Fundamental defects of AFL's in-house media arm laid bare

Scott Heinrich
·5 min read

One of journalism’s guiding principles – to report on the story, not become part of it – has been given a thorough workout in the past week, during which AFL Media stood down one of its reporters, and then reinstated him, for what can only be described as doing his job. In the process, the AFL has attracted unwanted attention and exposed the inescapable flaws of a major organisation that reports on itself.

Mitch Cleary’s offence was to tweet a photo of Brooke Cotchin, wife of Richmond captain Trent, visiting a Gold Coast spa, an outing in violation of the AFL’s return-to-play protocols that drew a $20,000 fine. Last Friday, the AFL and its media arm had made the curious decision not to name individuals from four clubs in breach of the code’s Covid-19 restrictions. Cotchin, however, had posted the incriminating image to her Instagram followers and had days earlier been identified on Melbourne radio.

In standing Cleary down, the AFL stood firm on its position that he and others on the payroll at afl.com.au are employees first, journalists second. “The reasoning behind this decision was to protect the wellbeing of all individuals involved,” the AFL said of its move to withhold names. “Upon speaking to his editor and then realising his tweet was at odds with AFL Media’s editorial decision, Mitch immediately removed his tweet and has acknowledged it was a mistake on his behalf.”

Related: AFL dishes out fines for Covid-19 breaches but they represent no more than a slap on the wrist | Scott Heinrich

Cleary is now back in gainful employment but no matter which way his actions are viewed, it’s hard to find mistake. Not only was the cat out of the bag – thanks in no small part to Brooke Cotchin herself – but by now the matter was of genuine public interest. That the AFL thought otherwise casts a long shadow of doubt over its insistence that AFL Media is an independent body. Moreover, it is incongruous that the AFL’s move to hide the identity of the offenders should be paraded as an editorial decision, when few, if any, journalists were aware of it.

“I felt I was just adding a layer to the story,” Cleary said on the AFL Exchange podcast after being reinstated. “Clearly I wasn’t aware of the protection of the names that we had in place. I concede I should have been across that. Once I was made aware of that and asked to take the post down, I did so. The last thing I wanted to do was cause extra angst to the Cotchin family. I just felt at the time I was adding a layer to something that was already out there.”

In gagging Cleary and his colleagues, the nation’s biggest sporting organisation has shone a light on the inherent conflict of interest that comes with its owner-publisher business model. Try as it might to declare sovereignty – “I can honestly say our editorial approach is to judge something by its news value,” said then head of content, Matt Pinkney, in 2017 – the army of stakeholders that AFL Media is answerable to renders true independence unattainable. In the Cotchin case, news value was disregarded and Cleary compromised by an employer who supposedly pays him to report on matters of interest. Media Watch should have a field day with this one.

At a time when the AFL has been kicking goals with its response to the coronavirus pandemic, this error of judgment has attracted attention it could do without. The AFL is no stranger to criticism of its media arm, with accusations of selective or under-reporting of delicate issues a recurring theme. Now, however, the clarion calls for transparency are as loud as they’ve ever been.

“They have no problem telling us they’re independent when they’re shredding players, clubs and officials,” Collingwood president Eddie McGuire said. “This is going to have some ramifications down the track on what the AFL Media department is all about.”

Caroline Wilson, the Fairfax journalist who had identified Brooke Cotchin on radio prior to Cleary’s tweet, says Cleary has been curtailed to the point that he should look for employment elsewhere. “I don’t really know why he’s working for afl.com.au,” she said on the Nine network. “If I was him, I would think very seriously about where I work in future.”

The two issues at play in this episode – the AFL wanting to suppress the identity of offending parties, and its decision to stand Cleary down for not following team orders – are separate matters but not mutually exclusive. It is beyond the pale, almost ludicrous, that it should try to shield those in breach when the matter is already being widely consumed and, in Brooke Cotchin’s case, shared on social media. Naming does not always have to mean shaming; the Cotchins, and others who transgressed, made innocent mistakes and do not deserve the gallows, but nor do they deserve anonymity. As for Cleary, standing him down was overbearing to a fault. Given his time again he might have checked with his superiors or filed rather than posting developments on his personal Twitter account.

But what’s done is done. And the perfect storm of misjudgement and overreaction has once again laid bare the fundamental defects of in-house media departments. Worse still, this time the AFL brought much of the scorn upon itself. Cleary aside, nobody has emerged from these chains of events looking particularly flash.