Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:32 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:32 | SYDNEY

Fifteen megabytes of fame


Nick Bryant


19 October 2012 11:44

Is there a diplomatic dividend to reap from going viral? Or, put another way, will 15 minutes of parliamentary invective deliver more than 15 minutes of global fame for Julia Gillard?

From Britain's The Telegraph to Andrew Sullivan's hotly read blog, The Daily Dish; from The New Yorker to Stephen Fry's Twitter feed, the acclaim has been near universal. Writing in the left-leaning Salon, Natasha Lennard noted: 'If only the US could borrow Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to take on Congress' misogynist caucus.' Writing in the right-leaning Spectator, Alex Massie observed: 'Abbott does not look best amused. But then he's just been carved to pieces.' The American feminist website Jezebel, came up with the most vivid description, calling the Prime Minister a 'badass motherf----r'.

Journalists, at a time when their own worth is ever more judged by how many page views they can muster, tend to warm to an internet sensation. The ricochet effect of social media has made the Gillard speech resonate even further. Certainly, she has achieved a global star power that she didn't enjoy previously.

There is a certain irony that a speech in Parliament House in Canberra has had more of a global impact than her address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. But it hammers home an important truth of diplomacy in the digital age: the internet means that any venue is potentially a global stage.

On the public diplomacy front, the effect has been pretty much instantaneous. Certainly, it has lent an unexpected frisson to her trip to India, a country where celebrity is of especially high currency. Were it not for the speech, I very much doubt whether the influential Indian newspaper The Hindu would have allotted so much space on its editorial page for her visit. As it was, Ratna Kapur greeted her arrival with a five star review: 'Gillard's speech has been hailed as a pivotal moment not only in Australian politics, but also globally,' she wrote, 'as it is rare for a woman leader to make such a forthright speech on sexism in public life.'

My sense is that the guest bookers on British and American television would have taken notice, as well. Let us hope the Prime Minister's office, which has tended to neglect the growing corps of Australia-based international media, returns their calls.

So far, as I wrote last month, Julia Gillard has been more of a Billy McMahon than a Kevin Rudd in terms of her diplomatic impact. By her own admission, domestic affairs have been the priority, a narrow view shared by Tony Abbott. But the Canberra speech has greatly amplified her global voice.

Nor has its grubby context, a motion touching on Peter Slipper's horrid text messages, undercut its appeal abroad. As if to prove the point, a Guardian editorial in praise of the Gillard speech originally got the background story badly wrong and suggested the former Speaker had sent offensive texts to a female staffer.

For Tony Abbott, a possible future prime minister, there is obviously a downside. The speech gives him a certain international infamy. The 15-minute YouTube clip, rounding 2 million views and counting, renders him virtually speechless. His opponent has defined him, wholly negatively – neanderthally even. Here, perhaps, there is succour to draw from the first time Kevin Rudd generated a swathe of global headlines, following revelations about his drunken night at a New York strip club (his famed ear wax video also gained over 800,000 YouTube hits).

Internet fame can be startlingly short-lived. Twitter moves on at a hurtling pace. Fifteen megabytes of fame are even more fleeting than 15 minutes. For the Prime Minister, the challenge in global terms is to turn this into something more significant than a Julia Gillard moment. 

Photo of Julia Gillard at Ozfest in India by Auspic via Flickr user Julia Gillard.