Mungo: How I survived an early death on Twitter

I actually thought I was feeling better.

After six months of major surgery and numerous complications involving visits to five separate intensive care units, I had ventured out to a local café in the company of my partner Jenny and a couple of friends. And then, just as the scrambled eggs and iced coffee arrived, the phone rang to tell me I was dead – killed by Twitter.

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It turned out that the story came from an old mate, Anne Summers (who also misspelled my name – shame!) and was corrected in just seven minutes. Denials of my death were circulated by every source available and even a local photographer was called in to snap me with the day’s paper, in the style of the hostage pictures. But then it was too late. The Twitterverse, to pinch the immortal line of the humorist Stephen Leacock, galloped madly off in all directions.

For 24 hours the internet exploded; I trended, as they say, in three states. The phone never stopped, which was hard on Jenny: I was unable to speak as a result of a tracheotomy, and she had to field calls from radio, press, and the odd well-wisher who could get an word in.

I must say she did very well: she managed to mention my new book (The Whitlam Mob, published by Black Inc, just for the record) in just about every interview – and no, I promise you it was not a publicity stunt – the publishers were as surprised as we were.


Mungo MacCallum’s hostage-style photo.

We were pursued from the café to the physiotherapist and finally home without relief. Much of it was flattering, even quite jolly; it is, after all, a lucky man who can read his own obituaries, even if most of them were restricted to 140 characters. Many of them were very funny; one of my daughters is compiling a fragrant collection for us to relive them in tranquillity.

But there was a darker side: many friends who were not tech savvy heard of the death but missed the resurrection and remained genuinely distressed until hours later. And this is the problem with social media – it is quite literally uncontrollable. Once the ripples start spreading, the waves wash over every beach – like Canute, it is impossible to turn back the tide.

We ended up going through three news cycles before returning to something like normality. And of course, there was nothing we could do – as throwbacks from the dark ages of print, we don’t do Twitter, or Facebook: email is quite complicated enough. Our younger friends helped a bit, but we were stuck in a maelstrom of gossip, misinformation and general chatter.

The only certainty was that it would soon pass: the Twitterverse is nothing if not ephemeral. But it can be more than somewhat disconcerting before it blows itself out and moves on to a new, and probably equally improbable, squall. In the meantime media, colleagues, celebrities, complete strangers and even the odd politician all contributed to the gale.

Anne Summers remained firm: she insisted on protecting her sources, however wrong they turned out to be. But she offered a recompensory gift of flowers: I specified they were not to include a wreath. They duly arrived and all, for the moment at least, is well.

In the end I have to admit that I rather enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame – even if I had to die to get them. But, as they say, that’s life.

Mungo MacCallum has been writing Australian politics for almost five decades. He has worked for The Australian, The Age, the Australian Financial Review and every other major national publication you can name. He lives on the north coast of New South Wales. His most recent book is The Whitlam Mob.

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