Joe Aston is in court. Many might say it’s about bloody time, but of course this isn’t the first instance The Australian Financial Review’s pugilistic Rear Window columnist has landed in legal trouble. And it most probably won’t be the last. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Aston is being sued by venture capitalist Elaine Stead over a typically snarky column, where she alleges, among other things, she was made to look “cretinously stupid”.

A fascinating subplot to next week’s impending Federal Court showdown was teased out in The Australian’s Media Diary this morning.

Aaron Patrick, another of the Fin’s golden boys, allegedly tried to give Stead a helping hand in the case. Citing part of the Stead affidavit, the Oz reports Patrick texted Stead that they had “both been trolled by a certain AFR columnist”.

For her part, Stead said she was “disturbed” by the text. We can see her point.

So why the dramatic newsroom beef? Well, the two have a bit of recent history. Last year, Aston took umbrage with a few pieces from Patrick, quoting research out of Harvard ranking Australia’s economy as less sophisticated than Senegal’s.

Aston returned fire with a fairly forensic take-down of Patrick’s piece — pretty unheard of for fellow reporters at a well-established masthead like the Fin.

So it has come to pass that the LA-living Aston himself is now the subject of a rival gossip column. But will he care? Unlikely. Aston is a writer unafraid to come across as a total and utter jerk.

That’s probably why many keep clicking — and why his masthead stands so solidly behind him, despite noise that Aston may have outstayed his welcome. As one of his countless targets has told Crikey, “the big end of town is seriously over it”. 

But, in case you’ve just come across him, here’s a short history of Joe Aston.

The origin story

How does a lad from Hobart get to become Australia’s most annoying gossip columnist? In Aston’s case, it helps to know the right people. After uni, he wound up working for Joe Hockey, then in charge of WorkChoices, in the final days before the Ruddslide wiped it all away.

At an address given to the Sydney Institute in 2013 where he railed against political correctness, Aston described the job as “like selling cancer”. But it’s a stint that’s certainly helped him.

Aston, if his Instagram is anything to go by, is still chummy with Hockey. And working alongside him in Hockey’s office was “long-suffering friend” James Chessell, himself as AFR alumni and now executive editor at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, who first tapped Aston, then working in airline PR, for the Rear Window column. 

Eight years on, and Aston has truly made it. He files his columns from LA, and occasionally gets to moonlight as a foreign correspondent, to resentful rumblings for the stragglers in the media back home.

He also gets to swan around on James Packer’s yacht. According to the Herald’s gossip-whisperer Andrew Hornery he’s become such a regular guest that the entourage there calls him “Gilligan”.

Curiously, while every other badly-behaved mogul gets the full Aston treatment, not a word has been said on Packer.

The controversies

Since 2012, Aston has run a column that is equal parts caustic, irreverent, wildly amusing and at times downright nasty. 

He wrote a piece rightly calling out former Australian cricket coach Darren Lehmann’s racist and homophobic language. But as ABC’s Media Watch reported, he also penned a slew of fairly tasteless jibes about The Australian’s former media editor Darren Davidson, who had, in Aston’s words “the deepest throat since Bob Woodward”.

A comment about Jewish bankers on the ABC board caused muttering anti-Semitism complaints. Those mutters arose again following an October 2020 column describing Kogan consultant Barry Lewin as “the Melbourne Jewish establishment’s favourite fixer”. Aston issued an apology. A rare event.

Lines are occasionally crossed, and sometimes the consequences are costly. As far as we can tell, he was last in court thanks to former News Corp CEO Kim Williams, who sued for defamation over false front page claims he stormed out of a meeting with Opera House Trustees. The Fin had to pay $95,000.

Certainly Aston is no bleeding-heart leftie. In 2016, when Fairfax colleagues went on strike over job cuts, Aston praised colleagues who, like himself, came into work. “I am not a scab,” he wrote.

The targets

Say what you will about Aston, he has a way with words. He described author and columnists Peter FitzSimmons as a “moneyed North Shore bloviator” and talked about Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Brendan Pearson getting “quietly taken out the back for a hearty breakfast of shotgun muzzle”.  He calls Kevin Rudd the “Nambour narcissist” and former Rio Tinto boss Jean-Sebastien Jacques a “nauseating greenwasher”.

Aston’s finest work might be this riff on the great Scott Morrison Engadine maccas meme, using the baseball-capped one’s exaggerated love for the Cronulla Sharks to mark him out as the “phoniest prime minister of all”.

Looking back over Aston’s output, it’s surprising there hasn’t been any more high-profile legal trouble. A big reason for that is wrapped up in the nature of gossip columns, says Marque Lawyers managing partner and Crikey columnist Michael Bradley.

“Gossip columnists tend to get away with more, partly because they do this dance with their subjects where there’s value in exposure, and so people allow a bit more licence,” he said.

There can be benefit in getting ripped in the Fin. Because who knows when you might need the ripping to be done in your favour. Then there’s the fact people tend to be a little confused by media law.

“There’s also a misplaced common assumption that they [gossip columnists] have an extra licence when they don’t,” Bradley said.

In Aston’s case, there’s also the fear that taking him on only makes it worse. As one source put it, “you don’t want to get into a shooting match with him because he will keep doubling down”.

Obviously Elaine Stead didn’t get that memo.