Some of the women accused by The Australian Financial Review yesterday of having campaigned against Mark Latham’s columns have described his resignation a “hollow victory”, saying the bigger issue had always been the Fin‘s willingness to publish abusive and highly personal defamatory attacks on women.

Former Labor opposition leader Mark Latham resigned as a columnist with the AFR on Sunday. According to a statement by the AFR, he left on his own terms — with editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury singing his  praises on the way out.

In an unbylined article published yesterday afternoon, Stutchbury was quoted as saying that while there were lines responsible newspapers should not cross, he valued and respected Latham’s contributions to the paper:

“Mark has been a provocative and highly readable columnist for the Financial Review. He has been both loved and hated by readers — sometimes by the same ones at different times. While I didn’t agree with everything Mark wrote, he has played a significant role in Australian public life and brought rare personal insight into his writing.”

Latham has been a columnist for the AFR for eight years, and during that time he has also written for Spectator Australia and Crikey. Latham has always been a controversial writer, and has lately been taking on political feminism, which he views as a form of rent-seeking that does little to improve the lot of most Australians. But in recent months, his highly personal critiques of prominent feminists have had Fairfax fending off defamation writs.

Criticism of Latham reached fever pitch over the weekend after BuzzFeed revealed on Friday that a Twitter account linked to Latham’s email address had been sending personal abuse to prominent Australian women, including Australian of the Year Rosie Batty (disparaging her judgement in men) and transgender serving defence force member and cricket writer Catherine McGregor (referring to her as “he/she”). Both women have also been criticised in Latham’s columns.

After McGregor complained of the abuse she’d been receiving from the account, BuzzFeed‘s new political editor Mark Di Stefano investigated and on Friday alleged that the account was operated by Latham himself. Yesterday, BuzzFeed used Twitter’s “find your friends” option to confirm the email address linked to the account is one Latham has put at the bottom of his columns on occasion.

Shortly after noon yesterday, the Twitter account claimed “Latho” has been “sacked” by Fairfax. “Poor Latho … has retired to Mt Hunter Lodge for a rump steak (medium-rare).  Maintain The Page,” it posted. The tone is in keeping with many of the account’s recent tweets. While Stutchbury has dismissed “social media speculation” about Latham’s status, it’s worth noting that Latham has fuelled much of this speculation, seemingly leading journalists along a merry chase for much of the weekend.

Speaking to Crikey this morning, UTS journalism academic and Fairfax columnist Jenna Price said Latham was “not the only one at fault here”.

“It’s the entire editorial team of The Australian Financial Review, who clearly thought it was okay to run personal and abusive remarks about Rosie Batty, personal and abusive remarks about Lisa Pryor, personal and abusive remarks about Cate McGregor. I can’t understand why that was the case.”

“Things that Mark Latham has written in the past that have been thoroughly entertaining and informative. But he decided to get personal. Including making targets of those who are not elected public figures.”

Last month, Latham wrote and most likely tweeted highly critical abuse of Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, whose child was killed by her abusive ex-husband in front of her. Batty has become a leading voice advocating action on domestic violence. In her role, she has sometimes been paid to address corporate functions — which Latham criticised in highly personal terms.

“Of all the people to abuse in the world, hasn’t Rosie Batty been abused enough?,” Price said this morning.

“A lot of people within Fairfax recognised this was a problem. A lot of people thought he was being extremely unfair and abusive.”

Writing on Crikey sister site Women’s Agenda, editor Georgie Dent notes that if Latham’s resignation is a victory, it certainly “feels hollow”. She said the Fin‘s statement was “notable for its lack of explanation”. It makes no mention of “whether or not the AFR or Fairfax sanctions the kind of social media posting that the Real Mark Latham account has engaged in”. It’s worth noting that the AFR‘s initial statement does not refer to the account at all.

Last year, Price started a petition that gained 2000 signatures asking the AFR to remove a column in which Latham accused fellow Fairfax columnist of not loving her children (after Pryor wrote of using antidepressants — she is now suing the AFR and Latham). Price says she’s never received any response from Fairfax management to the petition. Although, she notes, she has also never been dissuaded from criticising Latham in Fairfax publications, which she has done on women’s site Daily Life. Crikey understands even with the AFR, many journalists have been critical of the paper’s publishing of some of Latham’s columns.

This morning, the Fin quotes figures sympathetic to the view that Latham’s departure is a freedom-of-speech issue, including the Institute of Public Affairs’ John Roskam, who said Latham’s resignation showed public debate had gone “beyond creeping political correctness to outright authoritarianism”. Stutchbury is paraphrased to have “defended the Financial Review‘s right and even duty to publish provocative opinions that some readers and non-readers might find offensive, as this was a hallmark of a vibrant democracy”.

It’s worth noting Latham was one of the Financial Review‘s most popular columnists. On a per-article basis, he was the seventh most-read person published at the paper, a leaked table recently showed. The AFR almost never put his articles behind its paywall.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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