A popular but polarising Fairfax columnist let go after an intemperate outburst on social media.

No, not Mike Carlton in 2014 but Catherine Deveny, back in 2010, dumped from The Age because of some off-colour tweets — and, more importantly, in the wake of a long-running campaign by the Right.

The cases aren’t identical, of course, but they’re sufficiently similar to enable comparison between the treatment of controversy in the liberal and conservative press. Think of Tim Blair’s recent “frightbat” stunt. As Jane Gilmore notes, Blair — the sometime opinion editor of The Daily Telegraph — is “notorious for inflammatory personal attacks posted on his blog, particularly against women with a public profile and strong opinions”. Her account of how that trolling has affected its victims makes for a grim read.

But the indulgence Blair’s shown by News Corp seems the rule rather than the exception, applied equally to Joe Hildebrand, Miranda Devine and all the other specialists in the transmutation of online outrage into clicks.

At Fairfax, however, they do things differently. The Carlton case is particularly egregious because of the context: the appalling slaughter in Gaza. What does it say about the Australian media landscape that the most high-profile columnist to denounce the mass killing of children loses his job a week later, whereas all those who cagily hemmed and hawed about the most disproportionate and brutal war in living memory keep theirs? Just where have we arrived, if it’s now beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse to write passionately against the fourth-largest army in the world deploying heavy weaponry on civilian neighbourhoods?

Oh, of course, we’re told Carlton’s offence pertained not to his column but rather his salty interactions with aggrieved readers … but if you believe that, there’s a nice bridge in Sydney you might want to buy. Had Carlton produced the usual liberal boilerplate on Palestine (“really, they want Israel to drop bombs on their kids”) and then cussed out a reader who objected, does anyone really suppose he’d now be on the unemployment queue?

There’s a pattern emerging, both here and internationally, where the harshest punishments are reserved for those who expose or publicise crimes rather than those who may have committed them. The same day as Carlton resigned, we learned that police had charged a 21-year-old student for allegedly accessing confidential files pertaining to the scholarship awarded to Tony Abbott’s daughter. The revelations about alleged special treatment at the Whitehouse Institute of Design seem to have had no consequences for the PM — but now the woman accused of blowing the whistle faces a possible two years in jail.

“We tortured some folks,” explained Barack Obama breezily, earlier the same week. But only one CIA agent has gone to prison over the torture program now acknowledged by the president — and that’s John Kiriakou, the man who revealed what was happening.

These are not times that encourage journalistic bravery. The shortage of jobs and the proliferation of casualisation (much harder to let a columnist go if they’re actually on staff!) encourage what Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere”: an editorial perspective that settles lazily in the midpoint between polarised views.

Furthermore, as we’ve seen in this case (and as we’re seeing with New Matilda’s coverage of “Daughtergate”), writers who step outside the acceptable consensus will face a concerted attack by right-wing pundits who, unlike their progressive counterparts, are confident of their proprietor’s backing.

Obviously, Fairfax worries about its economic future, as well it might do. But what’s the bigger threat to the ongoing viability of liberal media: the yapping of the Murdoch attack dogs (most of whom have precisely zero influence outside the political class) or the establishment of an editorial blandness that quails at views other than those reflecting the ghastly Insider mindset?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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