AFL

The outburst by Luke Beveridge illustrates the problem when a coach’s duty of care to his players comes up against the media’s pursuit of information in the ‘public interest’. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Beveridge v Morris in the court of public opinion

Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge during the round one game.
Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge during the round one game.
Credit: Dylan Burns / AFL Photos via Getty Images

After losing the opening match of the 2022 AFL season last month, Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge sat down for the thing he hates most about his job: the press conference. It got messy quick. After listening to a question from Fox Footy reporter Tom Morris, who had earlier accurately reported upon a leaked team selection detail, Beveridge paused momentarily before unleashing.

“You’ve got the nerve to ask me a question, and even be here?” he said. “You barrack for Melbourne, you’ve been preying on us. You’ve been opening us up, causing turmoil within our football club by declaring our team well before it needs to be declared. Is that the way Fox want you to operate? Is that the gutter journalist you want to be?”

Beveridge went on: “Your gutter journalism at the moment is killing us behind the scenes … This is why the health and wellbeing of people in the game is caught up in this … You’re an embarrassment.”

Beveridge was immediately and uniformly condemned by the media, who saw an “abnormal” act of intimidation and one that seemed to have derived, weirdly, from the relatively inconsequential reporting of Lachie Hunter’s omission. The AFL fined Beveridge and the next day a filmed apology from the coach was released by the club.

But only hours after Tom Morris had been congratulated by peers for holding his ground against Beveridge, two audio clips Morris had shared within a private WhatsApp group were leaked. On one leery and juvenile tape, Morris can be heard crudely objectifying a female colleague’s sexuality. The appalled colleague later publicly referred to his comments as “degrading”. Fox sacked Morris.   

It was a dramatic development, but let’s return to the media responses to Beveridge. “What we saw last night is a man unravelling,” veteran footy reporter Caroline Wilson said on 3AW radio. “I’m quite serious about this. Who invokes the mental health and wellbeing card over a selection story? I have never seen anything so disgraceful in all my years of covering football. It is a man who is clearly not coping.”

First, there’s the minor quibble of Wilson’s hyperbole here: she cannot literally mean Beveridge’s press conference was more disgraceful than, say, Wayne Carey’s domestic violence, the Essendon supplements scandal, the AFL’s mishandling of Adam Goodes’ public persecution, the long and odious influence of agent Ricky Nixon, the squalid and self-destructive culture of the mid-noughties West Coast Eagles, the revelations of an indulgent and chauvinistic administrative culture et cetera.

But, more substantially, it must have been an intolerable irony to Beveridge that his ham-fisted appeal to reporters to consider the mental health of players could only be understood or interpreted in the context of Beveridge’s own alleged “unravelling”. Here was a man – confusingly and intemperately, yes – damning the media for its prurient interests and its effects upon his players’ health being called mentally unstable for doing so. And Wilson was far from alone in this.

Little has been said about the many speculations about Beveridge’s mental health, not least because the man himself has been chastened and does not wish to push the story. But at first blush, the media questioning appears to be borderline defamatory. At the very least, it’s unimaginative.

Beveridge did not help himself or his club by using as the ostensible source of his anger Tom Morris’s accurate – and trivial – report on the late omission of a player. If this was truly the only source of Beveridge’s contempt, then of course his outburst would have been bizarrely disproportionate.

But it wasn’t the only source. During the recent off-season, Beveridge – an intensely loyal and protective coach – was incensed by the many careless inquiries made into the private life of star player Bailey Smith. Once again, Beveridge saw the media’s feral competitiveness for dubious scoops, and its effect upon his players’ health, and he fumed about how often this instinct ignored proportionality, fairness or potential harm. In Tom Morris, I suspect Beveridge saw a smug epitome of this ruthlessness – and a man whose job was essentially parasitic.

Beveridge might reflect upon how to better articulate his concerns, and his suggestion that Morris was motivated by his support for the Melbourne Demons seemed silly. But it was also silly to offer Morris, even before the leaked tapes, as some exemplar of an indispensable profession. Morris was a shallow and self-regarding scavenger of bins – more an ibis with private schoolboy connections than Bob Woodward. He was – like many footy reporters – a simple gossipmonger, more enthralled by their status than the game.

On a scale of one to 10 of social value, where one is a serial arsonist and 10 is a paediatric nurse, Morris’s job would score about a two. And yet the gulf between this modest value and the immodest egos who practise it is hilariously massive. You’ll find more thoughtfulness and humility among paediatric nurses.

When criticised, journalists reflexively use abstractions to defend themselves. We use lofty words such as “accountability”, “democracy”, “discourse” and “public interest” regardless of how appropriately they can be applied to the actual thing being criticised. Richard Nixon once said that when a president does it, “that means it’s not illegal”, and I often smell the same desperate appeals to exceptionalism from journalists. And maybe some believe it – that because they’re a journalist, they can do and write whatever and believe that it’s all valuable by definition. The self-regard of a Tom Morris is both too great and too fragile to broker self-reflection – why act or think in a way that might puncture your sense of exceptionalism?

What Luke Beveridge might have asked reporters, were his articulateness not choked by anger, is what they considered their duty of care to players to be. What scrutiny is acceptable? What are scrutiny’s basic thresholds, and when does reporting become vulgar and destructive gossip? How do you define “public interest” if not by mere online traffic? And if you have a loftier definition of “public interest”, when might it be subservient to the potential harm to an individual? Can I trust that each of you think about these things? Can I trust that each of you are genuinely serious about the mental health of players? How pure are your motivations, really?

But as I write this, the seagulls have already moved on to the next pile of hot chips: rapid-fire speculations on the mental health of Richmond player Dustin Martin, who’s currently grieving over the loss of his father.

The AFL’s 2021 yearly report declares that about 2000 people were given media accreditation to work at “match-day venues”. The federal press gallery has 250 accredited members. Even allowing for the greater technical demands of broadcasting sport versus politics, we’re still left with a considerable discrepancy. It’s an enormous number and it’s never been greater. But what has this investment yielded? Very little. Gossip and shallow takes still prevail: X club is up, and Y down; A player is injured, but B is exceeding expectations. While the numbers of accredited media have increased, the length of stories seems to have decreased, and there’s been no commensurate increase in insight.

There are exceptions: ABC sports writer Russell Jackson won a Walkley for feature writing in 2020 and this year the Melbourne Press Club’s highest honour, the Golden Quill, was awarded to Michael Warner for his reporting on the Collingwood Football Club. But I’d suggest the most significant outcome of this vast swelling of media accreditation is a large and decadent class fattening itself upon the honeyed teat of the AFL.

It was, at least, acknowledgement for Warner, whose damning book The Boys’ Club from last year – our only sophisticated, book-length examination of AFL House for decades – was largely ignored in the media. Given its importance, and the fact Warner is one of the few sports reporters with an ability to examine financial and administrative cultures, the silence was conspicuous.

There are times when the private behaviour of players meets, I think, a threshold of public interest. The dangerous dysfunction of the Eagles back in the noughties is one, I’d argue. But the definition of “public interest” is not easy or automatic, unless you’re solely guided by clicks. And then, if you’ve chosen a potential story to follow, the specific treatment of it matters too.

So, the question for me is not whether scrutiny of footy clubs is appropriate. It obviously is. The question is how many reporters seriously contemplate what scrutiny means, or should mean. Beveridge made a mess of that press conference, and I can sympathise with those who first saw a weird and intimidatory tantrum. I was one of them. But buried in his outburst were genuine grievances and, I suspect, more integrity than can be found in the subjects of it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Mixed messages".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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