Joe Aston
Joe Aston (Image: Instagram)

The collective media pile-on to Australian Financial Review columnist Joe Aston has been as predictable as it has been pathetic. Business and media writers have always bristled against the abrasive, effective and popular Aston. Now they get to sit back and enjoy his defamation trial.

Aston is facing action brought by former Blue Sky venture capitalist Elaine Stead, against Aston and Nine, for several articles written about Stead in 2019. Among other things, Aston called Stead a “feminist cretin” who “set fire to people’s money”.

Aston’s willingness to criticise the ever-increasing gallery of rogues, scoundrels and sycophants that has permeated the finance sector, in the grand tradition of Trevor Sykes and Stephen Mayne, means he is one of the few remaining Australian business journalists who still makes compulsory reading.

Even the usually excellent Adele Ferguson last week used her column to attack a foreign “short and distort” gang who somehow cost investors billions — ignoring the fact that short-sellers have saved Australian investors billions by exposing companies like Blue Sky, Quintis, WiseTech and Corporate Travel Management.

Anyway, back to Joe.

Stead’s litigation was thought to be funded by multi-millionaire private equity figure Mark Carnegie. That rumour was shot down, but it’s true that Carnegie has hired her at his investment firm.

Carnegie, a true riches to even more riches story, is an Oxford graduate and the son of legendary McKinsey consultant and CRA boss Sir Roderick Howard Carnegie AC. He appears to have recently taken up the (genuinely worthwhile) cause of female executives.

Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald last year, Carnegie said that he was hiring Stead to “help … with a series of investments where I’m convinced she will do as good a job as a top decile man. I do this not for fashion but because I’m greedy. She is going to make me a ton of money. That she has got so much flak for the demise of Blue Sky relative to the men who actually ran the organisation seems unbelievable to me”.

And therein lies the kicker.

While Aston wrote two highly (perhaps overly) critical articles about Stead, he penned far more prose about Stead’s bosses at Blue Sky — Mark Sowerby and Rob Shand. For example: here and here and here and here. Oh, and here.

Aston was one of the few to brave the investment banking and fund management mob and dare criticise Blue Sky’s (mostly male) leadership, even while his AFR stablemates like Tony Boyd were defending them.

Ever the cheerleader, Boyd — who occupies Australia’s most blue chip journalistic real estate on the AFR’s back page — once called Blue Sky “arguably the most successful diversified alternative asset manager in Australia”.

It is not without irony that while Sowerby (who pocketed almost $40 million before Blue Sky imploded), Shand and Stead appear to have escaped the Blue Sky carnage with nary a whimper and certainly no serious legal charges, Aston is the one on trial. Remember: Blue Sky’s market value hit almost $1.3 billion before it collapsed.

One suspects amidst all the hyperbole, Aston himself is probably chuckling at all the attention the case has received, fully aware that Stead and Carnegie appear to be unfamiliar with the Streisand Effect.

Meanwhile, AFR readers are all the poorer — Aston’s column hasn’t appeared for more than a month, while the trial has been progressing.