Crikey! It's a stuff-up

Mark Day
April 27, 2010

As appeared in The Australian on July 13, 2000.

Stephen Mayne, co-proprietor and frontman of, describes himself as ``extremely tall and, many argue, extremely mad''. Ash Long, proprietor and compiler of the Media Flash, speaks of his own ``sometimes over-active larrikin gland''. In the past week the madman and the larrikin, who had been sharing their media e-mag turf, faced off in a bitter battle over a finger error.

It's been a fascinating skirmish, because it has involved old-fashioned journalistic principles entwined with new notions of internet etiquette, with consumers – readers – at the forefront, putting in their two bobs' worth.
In a nutshell, Long published, and was damned.

Until this week, these two unlikely lads and their very different publications have been walking in a mutually beneficial two-step. Media Flash has been incorporated into Crikey. From Long's point of view, the arrangement has extended his reach; from Mayne's perspective, Long's newsletter has added substance to his site.

Crikey has been off the boil in recent weeks. This is because Mayne has been hands off, touring the world's bright spots on what he describes as a two-month pre-nuptial honeymoon.

Mayne's absence has meant that Crikey's techo, partner Con (Gadget) Christov, has been in charge. Christov normally manages the site and sends out the weekly email to $30-a-year subscribers which contains pointers to the week's edition, and any ``sealed section'' items, which are made available to subscribers before they are published (free) on the website.

With Mayne away, Christov has been working doubly hard. ``I was tired and had a raging headache,'' he recalls of events early last week. ``I sat down to send out the emails – I'd like to go back to this moment and whisper in my ear `Change the recipient type to BBC', [but] I pasted in the subscriber list, pasted in the message body, and pressed send.'' Then he went to bed.

What Christov had done was send out the email to 278 subscribers with the normally hidden list of recipients available for all to see. The temptation was too great for some, and soon Crikey subscribers were receiving emails from others with something to sell – an online media sponsor, a self-publisher, and a weekly automotive newsletter publisher.

This is called spamming, and it is the biggest no-no in netiquette. It is electronic junk mail.

``The first I knew of my mistake was midday Tuesday,'' Christov wrote on the Crikey site. ``I checked my mail and there were quite a few irate messages, like `Are you out of your f..king mind.'
``Oh, shit! What have I done?'' he asked himself. He promptly despatched an email of apology.

But it got worse. Ash Long picked up on Christov's finger error and reported it in Media Flash. He wrote: ``There are just 278 names listed as Crikey subscribers. This low number could be regarded as disappointing given the $80,000 investment of business partners earlier this year.''

Then he added: ``Here are the types of people who receive Crikey,'' and published the complete list of addresses. Then the fur really began to fly. Solicitors letters zapped back and forth (``We reserve our rights'') and subscribers lambasted Long (``one day you might get to meet my Russian friend Kalashnikov''; ``You are a low scumbag''; ``I believe in an eye for an eye and one of my missions in life is to make yours a little bit less pleasant.'')

Long was copping heaps, and clearly figured disclosure was the best method of defence. This week he described Media Flash as ``a weekly e-newspaper about the successes, failures and foibles of Australian media people.

``Just sometimes, some of these media people become alarmingly sensitive when the microscope with which they examine others, is briefly shone across them,'' he wrote.

``It is appropriate to register on the public record that I have had my own good measure of business successes, failures and foibles. The successes of which I am proud include a career including ownership of my own award-winning newspaper group for 10 years, my own TV production company's programs, and some benchmark media work over more than 25 years.

``The failures that I profoundly regret and am sorry about include several collapsed businesses resulting in bankruptcy, returned cheques and unpaid debt; a good behaviour bond in the 1980s over dealings with a money lender; speeding tickets and late tax returns.''

Long defends his action in publishing Crikey's list by saying Crikey sets out to disclose (and judge) how other political and media organisations conduct themselves. ``Its editorial policy demands high standards; it should not be exempt from the same scrutiny,'' he told me in an email.

``When a principal of a media company reveals proprietary information, deliberately or carelessly, that is news in itself. What assurances of confidentiality do whistleblowers and anonymous contributors to Crikey have if the confidential subscriber list is so loosely handled?''

Long's argument about Crikey being measured by its own standards is fair, but he didn't have to publish the addresses to make that point. He argues that it is of interest to see who is reading Crikey – a point which, if valid, could have been made by identifying the users' names, not their addresses.

Long dismisses the spamming potential of his action as ``a side issue''. He says: ``I suspect the Crikey people are more angry at me for revealing the small subscriber numbers.''

But Christov, in his first apologetic message to Crikey subscribers, said only a ``partial'' list was revealed by his mistake. He has not responded to my request for the total number of subscribers.

The lessons of this saga seem to me to be: one, errors do happen, even in the best of regulated circles, but are mainly forgiven (this column was dropped in some editions a couple of weeks ago by a printing stuff-up!); two, spamming is an activity which drives some people virtually berserk, while others don't give a damn, and; three, editorial judgments are the bottom line of any publication.

Ash Long's editorial judgment was wrong. It was a cheap shot at what he saw as a subscriber list of 278 against his own 6000. The result has led to him being banished from Crikey with his reputation battered by his own admissions and the anger of his own as well as Crikey's readers.