A nasty stoush has erupted between The Monthly magazine and Asian-based freelance correspondent Eric Ellis, with legal threats being thrown by both sides after a commissioned article was spiked.

Editor Ben Naparstek claimed the piece was not up to the magazine’s high standards, but it has since been picked up and published by The Spectator’s Australian edition.

Normally a falling out between an editor and a freelancer over the spiking of an article would not be news. It happens often. In this case, as watchers of the The Monthly will know, there is a history that makes the imbroglio marginally more interesting.

Eric Ellis is the man who wrote another famously spiked article – the lengthy profile of Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi Deng. Only on that occasion, The Monthly was on his side.

And Naparstek is the young man who, at just 23 years old, took the helm at The Monthly after the controversial departure of former editor Sally Warhaft earlier this year. Warhaft fell out with magazine proprietor Morry Schwartz and her former mentor and head of the editorial board, Robert Manne.

The current row is over an article on the Sri Lankan boat people commissioned by Naparstek in October this year. Ellis suggested that a more compelling piece could be written if he visited the refugee camps in Sri Lanka. Naparstek agreed, and asked for 4000 words. All was sunshine and light, with the two meeting for coffee in Melbourne on one of Ellis’s visits, a plan for the piece to be promoted on Lateline, and approval being given for more than $1000 in expenses.

But when the article was submitted, Naparstek told Ellis it was not up to standard. The acrimony began, with Ellis firing off increasingly furious letters first to Naparstek and then to Manne and Schwartz. Ellis was offered a “kill fee”, but demanded more, saying that the only mention of “kill” during the commissioning process had been in relation to the risks he was running in researching the piece.

The extraordinarily acrimonious email correspondence, in which Ellis accuses Monthly editor Ben Naparstek of being “dysfunctional” and lacking in judgement and experience, has been given to Crikey and can be read here.

It was originally given to me by Ellis, author of the most inflammatory letters, who is clearly keen that it be published. But when I approached Naparstek for comment yesterday, he too gave me sections of the correspondence. Both sides obviously think it counts in their favour.

So what’s the history? In 2007, Ellis was commissioned by Good Weekend magazine to write this piece about Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi Deng. Then, when it was submitted, it was spiked. At the time it was suggested that someone senior in Fairfax had lent on Good Weekend to leave Rupert and his family alone. The whole affair got a going over on Media Watch.

Then, with the controversy at its height, the Ellis piece was picked up by The Monthly. It was a triumph for the then Monthly editor Sally Warhaft – even though, when the piece hit the streets, most judged it solid and interesting, rather than earth shattering and revelatory. The allegations of censorship had given it extra notoriety.

Then in April this year, Warhaft had her own very public and acrimonious falling out with Schwartz and head of the editorial board, Robert Manne. She left, and was replaced by Naparstek, while Robert Manne and journalist Gideon Haigh traded blows in the press.

So what about the present show down? Well, perhaps it gives off more heat than light, while telling us a little bit more about the personalities involved.

Ellis claims The Monthly have behaved unprofessionally, and that Naparstek is not up to the job.

Meanwhile, Naparstek provided the following comment.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve spiked a piece and nor will it be the last. When I read the first draft of Eric Ellis’ essay, I made encouraging noises but said that it would need to be reworked to give a fuller picture of the Sri Lankan detention camps and Rudd’s dilemma vis-à-vis the boat people, as per his original brief. He agreed to do this but the second draft didn’t arrive. After some prodding, he emailed to say that he had nothing more to write about those matters.

“Given this, I told him that the piece couldn’t be edited to the standard we require, though I would still pay him a generous kill fee plus his expenses. Mr Ellis replied with 9 aggressive emails and text messages on the same day. In light of this bizarre conduct, I decided not to respond. Over the following week, he expanded this bizarre behaviour by sending my fellow board members increasingly unpleasant emails.”

Read the correspondence, and make up your own mind.

Declaration: I have written for The Monthly in the past, when Warhaft was editor, and have discussed potential commissions with Naparstek.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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