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Aug 7, 2014

Fairfax turns on Carlton as we increasingly shoot the messenger

Here and abroad, there's a pattern emerging where the harshest punishments are reserved for those who expose crimes rather than those who may have committed them, writes Overland editor Jeff Sparrow.


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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16 thoughts on “Fairfax turns on Carlton as we increasingly shoot the messenger

  1. Russell

    So, Jeff… Provided you are anti-Abbott and anti-Isreal, anything is forgiven. Even swearing at your employer’s customers?

    Yes, happy to buy that bridge. And perhaps if I hack into your computer, take unauthorised data (your bank account), I could afford it?

    You have justified an illegal activity because the person (who has now been charged with a criminal offense) was out to “get” Tony Abbott’s daughter. Who can hardly be blamed for who her father is, can she?

    Jeff, I’m a bit astonished by the logic.

  2. rumtytum

    It’s this wishy-washy blandness that led me to cancel my subscription to the Silly Morning Herald. Like most things, journalism is now controlled by salesmen, not journalists, and salesmen don’t want to offend anybody who might conceivably become a customer. No wonder outfits like The Guardian are flocking in to fill the holes.

  3. Yclept

    the harshest punishments are reserved for those who expose or publicise crimes rather than those who may have committed them

    What elephant????

  4. Pamela

    JEFF- Absolutely on the money.
    Every story about the slaughter of Palestinians seemed iced with a criticism of Hamas as if to justify criticising Israel.

    Cant the facts just be the facts – do we have to mitigate to please all players.

    This in a week where 3 separate incidents took place in my small world which saw the Israeli PR machine silence critics.

    Where was the public argument that we can be Pro Jewish and ANTI Israeli government? Many of us are Pro Australian by ANTI ABBOTT+++++

    Mike Carleton is one of the honest brokers in an Australian media often finding itself embedded with politicians and power brokers.

  5. Alex

    Jeff, he didn’t lose his job, he resigned. Some of what you have said I agree with and some I disagree with but unfortunately I cannot be swayed by any of your arguments when you misrepresent such a basic fact.

    I can’t help but think that Mike Carlton kicked an enormous own goal because he wanted to have a dummy spit. I seem to remember he has form on this score

  6. Nicholas

    Russell, losing one’s cool after reading torrents of abusive emails, and using some swear words in snippy replies to trolls is a venial sin, not an offence worthy of suspension. It is very clear that the pressure piled on Fairfax to make an example of Mike Carlton came from people outraged by Carlton’s content about the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s what really infuriated them. They are shedding crocodile tears about the f word appearing in email replies to trolls.

    It is a sad reflection on the timidity of a particular manager at Fairfax that a hysterical mob won.

    There is disturbing lack of resilience and robustness on the part of people who defend the Israeli Government’s policies. They want to wade into a highly emotive debate without having the basic emotional resilience to hear an opposing view without falling to pieces and calling for punishments. They should toughen up or opt out of the discussion.

  7. ross fliate

    Fourth-largest army in the world? Might I ask where that figure comes from or refers to? It might seem like I’m quibbling, but the ranking seems screwy.

  8. Dogs breakfast

    “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?”

    And why are are we in a hand-basket?

    Of course, as Ross points out, the entire point is moot as the Israeli army may not be the 4th biggest army, and therefore all criticism against the Israelis government response must be considered from the perspective that this side-issue is actuallya central point.

    There was a day where the SMH editors would have stood up for their reasonable responses. Their quivering and quavering apologies about the cartoon were equally snivelling, oh spare me the rationalisations for your righteous anger dear Israelis lobbyists.

    The SMH has lost its backbone, and as there is no backbone and no moral compass, what is the point of reading it any more?

  9. Bill Hilliger

    After all that’s said, at least Mike Carlton has a soul.

  10. Albion Harrison-Naish

    Great piece Jeff with some really important points. It’s important to point out however that the SMH, and increasingly Fairfax more generally, is not a progressive paper. I’ve been reading it for over 30 years now and it has always avowedly been a conservative paper. Now what with the move of most of the conservative media to the right wing fringes, Fairfax seems increasingly progressive. But they’re not. That’s not to say that they don’t have progressive writers or don’t ever push a progressive agenda, but reading through the paper the overall impression is of a very staid and conservative world view. I don’t mean to quibble, but I think on the left we too often just accept the frame presented by the loony right. Fairfax and the ABC being lefties and all that palava. It needs to be challenged, especially in pieces like this one. Anyhoo, sorry to sound ranty.

  11. David Hand

    Your whining article contains some seeming contradictions. If the News Ltd opinion writers are, “specialists in the transmutation of online outrage into clicks” then they must by definition have slightly more than zero influence outside the political class. Unless it is only the political class that they get to click.

    You’re just ranting mate. Hey sometimes it’s good to let it out.

  12. fractious

    Dogs breakfast #8:
    “There was a day where the SMH editors would have stood up for their reasonable responses.”

    It wasn’t that long ago I witnessed them vigorously defend one of Devine Right’s most divisive and abusive rants in front of the APC, yet here we are not so very much later as they roll over on a cartoon and help Carlton out the door. Albion (#10) is correct – Failfax was never consistently a ‘progressive’ organ, it only sometimes looks like it is because the general media landscape keeps shifting to the right.

  13. AR

    Sooo, commenting on wide spread slaughter OK right-on rigorous journalism but swearing is a sacking/suspension(you say “tomato, I say..”)matter.
    Like films showing blood & guts are AOK artistry but pubic areas threaten public order and the harm done thereby being too frightful to contemplate.

  14. Russell

    Its ironic that the only “progressive, right-on left wing” organs left in this country, the ones that haven’t “shifted to the right” (The Saturday Paper, The Guardian) are funded by two capitalist millionaires. A property developer in the case of The Saturday Paper and Graham Wood in the case of the Guardian …who may or may not get his loan back, depending on how long the loss-making UK parent decides to stick around… Maybe all those who have cancelled their Fairfax subs can find some way of convincing those two gents they’re not wasting their money?

    Then Carlton could ask The Saturday Paper’s owner for a gig. But as Morry is part of “The Jewish lobby” (the co-conspirators who with Murdoch/Abbott/Satan nobbled the right-on Mike), maybe not.

  15. wormwoodscrubs

    The Gaza slaughter and all the commentary around it will soon be forgotten until the next time Israel wants to ‘protect’ itself. But we will have learnt a valuable lesson here about who the real victims are.

    And excuse me, Russel (1st comment) Tony’s daughter is an adult. She wilfully accepted a ‘scholarship’ offered to her because of who her father is. I would suggest she was as well aware as the student who’s been charged that the ‘merit’ is questionable.

  16. Jude

    I think your comments about political relevance if journalism is too bland or too focused on political insiders is an insight which media needs to take into account.


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