Richard Carleton’s boss at 60 Minutes and my old
boss at the Daily Telegraph, John Westacott, broke down on Radio National
Breakfast
this morning as he spoke about the loss of his star reporter.

As anyone who knows him would testify, Westy is not usually the crying
type. Tears are things he’d want his journos to extract from interview subjects
rather than shedding himself.

Nevertheless, as someone who was and is no longer a fan of Westy’s methods,
it was hard not to be moved by the genuine grief he was expressing at the loss of a
great friend and truly exceptional reporter. It has to be said, however, that Carleton was at his most exceptional
before he worked for Westy and 60 Minutes.

Everybody remembers Carleton’s immortal question –
“So, Bob Hawke, how do you feel with blood on your hands?” – posed to Hawke when
he took the leadership from Hayden before the 1983 election, but there’s another
encounter with a politician that perhaps better sums up the trajectory and
legacy of Carleton’s journalistic career.

I can’t remember the year, but the encounter was between Carleton and Paul
Keating, and occurred after Carleton had made the switch from Aunty to the
Packer Pleasure Palace. Carleton was at his provocative and playful best and Keating was being
easily goaded.

Finally Keating had had enough. I can’t remember his exact words but they
went something like this: “You used to be a serious journalist and now you’re
nothing but a pop star.”

Carleton undercut the power of this putdown by simply bursting out laughing,
but you could see in that moment that he was also acknowledging the truth of
what Keating said. Having been such an admirer of Carleton in his ABC days, it was distressing
to see him make the switch to 60 Minutes, and even more distressing to see how
easily he embraced the tabloid culture of his new environment.

It’s not to say he didn’t do worthwhile stories at Nine (his stories in
Africa and the Middle East had real power), but he did an enormous amount of
beat-ups. One screaming example – he interviewed the English couple sued by
McDonalds in the famous McLibel case and demonised them as a pair of vegetarian
weirdos. It was appalling how he played on what he perceived as the prejudices
of his audience by ridiculing his subjects.

It was a waste of a prodigious talent. However, at his best, Carleton was
THE best, and any journalism student wanting tips on asking hard questions need only
dip into Carleton’s archive for wisdom. For that we owe him an enormous
debt.

Peter Fray

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