Fall from grace: Why some mistakes end celebrities' careers when others don't

by Paul Thomas / 26 April, 2018

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In a world all a-twitter, small infractions attract hysterical reactions, and abject confession has become the only currency with which redemption can be bought. 

It takes a lot to embarrass an Australian, but the news emanating from the big island across the Tasman in the past weeks and months raises the question of how bad something has to be to qualify as a national disgrace. Consider a couple of options:

Bancroft took a piece of sandpaper onto the field with the aim of making the ball “reverse”, a technique pioneered in Pakistan that involves roughening one side and shining the other. The result is that the old ball will move off a straight line in its trajectory through the air – importantly, in the opposite direction to the way a new ball swings.

New Zealand-born actor Russell Crowe is all in for the former option. In November, he tweeted, “Manus. A nation’s shame. Lives held in limbo. Lives lived in fear and despair. It’s f---ing disgraceful.” On the other hand, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who could be said to have a skipper’s responsibility for government policies applied and enforced on his watch, reckoned the ball-tampering incident was “a shocking affront to Australia … a terrible disgrace”.

The events in Cape Town and their aftermath assumed the proportions of a phenomenon. Bitter condemnation was hurled at the trio from home and abroad. The punishments handed out by Cricket Australia and duplicated in other territories, notably India, were a radical departure from precedent, involving lengthy bans and millions in lost income. In Warner’s case, his public apology was widely scorned even though he said much the same as his partners in crime. It seems he made two fundamental mistakes: getting PR advice and being David Warner.

David Warner rejoins his family after returning from South Africa. Photo/Getty Images

David Warner rejoins his family after returning from South Africa. Photo/Getty Images

A matter of life and death

Why the extreme reaction? Why did a sporting indiscretion become inflated into a national disgrace? One explanation is that we take sport far more seriously than it warrants; we tell each other “it’s only a game” but behave as if it’s almost a matter of life and death.

Perhaps we get terribly exercised about sporting controversies precisely because they don’t matter; they are not part of the serious business we lump under the heading of “the real world”. It’s much easier than grappling with complicated issues that have serious and lasting consequences involving human suffering. Furthermore, there’s a quasi-proprietorial element in fans’ relationships with sports stars. Adulation comes with strings attached: the players represent us, so when they perform or behave badly, they let us down.

Another explanation is that it involved cheating and to cheat at sport is to drag an activity that offers a respite from the real world into the real world. What’s more, it was premeditated. Appearances – what the spin doctors call “optics” – are always a factor in these controversies; for many Australians, especially former wearers of the famous baggy green cap, the footage of Bancroft furtively attempting to slip the sandpaper down his underpants must have been hideously embarrassing.

But the notion that premeditated cheating is unacceptable presupposes, first, that sport has a black-and-white moral code and, second, that there’s a consensus on what does and doesn’t constitute cheating. Neither of those assumptions is true.

“It’s not cheating if you get away with it” is a common refrain, as is “It’s only cheating if the other lot do it.” Both sound so brazenly cynical that you might assume they were jokes, but the sentiment, if not the precise wording, can often be detected in coaches’ and players’ post-match comments and media coverage.

Richie McCaw is the most esteemed All Black of his generation, perhaps of all time. But in other parts of the world where rugby is played, he was regularly labelled a cheat by opponents and their coaches as well as journalists and broadcasters. Warner has accused the South African team of ball-tampering, and indeed they’ve been found guilty of it.

Carol Hirschfeld.

Carol Hirschfeld.

Extraordinary reaction

In essence, what we have here is an extraordinary reaction to behaviour that wasn’t extraordinary, either in the sense of being unprecedented or especially egregious.

Social media has a lot to answer for. It enables the person in the street to have a say on what’s making news – often by taking pot-shots at public figures from behind the protective anonymity provided by a nom de tweet.

And there’s a snowballing process: if the issue on which they’re having their say starts “trending”, more and more people “join the conversation” or “pile on”. The biblical injunction that only someone without sin may cast the first stone now seems as prissy and quaint as the cravat. Instead, the prevailing sentiment is more akin to “pity those without social-media savvy: they never get to cast a stone”. Like the press barons of old who liked to “kiss ’em one day and kick ’em the next”, the social media community exercises what Rudyard Kipling called “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

We’re in danger of becoming a society that overreacts when a simple reaction would suffice and measures the seriousness of an offence by the amount of media attention it attracts, even though the two aren’t necessarily correlated. When RNZ’s former head of content Carol Hirschfeld resigned, many outside the beltway may have wondered wondering what exactly she had done wrong. She repeatedly told her boss that a prearranged meeting with a minister was a chance encounter, which directly caused her CEO and board chair to mislead a parliamentary select committee – something that those inside the beltway take very seriously.

Similarly, it was his action in an employment context – again a position of trust – that led to former National MP Todd Barclay resigning from Parliament. Barclay left the country even though, two police investigations later, his “crimes” appear to have been rubbing some people up the wrong way and being too clever by half.

Social-media posts provide the traditional news media with an unfiltered, easily accessible sample of public opinion or, as it’s often characterised, “outrage”. And the thing with social media “outrage” is that a little can go a long way.

Matt Taylor. Photo/Getty Images

Fierce backlash

In 2015, Auckland gossip columnist Pebbles Hooper resigned from her position at the Herald on Sunday after her ill-advised tweet mocking the car-fume deaths of an Ashburton family as “natural selection” unleashed a fierce backlash against her.

A year earlier, New York-based PR executive Justine Sacco was sacked after tweeting a joke about Aids to her 170 followers. She’d posted the message just before getting on a long flight. By the time she landed, the hashtag #hasjustinelandedyet was trending worldwide on Twitter.

Then there’s the case of Matt Taylor, an astrophysicist working on the Rosetta Project, an attempt to land a probe on Comet 67P, a 4sq km chunk of icy rock hurtling through deep space. Viewers of a live stream from the European Space Agency in late 2014 couldn’t help but notice Taylor’s Hawaiian shirt, which appeared to have been inspired by a hard-boiled graphic novella: there were guns, explosions and scantily clad women. Some admired it; some were in two minds; some were appalled. A representative of the latter tendency called it an example of “the sort of casual misogyny that stops women entering certain scientific fields”.

The media decided the outrage threshold had been crossed. CNN reported that Taylor’s shirt had set off a “firestorm”. Feminists across the globe were said to be “up in arms”. Taylor sought expiation via the now almost mandatory tearful, self-recriminatory public apology: “I made a big mistake,” he said. “I offended many people.”

In the grand scheme of things Taylor made, at worst, a piffling mistake. As for the multitudes he offended, upon examination it appeared the “firestorm” of international outrage consisted of three tweets from three individuals.

The nauseating spectacle of the Australian cricket captain before the television cameras, mired in self-loathing, his tear-streaked face crumpled with anguish, should have reminded us that these public disgraces have become a theatre of cruelty in which too much isn’t enough. Context and perspective are conspicuous by their absence; when shabby behaviour in a cricket match is inflated into a national disgrace, it necessitates a corresponding intensification of shame and remorse.

Bill Clinton. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Clinton. Photo/Getty Images

Biting the hand

In 2014, actor Gary Oldman, who won the best actor Oscar this year for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, made a hash of contextualising the 2006 anti-Semitic outburst that made Mel Gibson a Hollywood pariah. “Gibson,” he said, “is in a town that’s run by Jews and he said the wrong thing because he’s bitten the hand that I guess had fed him.”

The apology was swift and far-reaching: Oldman said he was “deeply remorseful” and had “an enormous personal affinity” for the Jewish people “who are the first to hear God’s word and surely are the chosen people”. It wasn’t enough for Oldman to take back his words and say sorry; he virtually had to embrace Judaism.

For those who fall from grace, the long road to redemption begins with full and abject self-exposure: anything less invites another round of denunciation. Warner owned up and teared up; he apologised over and over; he accepted that he may never play for Australia again. But that wasn’t enough.

“Warner accepted full responsibility for his part in the plot,” sniffed the Sydney Morning Herald, “but his carefully scripted answers won little sympathy from the public.”

There’s an echo here of the reaction in February 2010, when Tiger Woods finally faced the media following the revelations of his compulsive and tawdry philandering. As was the case with Warner, Woods’s sincerity was doubted because he’d done some preparation. Operating from a presumption of morally impeccable omniscience, the Times golf writer wrote, “[Woods] failed to convince us of his sincerity because it all looked too contrived. Let him go away and do what he repeatedly said he wanted to do and then we will judge him.”

Tiger Woods. Photo/Getty Images

Like Warner, Woods was hammered for not submitting to media interrogation. Yet a body language expert consulted by the Daily Telegraph concluded Woods was “genuinely petrified … in a fragile, haunted state and would have been unable to answer any questions at all”.

Leaving aside the lack of compassion for young men whose worlds have collapsed around their ears, there’s an odd double standard at work here. No one in their right mind would expect a politician, captain of industry or show-business star facing disgrace and professional ruin to front the media without seeking advice from the damage-limitation industry. But as some pointed out at the time, in many respects Woods was held to a higher level of accountability over his adventures in the skin trade than President Bill Clinton.

Ah, yes, say the persecutors, but sports stars are role models. As then Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne said of Woods: “It’s not simply the degree of his conduct that’s so egregious here. It’s the fact that he disappointed all of us and, more importantly, our kids and grandkids.”

It’s difficult to understand why someone whose talent lies in making an inordinate amount of money by hitting a ball should be more obliged to be a paragon of virtue and upholder of family values than a head of state as Clinton was, Donald Trump is and Prince Charles will be when he succeeds to the throne and assumes the titles of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

Children worship sports stars as heroes because of their athletic prowess; why should that confer on them an obligation to set a moral example? Kids also idolise pop stars and movie stars, but with the exception of Miley Cyrus – who consternated millions of mothers of young daughters by transitioning from all-American teen princess to weed-smoking exhibitionist – badly behaved entertainers aren’t pilloried.

Barnaby Joyce. Photo/Getty Images

Barnaby Joyce. Photo/Getty Images

Easy targets

Sports stars make easy targets. We half-expect the stars of show business to lead messy, if not slightly disgraceful, lives. It makes them unconventional and “edgy”, which, if you’re a performer, is deemed to be a good thing.

Politics is, to some extent, a self-policing activity in which electoral calculations are always at play. With regard to both Clinton and Trump, it was argued that, if the American people cared about their scandalous behaviour, they wouldn’t have voted for them. According to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the 2016 election result “answered” the multiple allegations of groping and unwanted sexual advances levelled at Trump: “The American people knew this and voted for the President.”

It’s instructive that when it emerged Australian Deputy Prime Minister and New Zealand citizenship renouncer Barnaby Joyce was expecting a child with a former staffer, Turnbull ordered the parliamentary code of conduct to be reworded to forbid sexual relationships between ministers and members of their staff. You wouldn’t have thought the people who supposedly run the country needed that in writing. (Joyce subsequently resigned his ministerial and leadership roles.)

The tendency to amplify lapses of judgment, personal shortcomings and shabby behaviour into disgraces that demand media show trials is likely to become more marked as social media expands and society becomes ever more judgmental, unforgiving and prone to schadenfreude whenever a tall poppy falls from grace.

The humiliations will often be out of proportion to the offence, sometimes absurdly so, because as the English novelist and columnist Howard Jacobson observed, “Society is never to be so distrusted as when it’s in a fit of agreeing with itself.” And as American novelist Don DeLillo predicted in his 1991 novel Mao II, “the future belongs to crowds”. 

This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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