time, in her typically vulgar and irreverent style. Despite being empirically a pretty bad tweet, it earned the coveted Helen Razer retweet, but without knowing any of that context, it just looks appalling.


Armed with the ‘shit sheet’, the campaigner made failed attempts to arouse the interest of ABC and The Age, and eventually found a receptive audience at the Murdoch tabloid the Herald Sun. The resulting article quoted the child abuse and #TweetLikeHelen posts, and described posts that discussed pornography and sexuality. It characterised me as a misogynistic, sex-obsessed deviant with shameful attitudes towards child abuse, by way of making a broader attack on the Greens party for a culture that allows such a person to advise one of their MPs. At a time when a number of stories were coming out about the party’s mishandling of sexual assault and harassment claims, it was an easy case to make.

It’s perhaps notable that whoever compiled the ‘shit sheet’ skipped over a dozen or more of my tweets that were highly critical of the party’s handling of these issues. Perhaps a fulsome discussion about the problems in the Greens wasn’t what they had in mind.

The story ran on the Herald Sun’s front page on November 19th, 2018. After learning it would be featured on the front page, my employer sought my resignation and banned me from talking to journalists or responding in any way to the story. I quickly spiralled into sheer panic. A deep, suicidal depression soon followed, and after concluding I was a credible risk of self-harm (a conclusion I knew to trust from bitter personal experience), I checked myself into hospital. It was bad enough that I was being presented as some kind of grotesque monster on the front page of the largest-circulating newspaper in the country, but to know that I had lost the support of the political movement I’d dedicated myself to, as well as the MP I worked for — a person I admired more than anyone — was too much to bear.

During this period and in the two years since, I got no support of any kind from the Victorian Greens. With few exceptions, the people in the party who I’d come to see as close friends disappeared completely. In the few online discussions among Greens campaigners that I could bear to read at the time, some came to my defense while others were disappointed and angry, seemingly having decided that the Herald Sun was a more credible source on my character than their own experience. To be fair, with the way the posts were presented, it would have been an easy conclusion to draw. Reading these discussions while being afforded no opportunity to respond, explain or contextualise, was an experience of profound helplessness and despair.

In the months that followed, I avoided going out in public, and if I saw someone I knew out and about, I would try to escape or hide — especially if knew them through politics. I had no way of knowing what conclusion people had drawn about me, and I felt like anything I said in my own defence would only dig myself in even deeper.

If you find yourself in a position where you have to explain that you don’t support child pornography, you’re already fighting a losing battle.

On a number of occasions, the experience of being in public and seeing someone from the party would prompt panic attacks. It was absurd to find myself fleeing down an aisle of Northcote Plaza Coles, unable to function or think properly, my heart running in overdrive, feeling like my brain was at war with itself; all because I was afraid I’d been spotted by a kind and quiet lady I’d been on campaigns with.

Not long afterwards, I moved out of the area, but today, my habit of avoiding people in public has become an unavoidable part of my life. My friendship networks have shrunk to nothing because I’ve allowed most of my friendships to die by neglect. I am simply too afraid to face any kind of conversation about what happened, and the questions someone might ask. I’m too afraid of the idea that none of this can be explained away, that someone’s question or response will end up haunting me. Two years later, thinking about this still pushes me towards suicidal ideation, even after years of medication and intensive, regular psychotherapy. This is perhaps why it’s taken me so long to tell my story.

I’ve been unable to secure any work in my field since this event. Part of this is about the disastrous reputational damage the article caused, but too often, anxiety about placing myself up for scrutiny by a prospective employer, knowing what they’ll find if they google my name, has stopped me from even applying. I’ve been lucky to find relatively stable but low-paying labouring work, and have gratefully had the support of my partner. Without these things I’m unlikely to have made it this far.

The only place where people truly understand what happened to me is on Twitter. Most Twitter users see exactly how dishonest these attacks were, and recognise this ordeal could happen to any number of people who engage with politics on Twitter, especially if they use memes, irony, jokes and referential language to talk about and understand the world. It’s perhaps no surprise that I have become even more excruciatingly online over this time.

A few weeks ago I guested on Floodcast, a podcast co-hosted by a young Greens volunteer who was targeted by similar tactics in the recent Queensland state election. It seems in Victoria, the ALP saw how devastating it could be to target the Greens by sending strategically dishonest interpretations of campaigners and staffers’ private social media posts to the Murdoch press, and decided to adopt the tactic nationwide. Thankfully in this instance it didn’t work, and the Labor member lost her seat to Greens candidate Amy McMahon. 

I was encouraged to see Amy come out in full support of the campaigner who’d been targeted. She even mentioned me in her Facebook post about the event. “Scouring social media to misrepresent tweets to generate some fake moral outrage is condemning an entire generation who grew up with social media,” she wrote. “I got into politics to fight alongside and on behalf of ordinary people – not throw them under the bus when the rich and powerful come after them for having the audacity to get involved in politics.

After reliving my own ordeal as someone else was targeted with the same tactics that had laid me to waste, Amy’s Facebook post reduced me to great big sobbing tears of gratitude. I hope in future it provides a model for how the party responds to this sort of nonsense. 

19 thoughts on “Some Words on Character Assassination”

  1. I’ve known you for far too long to allow these modern social media techo-attacks to dent any of the philosophical, cultural and hilarious exchanges we’ve shared over the years. I know where your heart is, and there are dozens of us still rooting for you, pal. Keep fighting the good fight.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am so sorry that these deeply traumatizing events happened to you.
      I don’t know you at all but the scenario is familiar on a much lesser scale.
      Glad you are receiving support from those who care about you. That support will help heal you as will beginning
      to believe in yourself again and doing positive things like writing or working with others.
      The world can be a grimy place but you are not a dishonourable or grimy person.
      Thank you for writing about your experience. It does help others.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so glad you wrote this. I cried for you. For me. For Jo. For all of us. But mostly for you. You write so beautifully. Your tale is so poignant. Your story could easily have been mine. I am so glad you have found your voice. Please. Keep writing. Don’t let anyone rob you again. Either we all matter. Or no one does. X Kitty

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Paul, it’s amazing to read the horrifying account of what was done to you for nothing. I just don’t understand how people make the decision to do this and not anticipate how it will destroy more than just a candidate’s bid for election. I am so sorry for the ongoing, chronic issues it has created for you and the people who love and care for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very brave article and very humane. I’m continually baffled how many (usually) sensible people can fall for dreadful tabloid manipulations. It’s extraordinary that evidence given in the Leveson Inquiry into the Murdoch media’s hacking scandal clearly explained how they set out to destroy their chosen targets, is just ignored in Australia. I reckon the long run you will emerge from this a stronger person and will succeed.

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  5. Fuuuuuuuuck. I’m so glad you’ve been able to write this. Most of us watching what was done to you were not only disgusted by Labor, but also disappointed by the Greens’ response. It was so good to see Amy stand up against this shit in QLD. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been to write this, but I am so thankful you did.
    You still have friends and comrades in this space. Stay strong ✊

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I watched from afar in horror at the lack of support you found when under attack from the disinfo network. I took great comfort when Amy beat back a similar attempt recently in queensland; and I took names of those federal labor politicians prepared to pump up the lies. I’m glad you’ve made it thru; grateful for your supportive partner.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m not sure if you’ll publish this, but first of all I want to say that what happened to you was disgusting smear tactics which has infected our political discourse and campaigning for the entirety of my adult life. I think it’s shit and it makes me feel worse when I contemplate the reality that the parties I vote for should engage in it just to win back Federal Government.

    Obviously the Murdoch empire is evil and obviously what was done to you was evil. But even as a leftist, communist, married to a WOC and some-time public person, I still just… can’t fathom why you thought it was okay to leave all of those tweets up after going into politics. I’ve wiped my Twitter more than once, and I’m just someone vaguely in the public eye as an entertainer.

    I have 100% empathy for what you suffered, having been there mentally more than once. But it just seems insane to me to leave yourself vulnerable like that. And I’ll be honest, the entire episode made me dislike the Greens and go back to voting for Labor.

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      1. I hope you get things 100% back on track for you mentally and in terms of your career goals – you’ve survived arguably the worst you could survive and you’re still here mate. Congratulations on winning the battle so far.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. This comment is so typical of ALP activists and politicians and the entire party. They know what the right thing is, but they do not do it. Go back to your hard and visionary work of branch stacking John Fakename.

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      1. @Nick I’m not politically active or affiliated and tend to follow US politics more than Australian but ok. i would say i belong to the large % of politically disaffected Australian leftists.

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      2. Hi John, if that is the case, and being concerned about what happened to Paul, why did you take a reflexively anti-Green conclusion out of this incident? It was just another right wing attack on a leftie working for a better world, and you line up with the attackers? What is going on?

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  8. Great write-up Paul. It’s so disappointing the way you were left hung out to dry, and hopefully there will be internal changes that ensure that staffers and volunteers have the support of the organisations they advocate for.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The ALP hitting down on the Greens is pathetic. They don’t have the guts to stand up to Murdoch, or to accept the Greens as fellow travellers. They are like the schoolboy who is bullied, and, rather than deal with those who bullied him, takes out his frustrations by in turn bullying those lower down in the pecking order.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. all power to you and yours.

    I feel your pain, even if only 1% at worst. I suffer from panic attacks, and moreso recently with unemployment due to covid. they are truly shit, and I hope you can, in your own way as one must, find a way to deal with them. I also lost a job, working at a bottle-o at the (very) local shopping centre in rather embarrassing circumstances and was also terrified of meeting any of my former colleagues. fortunately that was not a traumatic experience in the way yours was and so it didn’t last as long but it took time and I hated every moment of it.

    I also, now that I think of it, had my 15min of fame as a greens vollie in ‘trouble’ in the public eye. I was a greens vollie during the 2016 federal election snapped holding some Labor HTVs (whilst their vollie was on break). the daily tele was of course all too happy to push the narrative that I was symbolic of the ALP-Greens alliance that the electorate was apparently so petrified of. fortunately it didn’t catch on, and Lee Rhiannon, a few days later when she was canvassing with a group of us laughed it off and reassured me. and so, blessedly, I was unaffected except for lots of jibes from all my mates.

    and if I can say anything about the panic attacks, it’s what I’ve come to realise, that unlike other forms of mental issues (like depression), it truly is all in your head. if you can accept that, and that therefore the power is within you to somehow (!!! ikr!) discipline your thoughts and not fear the fear, then that is the first step on a long journey out and away from them. I highly recommend a book (lots of cartoons!) call Living With It by Bev Aisbett.

    good luck and once again, all power to you and yours.

    Shaun

    Like

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