The apology, printed over three small columns buried on page 7 comes a day after the Brisbane tabloid ran a racy page 1 image of murdered Indonesian woman Mayang Prasetyo. Prasetyo was posing provocatively in a bikini next to the screaming headline “Monster CHEF and the SHE MALE”. It was an appalling headline that should never have seen the light of day and passed through many gatekeepers before publication. It was a headline that said more about newspaper management than about the murder victim.
The headline and the picture had one purpose: to sell newspapers. Recent Audit Bureau of Circulation data have shown a modest recent increase in Courier-Mail sales, which the paper trumpeted. The longer-term picture is of consistent decline, shown up in the Year on Year figures from 2012 to 2013 which shows the paper down 10% from 185,000 papers a day to 162,000. These figures are similar to newspapers across the country. News suits in Brisbane and elsewhere are panicking and think they have to go downmarket to gain readership. Yesterday, the paper hit rock bottom managing simultaneously to offend women, Asians, gays, blacks, domestic violence victims, and possibly chefs, in its extraordinary heat seeking missile headline.
Tabloids have been offending minority groups forever, with the “other” always fair game for headline writers. People were always offended and some may have written to the paper to express their outrage. A handful of letters might even have been published in the name of faux-balance. But the papers felt they could get away with anything, because no one could stop them. These days the rules have changed. The digital disruption playing havoc with News Corp’s business model is also offering effective ways of expressing disapproval. The headline went viral for all the wrong reasons and social media and activist websites are fanning the flames calling for apologies. Realising finally they might have gone too far, the Courier-Mail thought they could douse things down with today’s apology and indeed there are some good things in it.
The apology’s first sentence should have been yesterday’s Page 1 lead’s first sentence. It read “Mayang Prasetyo was the innocent victim of a horrendous crime, killed by the man she should have been able to trust”. The sentence went to the core of the issue yesterday’s headline ignored: there is a domestic violence crisis in Australia of men attacking and often killing their partners. The apology said Mayang would be remembered for her cheerfulness and her love of family “as we reported yesterday” (hidden behind the hideous headline). It went on, “Many believe” (but presumably not Courier-Mail management) “we presented Mayang’s story in a way that was disrespectful to her memory. It concluded they “no intention of diminishing the value of Mayang’s life, or to add to the grief being felt by her family”.
Can they seriously believe “Monster chef and the she male” is a respectful headline? Didn’t anyone at the paper think their other headline “the butcher and the ladyboy” might diminish her life? Was anyone arguing these headlines would add to her family’s grief? The apology shows the Courier-Mail has learned nothing. The sooner it and its stablemate of toilet papers disappear, the better it will be for the health of our society.