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October 30, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

A ‘Bali: why bother?’ media retrospective

Ubud, Bali, a place that really does look completely and utterly horrible to visit. Just...ugh!

From what I’ve heard recently, you’re a tacky bitch if you’re Australian and you complain. I always thought complaining was a national sport and a source of intense pride, but Australians got quite up in arms recently over Carolyn Webb’s click-bait article on The Age entitled ‘Bali: why bother?’ on October 25. In the article, Webb waxes lyrical about the more poetic elements of travel in an underdeveloped country; being harassed by locals trying to sell you things, being accidentally made to feel like a prostitute, and having to deal with ‘tacky souvenir shops’. Ick. Hand sanitiser, stat!

Bali seemed like a bit of a bother for Webb, but her views on the topic made commenting Australians mighty hot under the collar. By the time the comments section on the article’s web page had closed, the little comment counter at the top of the article no longer had enough digits to tell us how many people had put their two cents in on the topic – 1001.

Mere hours later The Age threw another topic-feeding bone to the masses, this time on the softer side of the argument. Richard Woolveridge responded to Webb’s article with the slightly insane ‘Being taken for a ride in Bali isn’t always such a bad thing’. It followed a similar path of Bali-inspired lunacy by trying to argue that being conned out of $50 in Bali was a memorable affair. While Woolveridge admitted that he and his travelling partner had been ‘taken for a ride – but not unpleasantly’ in Bali, he apparently didn’t seem to notice the irony in what he told reader—that on other occasions, when people agree to go off the beaten track in a foreign country with a total stranger, it’s not always just $50 they end up losing. Woolveridge’s article romanticised a stupid tourist decision, further highlighting the fact that in the hurry to feed the Twitter chatter on Webb’s article, The Age seemed to have forgotten what a sensible article actually looked like.

On the same day, The Age then published Tim Elliott’s ‘It’s Bali, not Paris’, in a clear post-orgasmic fit of link-bait excitement. Elliot seems only too happy to give Webb the comeuppance 1001 comments were searching for:

Perhaps understandably, [Webb] wants the old, ‘authentic’, pre-tourist Bali, the Bali of coffee table books. But this is a little like going to Paris and being upset that the locals aren’t sitting in cafes smoking Gauloises and wearing berets.

Phew. Online readers wiped the sweat of their brow, thankful they no longer had to worry that The Age was going to stick to its guns on hating Bali.

Outside of The Age, Webb’s article caused an Australia-centric blog bomb in the hours and days following the article’s publication. It garnered a tiny mention in The Australian but Crikey went in for the kill, publishing an article entitled ‘Is this the worst travel article ever published?’ Writer Amber Jamieson lets rip, calling Webb’s article ‘nauseating’ and wondering whether Webb should ‘perhaps stay home and shut up’ instead of daring to visit another underdeveloped country. The Enthusiast also had a crack at walloping Webb: ‘Bali bombing in the Age’ calls Webb’s article a ‘stroke of mad editorial genius’ and gives readers a rundown on the tweeted responses of various Australians shaking in politically-correct shock over Webb’s proclamations. Writer Andrew Tijs even attributes the Bali article to the slow moral decline of a once-promising newspaper:

Tens of thousands of hits and another disappointing entry in The Age’s slide from semi-respectability to slumming it with those that publish Janet Albrechtsen or Andrew Bolt’s hornets’-nest-stirring trash.

Ironically, the irony of complaining about click-bait writing seems not to have caught the attention of many people who wrote articles centred entirely around Webb’s inflammatory article. Crikey’s Amber Jamieson, however, does acknowledge this on Crikey, perhaps recognising the fruity media circle that tends to recycle outrageous topics within the public sphere:

It should be pointed out that The Age probably only published [the Webb article] because it’s clear click-bait and they knew people would get up in a huff about it. Annoyingly, they were 100% correct. Perhaps that makes me as guilty as them.

That’s a major problem with the reasons why the hubbub seems so overblown; the old concept of condemning bad behaviour by ignoring it doesn’t work when you have something like Google Analytics. People saw the article title and clicked on it, even if they guessed it might be inflammatory. As a contributor to the hubbub surrounding this article, I know I’m just giving The Age more publicity glee. Yet if people didn’t submit to the temptation of link-bait in the first place, we wouldn’t get offended. Complaining about an offensive link-bait article is a little like watching porn in the hopes you might see a romantic love story buried underneath all the energetic thrusting.

Webb’s article is such a case of bad taste on display, a poorly written article attempting crude humour but instead finding tack. It’s such an easy target that the ensuing web content attacking the article (and the writer) so viciously is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. In the digital age, where complaining and commenting seem sometimes synonymous, the response to Webb’s article has actually become a rather fascinating study in schadenfreude.

In contrast to the anti-Webb polemics, The Melbourne Urbanist writer Alan Davies has a fair go at fighting the other side of the coin in the Bali debate. He notes that in a poll on Webb’s article page, 68% of voters (from 40005 overall votes) thought Bali wasn’t worth visiting. Davies is certainly not as ham-fisted and tactless about the topic as Webb, becoming instead the feather to Webb’s sledgehammer:

No matter what your personal feelings are about touting, there’s a sort of tragedy of the commons happening here. When touting by an aggressive minority of street vendors and taxi drivers puts off a large number of tourists, an entire economy of ‘back office’ workers in hotels, restaurants and other downstream tourism industries is seriously threatened.

Perhaps the reason why Webb’s article inflamed Aussie passions so much was not what was said, but how it was articulated. Webb’s opening line is indicative of her snobbish (and thus her highly un-Australian) attitude:

I once vowed never to go to Bali. The drunk Aussie tourists! The traffic! The noise! The tacky souvenirs! I mean, why would you go?

Generally if you’re not going to say something to someone’s face, it’s not very nice to then go and bitch about them behind their back. Not only has Webb done that in a nation-versus-nation context, she’s parlayed ignorance into an attempt at light-hearted humour. Webb’s article came oh-so-close to that high-school-girl social protocol of backstabbing; her writing even mimicks typical schoolgirl sass when explaining why she didn’t accept the offer of a taxi service on motorbike:

So why did I decline? Umm. Apart from possible serial killer issue, how about the strong likelihood of falling off the unregistered and possibly unroadworthy bike with no safety gear or helmet on to the crappy roads, well beyond the reach of any known travel insurance policy?

Well, duh.

Interestingly, after a few days of quiet on the issue, it seems as though The Age has gotten its politically correct, latte-sipping, inner-city mojo back. On October 30, Janet deNeefe’s article served as a lovely bit of free advertising for Bali as she recounted her friendly chats with Bali taxi drivers after reading Webb’s article:

I wandered further down Monkey Forest Road and approach a group of drivers chatting and laughing. I arm myself with a smile and ask them about their work.

Isn’t that lovely? Doesn’t it just make you want to go to Bali and buy the wooden penises Webb complains about?

After all this hubbub, the one person at the centre of the outrage has failed to materialise in print. I’m not sure when she’ll reappear, but there seems to be no response from Webb herself on this topic. She may have been sent on a holiday, but I hope to goodness they didn’t send her to Bali.


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