joe aston elaine stead
Elaine Stead and Joe Aston (Images: SouthStart; Joe Aston/Twitter)

Australian Financial Review columnist Joe Aston is like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When he’s good — skewering the pretensions of an Australian bizoid — he’s very, very good. But when he’s bad — vindictive bordering on plain nasty — he’s horrid. 

And this week, in a “dreams do come true” Christmas present for half of corporate Australia, he’s in the witness box at the Federal Court in Sydney, copping a flogging. As more than 200 people logged into the live feed of the case, a happy feeling of schadenfreude settled over the city. Joe was finally getting his comeuppance.   

Dr Elaine Stead, former head of venture capital at fund manager Blue Sky Alternative Investments, is suing the AFR and Aston for defamation over a series of columns between February and October 2019, plus a tweet sent by Aston in October that year.

Yesterday, Stead’s counsel Sue Chrysanthou SC was holding the rubber hose, questioning him about his description of Stead as a “venture capital pyromaniac” and a “feminist cretin”.

Aston, top dog at the AFR, possessor of the largest expense account in Australian journalism and someone who possibly hasn’t caught on that “cretin” is ableist, was asked what sort of columnist he was. 

“Not a very popular one,” he laughed. “What kind of columnist am I? I’m lost.”

The counsel asked, did he sometimes use “shocking language”?

“Shocking is, I think, harsh,” he said. “Colourful.”

“Do you think that you’re fearless?”

“Yes.”

“You need to push boundaries to sell papers?”

“No, that’s not an imperative of mine, no.”

Aston agreed that he sometimes targets individuals, often over months or years, and that he occasionally goes out of his way “to take people down, using the Rear Window column”.

Mockery was part of his arsenal, he agreed. He had at one point referred to Stead as “Brick Tamland”, the dimwitted “gaping moron” from the Anchorman series. Aston said he was not intending to insult Stead.

“I did that to be amusing,” Aston said.

One of the problems for Aston is that Stead now works for M.H. Carnegie & Co, the investment house of Mark Carnegie. The venture capitalist has been calling out the poor treatment of women in corporate Australia for some time, penning a column in The Sydney Morning Herald last year entitled “The witch hunt against women in corporate Australia must be stopped”. 

In his characteristically blunt fashion, he asked, “Why is it that women struggle to get more than 5% of chairman positions at major Australian companies, but are asked to consume a much higher proportion of the shit sandwiches handed out for corporate governance missteps?”

Regarding Stead, Carnegie wrote, “the one investment we made together went to hell, through no fault of Elaine. Yet throughout that sorry tale she was nothing but a star.

“I’m planning to hire Elaine to help me with a series of investments where I’m convinced she will do as good a job as a top decile man …

“We are cowards when we don’t stand up and speak the truth about this. We need more courage and the lynch mob targeting women at the highest levels of business in this country needs to be stopped.”

If Stead wins the case, many of Aston’s previous targets could follow suit, proving the adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. In which case the LA-residing Aston — whose Instagram reveals a never-ending series of trips on James Packer’s boat, stays at the Chateau Marmont and the view from 1A on Qantas’ flights to the US — may come to an abrupt halt. 

Deep down, I have a sneaking admiration for people like Aston. The most important quality of all journalists and gossip columnists in particular is not wanting or needing to be liked.

In a world of fame-seeking “influencers”, there are few old-fashioned journos who still write like Aston; without fear or favour. As famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper said: “Two of the cruellest, most primitive punishments our town deals out to those who fall from favour are the empty mailbox and the silent telephone.” 

Peter Fray

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