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Australian journo sacked for whistle-blowing

Australian journo sacked for whistle-blowing

Games journo Toby McCasker claims that Rockstar demanded positive reviews of games from staff.

Australian games journalist Toby McCasker claims he was recently fired from his role as Deputy Entertainment Editor of Zoo Weekly for blowing the whistle on a policy of trading good reviews for advertising.

Specifically, McCasker told News.com says that developers like Rockstar will often demand positive reviews from staff and that he was fired after posting on Facebook excerpts from Rockstar PR emails.

"This is the biggest game we've done since GTA IV, and is already receiving Game of the Year 2010 nominations from specialists all around the world," said the email McCasker posted on Facebook, though the post has since been deleted. "Can you please ensure Toby's article reflects this - he needs to respect the huge achievement he's writing about here."

Since posting the excerpt, McCasker has been fired from Zoo Weekly, since claiming to be part of a system that encourages companies to trade advertising for good reviews.

"I did not sign up to become a journalist to write advertorials masquerading as editorial," McCasker said. "This 'cash for comment' culture that is fast becoming the status quo within print media bothers me a lot."

It's worth noting that nowhere in the posted excerpts does Rockstar overtly say that it will pay for good reviews - and that Rockstar has defended itself by saying that it "is not clear on what the story is here."

"We always try to present our games in the most compelling way to media and fans alike," continued Rockstar's official statement.

Zoo's editor, Paul Merrill, has also weighed in by saying that Rockstar never sought to seek good reviews through ad deals and that no games company has ever approached Zoo for such a thing.

"[McCasker was fired for] a number of reasons," says Merrill, "including his decision to post a private email on his Facebook page. McCasker should not be considered a credible source on this matter."

Let us know your thoughts in the forums.

25 Comments

Discuss in the forums Reply
Spiny 7th April 2010, 12:35 Quote
To be fair to Rockstar, 'PR' is /not/ synonymous with 'developer'. The excerpt sounds like typical PR BS and is par for the course. The smoking gun would be an email from Zoo back to Rockstar PR agreeing, but I don't see this.
AlexB 7th April 2010, 12:35 Quote
Not surprising really - games have huge investments nowadays and people are going to look out for their money. Shame, though.
lp1988 7th April 2010, 12:49 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Spiny
To be fair to Rockstar, 'PR' is /not/ synonymous with 'developer'. The excerpt sounds like typical PR BS and is par for the course. The smoking gun would be an email from Zoo back to Rockstar PR agreeing, but I don't see this.

True but not all is that stupid, (dough some are.) If I send you a product with a letter requesting a commercial on your page inserted, maybe paying a little more than normal, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the connection.

But again in a case like this there are no "real" evidence, and thus none can be blamed, but still it does look a little suspicious.
Tsung 7th April 2010, 13:00 Quote
I think people have to be pretty stupid to think this sort of behaviour is not going on. Maybe not in this case (evidence doesn't seem that strong tbh) but I've seen plenty of gaming magazines give 90%+ reviews to games which turn out to be average at best..

This is why I like sites like Metacritic (where you can get a nice cross section of reviews to read) and looking at the game forums (be it on steam or the game website) before a purchase. Still I make mistakes, the most recent being AvP. :(
theflatworm 7th April 2010, 13:47 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tsung

This is why I like sites like Metacritic (where you can get a nice cross section of reviews to read) and looking at the game forums (be it on steam or the game website) before a purchase. Still I make mistakes, the most recent being AvP. :(

Yeah, I look at sites like Metacritic too, and they are pretty useful. They also get it catastrophically wrong, IMO. Farcry 2 is one of the most repetative games I've played, and that got rave reviews from almost every source. I don't think we've quite got to the stage where I can blame situations like FC2 on advertisers cooking the book (I'd say it's more reviews getting carried away with shiny shiny graphics and/or caught up with the hype), but if we do get to the stage where 'buying reviews' is par for the course, then all site like metacritic will show you is who bribed the most people. I always find that a bit of reading between the lines is helpful.

I really wouldn't wipe my arse with Zoo (which is ironic, given the number of lads who read it on the toilet for quite different reasons), and I have less than zero respect for their 'journalistic integrity,' so I wouldn't be surprised if this particular story is true. Soft porn mags should stick to soft porn.

p.s. AvP got pretty a mediocre metacritic score: how did you end up getting fooled into that one?
eddtox 7th April 2010, 14:01 Quote
Move on, move on! There's nothing to see here!

This happens. And not just with games, either. the Rockstar letter while not proof of bribery, shows that they will try to influence reviews.
Evildead666 7th April 2010, 14:05 Quote
I agree with FarCry 2...Bought it thinking (dreaming) of Far Cry, the original, and was sorely dissapointed.
Just going past a checkpoint a few metres, only to turn around and ...miracle, all the guys I just killed are now waiting for my return voyage....
There is no singleplayer game, its a large AI-filled multiplayer map....

This type of scratch my back, i'll scratch yours is probably rife, and with Coke and Pepsi et Al paying for in game ads, the money is still pouring in....just not going where it should, on the game itself... ;)
djab 7th April 2010, 14:29 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by theflatworm

I really wouldn't wipe my arse with Zoo (which is ironic, given the number of lads who read it on the toilet for quite different reasons), and I have less than zero respect for their 'journalistic integrity,' so I wouldn't be surprised if this particular story is true. Soft porn mags should stick to soft porn.

LOL agree.
When I saw "games journalist" and "Deputy Entertainment Editor of Zoo Weekly" I thought it was a joke.
Everybody knows that articles in this kind of magazines are crap.
The articles are just there to fill the empty pages between pictures of half naked babes
Look at their web site: www.zooweekly.com.au
I always thought that the articles in this kind of magazine were ads or copies of articles from real magazines.
I agree with theflatworm about their "journalistic integrity".
And everybody knows that no one ever read the articles in this kind of magazines ... people just "look" at some of the pictures.

For real gaming/tech magazines/websites this kind of issue is a bit more worrying.
There have already been cases when company would send hardware or copy of games for review earlier (before release date) to journalists who usually give good reviews to their products and would send the product later (after release date) or not at all to journalists who have more integrity and who figure in their black list of "bad reviewer".
This is done to ensure that on release date of a product the customers will only have access to the "good" reviews and so will buy the product without more thinking.
Psytek 7th April 2010, 15:04 Quote
All this proves is that PR guys ask and push for good reviews. This guy hasn't given any proof that at any point anyone has actually written a good review in exchange for anything.
bb_vb 7th April 2010, 15:40 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Evildead666
I agree with FarCry 2...Bought it thinking (dreaming) of Far Cry, the original, and was sorely dissapointed.
Just going past a checkpoint a few metres, only to turn around and ...miracle, all the guys I just killed are now waiting for my return voyage....
There is no singleplayer game, its a large AI-filled multiplayer map....

Funny you should mention FarCry 2. I'm playing through it right now, and I couldn't agree more about the repetitiveness. And playing on minimum settings @ 640x480 provides the gameplay with absolutely nothing shiny to hide behind. (I like to stretch my hardware as far as it'll go!). Hm, as a side note, this would make quite a neat review technique...

As for the article, I was kind of hoping the evidence would be a little stronger than that. The poor guy's lost his job without really securing anything concrete on those involved.
Shagbag 7th April 2010, 16:32 Quote
This is par for the course in Hollywood too. How many times do you see reviews for films lay on the hyperbolae really thick when you've already seen the movie and know for a fact that it's utter shite. Studios control media access to their stars by demanding favourable reviews. Highly critical reviews don't appear in the mass media anymore because they won't get interviews with Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie if they do. Even if the reporter wants to pan the film his editor will overrule him and the Board will over rule the editor if he falters.
It's got to such a bad stage now that if you ever watch a TV interview withan A-list star you cringe at the deference of the interviewer.
Anfield 7th April 2010, 16:44 Quote
Two things:

When you sign a contract for a job it will most likely have some lines in it similar to: you nwill never do anything that could hurt the company or show them in a negaive way".
In short, they where completly right to fire him, he should have been thankful to even have a job to start with.

second, if Rockstar really does crap like that, shame on them.
Tulatin 7th April 2010, 19:45 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Anfield
Two things:

When you sign a contract for a job it will most likely have some lines in it similar to: you nwill never do anything that could hurt the company or show them in a negaive way".
In short, they where completly right to fire him, he should have been thankful to even have a job to start with.

second, if Rockstar really does crap like that, shame on them.

So what you're saying then is that gaming journalists should shed the latter part of their name and function simply as whores for whatever publisher decides to drive up and throw a catcall, huh?
knuck 7th April 2010, 20:03 Quote
no what he's saying is someone who publicly posts an email that was meant to be private is not responsible, nor professional enough to deserve to keep their job


fair enough
Adnoctum 7th April 2010, 20:46 Quote
Seriously? You guys read the same article that I did and the conclusions you have come to is:
"Well, there's no actual proof of anything, so I'm going to ignore the implications of this news",
"Zoo's s**t, so he must be s**t, and I can dismiss his concerns",
"It's not actually Rockstar, it's Rockstar PR, which is an entirely different matter because they are completely separate from Rockstar, whom I quite like",
"Everyone and their dog does it, so what's the fuss?"


How about we focus on the fact that Rockstar is pressuring a magazine to produce a review that conforms to the global Rockstar PR message that they want for Red Dead Redemption.
How do you think Rockstar is exerting pressure? Sweet words over dinner and a hand job under the table?

Rockstar is comparing Red Dead Redemption to GTA4, so if their advertising campaign is even close to the saturation level achieved by GTA4 then there is a large amount of advertising money at stake here. What other sticks do Rockstar have to "ensure Toby's article reflects this [Rockstar's message]"? If threats to advertising wasn't at the very least implied, why didn't Zoo tell Rockstar to "F**k Off!"? And why did Toby McCasker feel the need to blow the whistle, if his editors didn't exert the kind of influence Rockstar's email requested?

Do you all just blow off this kind of PR editorial pressure as "normal"? Either grow some balls and demand better of game publishers and game journalists or develop some critical thinking skills.

Incidentally, isn't this the very same game where the developer's wives and former employees had to come out in public and expose the sweat-shop-like atmosphere and poisonous management?
thehippoz 7th April 2010, 20:57 Quote
I'll rub your back if you rub mine.. or in my arab accent

I rub it.. then you do it
Adnoctum 7th April 2010, 21:26 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by thehippoz
I rub it.. then you do it

Your avatar: Is that someone's backside painted like a pumpkin? Nice!
eddtox 7th April 2010, 21:52 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Adnoctum
/snip

I completely agree with you. The point is that Rockstar and other developers/publishers should not attempt to influence reviewers in any way shape or form. Even if its just strong words, let alone anything else.
thehippoz 7th April 2010, 23:09 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Adnoctum
Your avatar: Is that someone's backside painted like a pumpkin? Nice!

I'm pretty sure it's just a pumpkin.. it's your dirty mind
Helz 7th April 2010, 23:41 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Adnoctum
Seriously? You guys read the same article that I did and the conclusions you have come to is: <snip>

Actually, up until you, I was impressed that most people WERE thinking critically about the article. That email that the reviewer posted was hardly a smoking gun. It sounded like any other piece of PR hype that an editor might receive from a company who's product he's going to publish an article on. It's up to the people writing the reviews to decide whether or not the game is worthy of all the attention that Rockstar thinks it is.

If the reviewer was any kind of journalist whatsoever, he'd have come away with some real evidence that Rockstar and his magazine were in collusion. Posting a bunch of baseless accusations and some copy/pasted PR propaganda on Facebook puts him on the same level as every other internet troll.
Sloth 8th April 2010, 00:32 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Anfield
When you sign a contract for a job it will most likely have some lines in it similar to: you nwill never do anything that could hurt the company or show them in a negaive way".
In short, they where completly right to fire him, he should have been thankful to even have a job to start with.

+
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ghys
no what he's saying is someone who publicly posts an email that was meant to be private is not responsible, nor professional enough to deserve to keep their job


fair enough
^those. Serious issues such as pay-offs for good reviews must be handled delicately, chances are he broke some sort of contract in handling the issue the way he did. However, I fully agree with Adnoctum about how this isn't something to brush off. The email shown plainly shows that Rockstar is advocating impartial reviews about their products, that is already a slipperly slope. It's not hard evidence, but it's reason to investigate the issue further and reason to question Rockstar's interaction with other publications. Just because Zoo Weekly isn't held in high esteem as a game reviewer doesn't mean other journalists are being strong armed in the same manner.
Adnoctum 8th April 2010, 17:18 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Helz
Actually, up until you, I was impressed that most people WERE thinking critically about the article. That email that the reviewer posted was hardly a smoking gun. It sounded like any other piece of PR hype that an editor might receive from a company who's product he's going to publish an article on. It's up to the people writing the reviews to decide whether or not the game is worthy of all the attention that Rockstar thinks it is.

I disagree. Instead of looking at what was said and inferring from the evidence what the situation might have been, focus of comments was put on off-tangent details:

* Zoo Weekly is crap,
- This makes Zoo Weekly MORE likely to tow the Rockstar line, not less,

* Who is this journalist?
- Whether he is well-known and works for a prestigious publication or not is irrelevant,

* The ethics of whistle-blowing,
- Is it much better for the unethical behaviour of game publishers and media organisations to be kept quiet just because everyone know about them? What is your opinion on individual ethics? Does it overrule a signed contract? Wikileaks has just released gun camera footage of a fatal US Army Apache gunship attack on unarmed civilians, including children and journalists. The footage came from several US military personnel who found the footage, the crew's attitude to human beings and the non-existent US military investigation to be objectionable. They took an oath of service, would you consider them traitors?

* The location of the whistle-blowing,
- Would Wikileaks be a much better location? Would this have made him more credible?

* Splitting hairs over who the email came from,
- Rockstar/Rockstar PR? Why does it matter if the email comes from within Rockstar and Rockstar benefits from the content?

* The attitude "We all know its happening, so who cares?",
- Just because something is common knowledge doesn't make the practice right or ethical. We should be DEMANDING that the practice stops, not whining that we can't do anything.

* Money wasn't mentioned so therefore no other pressure must have been applied or implied,
- As I stated in my previous post, there are other pressures that Rockstar can exert on media organisations.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Helz
If the reviewer was any kind of journalist whatsoever, he'd have come away with some real evidence that Rockstar and his magazine were in collusion. Posting a bunch of baseless accusations and some copy/pasted PR propaganda on Facebook puts him on the same level as every other internet troll.

What "real evidence" are you writing about? Are you asking for evidence that Zoo accepted money from Rockstar for a favourable review? Is anything less than money changing hands OK by you?

The emails show that Rockstar was pressuring Zoo Weekly. You just need to see the use of language Rockstar used.

"This is the biggest game we've done since GTA IV..." = We've spent a lot of money on this and want the money back. This from a publisher who spends big on advertising.

"...and is already receiving Game of the Year 2010 nominations from specialists all around the world." - This is blatant peer pressure and I'm surprised to see no one has commented on it. They are saying that everyone else is going to tow the PR line and you don't want to feel left out do you?

"Can you please ensure Toby's article reflects this..." = Can you please exert editorial pressure on Toby to say what we want him to emphasise.

"...he needs to respect the huge achievement he's writing about here." = We are not a little piss-ant company you can ignore. We are putting a big effort into this game and we want results ($) back.


Maybe there is no other "evidence" of the kind that you would accept. May be he doesn't have access to it, or it doesn't exist. Maybe the "evidence" was verbal? Comments to him in an editorial meeting, or the editor pulled him into his office?

Money or the offer of money isn't the only kind of inducement/threat Rockstar can make, and the other kinds are still as unethical on Rockstar's and Zoo Weekly's part.

You also need to see a bit of background on Toby's cash-for-comment remark.

Why are you people being so "Meh!" about this? I'm angry that this occurs, and I don't understand why you aren't.
Gunnerbob 8th April 2010, 19:24 Quote
@ Adnoctum:

You, Sir, are bang on. And proof that all gamers are not adolescent monkeys.

Well thought, well presented.
Fenn 9th April 2010, 08:05 Quote
@ Adnoctum

Pretty sure Adnoctum is Toby, or a friend of his. This guy seems so one-sided it's not funny.

But then, I'm pretty one sided here myself after reading that smelly diatribe from Adnoctum. A real journalist deals with PR people all day. All Toby had to do was write an honest review. Not go onto Facebook big-noteing himself saying `hey look I'm a game reviewer and I oohhh look this company is forcing me to do ****'.

It was hardly a forceful email. And apparently it wasn't even directly relating to the review. I don't think the facts are all here.

This guy got THREE WARNINGS. Suggesting he is a royal douchebag.

This is hardly `whistleblowing' or `cash for comment', as if someone working at Zoo would really have to deal with crap like that on a serious level. It's ZOO, not the Sydney Morning Herald. I think Toby has confused cash for comment with PR 101.

None of us know what the email was actually referring to, but use a bit of common sense and research actual cases of serious journalism and cash for comment. Target actual journalists who have influence, not this seedy guy whose writing experience probably doesn't go beyond myspace and Zoo.

I bet there are reviewers out there who write reviews of games without even having played it. Given the **** that's printed in Zoo, I bet this Toby guy is guilty of half-arsed and biased reviews and writing all the time, not to mention comments verging on defamation.

Sounds like a touchy little princess who thinks far more highly of himself than anyone else does. Magazines fight to keep good writers. I reckon this guy was more trouble than he was worth.

Cash for comment is a serious problem. I doubt this is a good example of it.

Also `entertainment editor'? LOL. Funniest **** I've read all day.
Fenn 9th April 2010, 08:11 Quote
also @ Adnoctum: You say Toby said the cash for comment culture bothered him a lot. Well why the **** did he wait to get fired before `whistleblowing'?

If it bothered him `a lot' surely he would have spoken up sooner, not waited to receive three warnings for his behaviour before crying about being pressured.

I doubt it really bothered him until he got fired, and the perks stopped rolling in, and his ego was crushed. I bet prior to that, he was quite cushy in his job. This reeks of sour grapes.
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