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Pushing the boundaries of political correctness

By Nina Funnell - posted Wednesday, 12 May 2010

There is nothing quite so flattering as receiving hate mail. Over the years I’ve had my fair share of it. While many writers detest hate mail, I deal with it by trying to revel in the knowledge that people actually read my work and that I am able to hit a cultural nerve and motivate people to get up, take action, and write to me.

But there are certain types of hate mail I don't enjoy receiving. There is nothing funny about receiving death threats. Indeed I take them very seriously. But these threats have been few and far between and most other forms of hate mail tend to excite the ridiculous in me. After all, while constructive criticism is always welcome (and encouraged), empty venomous attacks do not - and should not - warrant much attention.

As a young journalist, I was once advised by a media veteran to respond to banal hate mail with the following; “As you can imagine Nina Funnell is very busy and cannot respond to all her fan mail personally. She thanks you for your kind comments and hopes you continue to enjoy her columns.” When the aggrieved reader inevitably responds with an even angrier email, I was advised to once again write back “As you can imagine Nina Funnell is very busy and cannot respond to all her fan mail personally …”


Apparently this arrogant bounce-back method works quite well though I confess I have never had the gumption or audacity to try it. My own approach (also effective) is to keep my email address as private as possible. (Though this does not always work and when the odd cunning critic does manage to trace me down I try to respond to harsh vitriol with kindness and reason. Aside from wanting to defuse the tension, this approach also tends to embarrass the hate-mailer into a back-peddling apology- though not always.)

A number of years ago I made a chronic error of judgment which invited dozens of pieces of hate mail. I had implied in an article that Bindi Irwin was destined for a stint in rehab. (The article was about the horrific exploitation and sad fate of child stars such as Britney Spears and Michael Jackson.)

I learnt my lesson quickly: when it comes to media criticism, Bindi Irwin and other children are off limits. In the last year many others have also learnt this same lesson; first the Chaser team came under fire for making fun of kids with cancer, then Kyle Sandilands was suspended for interrogating a 14-year-old girl about her sex life while hooked up to a lie detector, and more recently Catherine Deveny was fired for tweeting “I do so hope Bindi Irwin get’s laid” at the Logies.

The response to these events demonstrated that when it comes to children, the public will not tolerate the exploitation or ridicule of minors. At least not in theory.

The reality is that once a child turns 16 they often become “fair game” and the media and the public will happily tear strips off them without remorse or concern. Hello Corey Worthington. G’day Nikki Webster.

Looking back, I regret having ever written something malicious - however tongue in cheek - about a minor. But I also feel that child welfare is not the only issue at stake here.


For editors and producers it is very difficult to know how to deal with a journalist or comedian who crosses “the line”.

On the one hand there is a need to set and uphold standards of decency and propriety. But balanced against this is an awareness that writers and comedians have a responsibility to push against boundaries and to challenge political correctness. Indeed, this is often when they do their very best work.

Of course, while some writers and comedians will deliberately try to cross certain lines for shock or publicity value, there are also times when the line itself is not apparent and does not make itself visible until after it is crossed.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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