Death of a critic

By Barry Tucker                    12 August, 2014

“Being a broad church, you’re allowed to write what you want; he’s a commentator. But you can’t treat readers that way.”
— Sean Aylmer, group director, News & Business Media, Fairfax Media

The Sydney Morning Herald’s long-time columnist Mike Carlton resigned on 5 August, 2014, two weeks after writing a column critical of the way Israel handles its confrontation with Palestine.

The column attracted nasty responses on Carlton’s Twitter and email accounts, as Carlton predicted it would: “As usual they will demand my resignation, my sacking. As it’s been before, some of this will be pornographic or threatening violence.”

Carlton responded to some of the messages, eventually becoming frustrated and telling some to “eff-off”. He has said he told some others to “get f…ed”.

The ef language was brought to the attention of SMH senior editors, like Editor-in-Chief Darren Goodsir, who issued a public apology on 5 August for Carlton’s “inappropriate” and “offensive” language during correspondence with SMH readers.

At about 10 o’clock that evening, Fairfax Media’s group director, News & Business Media, Sean Aylmer, intervened to tell Carlton he would be suspended. Carlton told him not to bother because he would resign.

It appears Carlton resigned because his Editor-in-Chief, Goodsir, had initially asked Carlton to apologise for the language in some of his Tweets and emails but had been overruled by the more senior group director, Aylmer, himself a former SMH Editor-in-Chief, who ordered the suspension.

A curious aspect of this story is why the opposition News Corps’ Sharri Markson, Media Editor of The Australian, gathered up some of Carlton’s responses to irate SMH readers and handed them to SMH management. Given that the comments may have upset SMH readers and the newspaper’s bottom line, I can only conclude that Markson was alarmed by the possible effect on Fairfax’s end-of-year profit. I concede there may have been another motive.

On 7 August, Markson tweeted a link to this story in The Australian, claiming Carlton’s colleagues had brought him down. It’s behind the pay wall. During the previous day, Markson tweeted that she had sent Goodsir and Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood 15 examples of “abusive emails from Carlton”. Markson tweeted this bit of information and it was reported in mUmBRELLA.

News Corp newspapers have been campaigning against the publicly funded ABC, saying it should be broken up and privatised. They also campaign against ABC MediaWatch host Paul Barry and Mike Carlton, both of whom fight back.

Another aspect is whether the Jewish lobby put any pressure on Fairfax to take action against Carlton. It has been hinted at, but it is mainly speculation.

There are many interesting issues in this story. Another is the fact that Carlton has resigned from the SMH previously, over the issue of editorial independence. Did he see Aylmer’s intervention as another example of this?

Cartoonists have also played a role in this story. You will find the relevant cartoons in the links below.

The most serious issue is that the focus on Israel’s Right-wing Likud party government and its military forces in Ghaza has been diverted to an issue around the use of “offensive” terms. A lot of silly emotional reaction attaches itself to these expressions, which can’t mean anything other than “go away” or desist and the ef word itself has been ruled by courts as inoffensive and now in common usage.

What is really happening in Israel/Palestine (Israel’s expansion) is constantly being obscured by rhetoric, by war mongering and by the carnage created by both sides, equally incapable of sitting down together to work out a solution or to maintain peace.

The United Nations (which in my view created this situation) is useless in solving the issue. It seems everyone has overlooked the fact that the original UN mandated territory of Israel is the root cause of the on-going slaughter. Israel’s three isolated bits of land were surrounded by Arab forces hostile to the re-creation of a Jewish State. The Arabs declared they would wipe Israel out. War erupted at midnight on the day Israel was declared and it has continued in one form or another ever since. Ironically, Israel has expanded its parcels of land won by combat to include most of the territory it held in ancient Roman times and Palestine finds itself reduced to two isolated plots surrounded by an aggressive Israel.

Carlton yesterday made the Tweet below, in response to readers threatening to cancel SMH subscriptions:


And today, while still receiving abuse on his Twitter account, Carlton announced he had changed his email address and tweeted this, which may be his last tweet for a while:


The ABC’s MediaWatch had extensive coverage of the Carlton affair, with many links in the transcript.

Sean Aylmer discusses Carlton’s resignation with radio 2UE.

The Daily Telegraph Editor apologises for putting Carlton’s head on a Boston bombing victim to illustrate the Ghaza story.

Mr Denmore, media commentator Jim Parker, comments on the affair on his blog The Failed Estate.

Media website mUmBRELLA reports on the Carlton affair.

The Australian columnist Mark Day yesterday commented on the nature of Carlton’s response to criticism, and abuse, and questions whether a different approach would have been better.

Former MediaWatch presenter Johnathan Holmes comments on the wisdom of Carlton inviting response to his column and responding in the way he did.

@MikeCarlton01 on Twitter.

@sharrimarkson on Twitter.