Journalism academic Martin Hirst is the latest scalp in a culture war targeting left-wing activists through their social media usage, says National Tertiary and Education Union Victorian secretary Colin Long.

“What is also very clear to us is that the Murdoch media, and supporters of the Murdoch press, are engaged in trolling campaigns to try to expose left-wing activists and get them in trouble,” Long told Crikey this morning. “And that’s been the case for Martin.”

Hirst and the NTEU have 10 working days to respond to Deakin University’s preliminary decision, delivered yesterday afternoon, to sack Hirst over three tweets the university says breached its academic code of conduct.

Hirst hasn’t been paid since April 19, when the university suspended him after receiving a complaint about a Twitter exchange between Hirst, News Corp columnist Rita Panahi and Lachlan McDougall, a student at Deakin university …


The Twitter exchange that got Martin Hirst sacked

In a letter sent to fellow News Corp columnist Tim Blair and posted on his blog, Panahi writes: “neither me nor the student complained”.

The identity of the complainant has been kept confidential. After receiving the complaint, the university conducted a review of Hirst’s tweets and raised objections to three: the comment to McDougall asking him if he was “happy to fail commerce”, which the university said was an implied threat (Hirst argued it was a humorous comment on McDougall’s academic ability, but that he he did not know McDougall was a student at Deakin), a picture of a “fuck it” beanie that Hirst wrote he would be wearing after the Easter break as a “subtle hint” to his boss (the university said it was offensive and insulting, Hirst says it was a joke), and a tweet about Andrew Bolt’s small Sky News audience to which Hirst wrote “reassuring, masturbating chimps” (the university said this was offensive and inappropriate — Hirst said it was appropriate to the medium and in his area of expertise).

Hirst’s lively Twitter presence does not identify him as an academic at Deakin University, but he is widely known as such, especially after Andrew Bolt in 2014 drew attention to several of Hirst’s more expletive-laden tweets (Hirst was suspended without pay for three months in the aftermath). The post followed Tim Blair highlighting Hirst’s Marxism — Hirst’s profile picture at the time was of him in front of Karl Marx’s grave. He’s been frequently mentioned on Blair’s blog, usually in relation to his political views. In 2011, Hirst wrote on his blog that he’d been thrown onto “the News Limited radar” after his appearance at the Finklestein inquiry. He says shortly after, a Daily Tele reporter called him and asked him if he was or had ever been a communist.

Hirst is only the latest staffer at a university to face unemployment over his social media usage in Victoria. It follows La Trobe’s Roz Ward, another Marxist, being suspended, then reinstated, after she joked in a private Facebook conversation that Australia’s “racist” flag should be replaced by a “red one”.

Long says the circumstances of the Ward case are not identical with Hirst’s. “But both are … symptomatic of universities being much more concerned with their brands and reputations than with protecting controversial speech.”

Many universities are becoming increasingly “jumpy” about things said by their staff on social media, Long says. “The relative novelty of social media means they haven’t quite worked out how to treat it — and I suspect staff haven’t worked out how to use it.”

“In general we think [Hirst’s sacking is] an overreaction to what has occurred.”

 Hirst told Crikey this morning he was “angry and upset” over what had occurred. But he was “very heartened by the response on social media”.