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Columnists, in replying, need to exercise restraint of tirade

Date

Jonathan Holmes

Sydney Morning Herald writer Mike Carlton was wrong to abuse angry readers who reacted to his provocative Israel article.

For the past few days I’ve spent hours at a time on a boat on Cromarty Firth, in the far north of Scotland, scouring the water for the telltale cross-ripple of a salmon swimming just beneath the surface.

We haven’t seen many. There aren’t that many to be seen these days. But the air is clean, the slow dawns and dusks are stunning, and only the curlews’ calls and the distant hum of traffic heading for Inverness disturb the peace.

By allowing an email address to be printed at the bottom of his column, he was, it seems to me, entering into some sort of contract with his readers. 

Then I come back to my computer, and plug into the Australian websites I frequent, and the peace is brutally shattered.

So far as I’ve been able to tell, the debate over independence for Scotland – a decision that will vitally affect the lives of every Scottish resident – is being conducted in a civilised fashion. I watched the first televised debate between Alex Salmond (leader of the “Yes to Independence” charge) and Alistair Darling (leader of the “No” resisters). 

“Bad-tempered and unrevealing”, some Scottish commentators labelled it. To Australian ears, it was a model of feisty yet intelligent argument.

Back home, the political and media contest seems to get nastier by the day. And one of the feistiest cultural warriors has bitten the dust – or at least, has abandoned his frontline battle station on the back page of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Saturday News Review. 

I’ve known Mike Carlton personally, if not well, for more than 30 years. I loved his column. It made me laugh. And as he launched yet another vituperative attack on the army of right-wing columnists whom he so cordially loathed, he scratched an itch for tens of thousands of his readers.

Much has been written already about his demise. From this distance, the issues seem simple enough.

His column about the Gaza conflict would have made nobody laugh. It was angry, provocative and anguished. His pro-Israeli critics complained that it was “unbalanced”. So it was, but “balance” – that most wobbly of terms – is not a requirement of opinion columns.

Carlton is not responsible for the headline. He is not responsible for the cartoon that accompanied his piece. But by allowing an email address to be printed at the bottom of his column, he was, it seems to me, entering into some sort of contract with his readers.

“You can write to me,” that contract says, “and you will get a reasonable response.”

It’s not a contract I would want to sign – especially not if I wrote as Carlton does. He knew what was coming.

“There will be the customary torrent of abusive emails calling me a Nazi, an anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier, an ignoramus,” he wrote, “… some of this will be pornographic or threatening violence.”

As it turned out, he told Twitter days later, he received more than 700 emails. The vast majority, he said, were supportive – but even a brief acknowledgement of those would take hours. A considered reply to reasonable critics would take a lot longer.

We’re told that in the digital age, the old one-way, top-down communication of the “heritage media” is a thing of the past. Readers have a right to “engage” with journalists.

But columnists of Carlton’s popularity and penchant for provocation (and it was his very provocativeness that made him so readable) face an unalterable fact: there are hundreds or thousands of readers who want engagement, and only one of him.

Mainstream newspapers are asking a lot if they expect their columnists to respond to each and every reader without help or extra payment.  

But presumably no one forced Carlton to take on that burden. There are ways to make it lighter. Abusive and insulting tweets should always be ignored or blocked. Emailers can be sent a simple cut and paste response:

“I have read and received your email. However, I have made it a rule not to respond to readers who resort to personal insult or abusive language. Accordingly, I have blocked further incoming emails from this address. Regards…”

What you don’t do, ever – not to the most abusive, and certainly not to impassioned but reasonable critics – is tell them to get f---ed.  

If you’re the kind of person who is likely to be so provoked, far better not to print that email address in the first place. 

Columnists in the mainstream media still have a privileged platform, with a reach and clout that most bloggers and tweeters can only dream about. The price of privilege is that you don’t indulge in the foul-mouthed abuse so common in the murky depths of cyberspace.

No doubt both Carlton, and Sean Aylmer, the executive who told him in a late-night phone call that he was to be suspended for six weeks, wish in retrospect they had handled the matter differently; the result is a significant loss for Fairfax Media’s readers, and for the vibrancy of our national conversation.

As for you, dear reader, by all means leave a comment if you’re reading this online. I read them all, but I seldom, if ever, respond.  

Now I’m away to the Firth, for a breath of fresh air and some quiet.

Jonathan Holmes is an Age columnist and a former presenter of the ABC's Media Watch program.

40 comments

  • The Carlton article in question seemed to me to have been written late at night after several copious swigs at the cooking sherry. I've written emails and letters and speeches in such circumstances (frequently), but have always simply hit the SAVE button, never the SEND button - until the next day. Such passion-fired messages are best written with anger and creativity stoked by a drink or three - but should always be severely edited in the sober light of dawn, preferably while nursing a hangover to further emphasise cold stark reality.

    An entertaining writer (most of the time), but his ego sometimes got in the way of objectivity. And his utter inability to admit he was wrong (ever!) meant he never recanted his ill-advised 2012 support for Gillard's worst policy disaster, the Malaysia/Nauru combo.

    I am indebted to Carlton for his ROFL names for pompous right wingers, in particular "Lord Downer of Baghdad" and "Gerard Gollum Henderson" But how ironic that a writer whose major talent was the deflation of over-inflated egos should, in the end, be brought crashing down by nothing more than his own over-inflated hubris.

    Commenter
    Arthur Baker
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 13, 2014, 4:11AM
    • Although I deplore the extreme words that some people feel free to use anonymously in our cyber world, it is important to understand they exist. Some columnists will reply to nasty emails by reprinting a few disgusting blogs in the context of explaining the reaction and mentality of some readers to their story or comment. I welcome that insight and do not see it as exploiting their commented views further. As for the power of the writers words, real misuse (not Carlton) occurs when money talks in the form of shock jocks that generate large incomes from untrue, cruel and biased diatribe.

      Commenter
      LJanes
      Date and time
      August 13, 2014, 8:53AM
    • Carlton had a very funny writing style; but also, unfortunately, a very angry and bitter disposition.

      I loved his voice characterisation and ridiculous portrayal of the character Carlton created and voiced hilariously - Yessir Crackafat- very droll indeed!

      And the legal firm "Sue, Grabbit & Run." Made me laugh every time.

      And as a wearer of Speedo budgie-smugglers - I will never forget his 'defence' of Tony Abbott's choice of swim wear!

      Carlton was the only 'eco-warrior' to traipse about in an V12 E-type Jag - kudos!

      Commenter
      Marky
      Location
      Beach
      Date and time
      August 13, 2014, 9:49AM
    • Sue, Grabbit and Run come from Private Eye…probably a Peter Cook invention.
      Dr Carlton (whom God preserve) swiped it.

      Commenter
      Keith Grabbit
      Date and time
      August 13, 2014, 4:09PM
    • Beagle: No balance in your comments either. I agree Hamas bears much blame but what of the
      500 odd Palestinian children killed, the lack of restraint by the dominant power, the underlying injustice of illegal settlements, etc?

      Mike Carlton will be sadly missed. Look who is left standing - they are almost all on the
      far right side of the political fence. An Australia dominated by right wing commentators makes me want to emigrate, or at least gag.

      Commenter
      Badger
      Date and time
      August 14, 2014, 2:20AM
    • G'day, Arthur B
      Jonathan H - thank you for this opinion piece.
      I would like to repeat an earlier post.
      Indeed, there is a risk in making political comments – some cheer you and others jeer. It is an occupational hazard for any opinionista – of the Left or Right.
      The more strident and confronting your manner, the more it provokes a similar response - it is, in my view, part of a vibrant democracy.
      I doubt Mike’s supporters or critics would want his (at times, indisputably sharp and contrary) views altered or silenced; even his antagonists like Bolt or Jones.
      People on either side of the political fence may have experienced 'pressure' to temper their views - or their response to critics
      For a while, I thought there may have been a SMH fatwa - on talking about MC.
      Until now, in the SMH, there has been little mention of his name - following his meltdown in response to complaints about his latest opinion piece. Jeez, he went off like a munitions factory that had taken a direct hit.

      It appears some of his colleagues have simply stepped over his literary corpse – without breaking stride.
      So, before people forget he was ever here. 

      Oh..

      Mike oh Mike, now what to think?

      Intemperate words, such a stink.

      Crass tweets brought all that heat.

      No alternative but to cop it sweet.

      Oh..

      What a fuss - the muck did hit the fan,

      As to your fate Mike, take it like a man.

      An irony, your words such opprobrium did bring, 

      For your object of derision, Bolt - t'was a similar thing.

      Commenter
      Howe Synnott
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 15, 2014, 12:25PM
  • I disagreed with Mike about 95% of the time, however on the issue of Gaza he was absolutely right in pointing out what was happening and he has a right to express his views as long as he doesn't break any laws.

    From what I heard he was goaded by the likes of Austen Tayshus and trolls who had 2-3 followers on Twitter but racked up hundreds of posts calling him a Nazi and anti-semite. I believe that more powerful forces were at play in this situation and this worries me because the demise of Mike Carlton speaking out will now deter others from reporting the facts the next time 4 unarmed kids without a militant in sight are killed on a Gazan beach or a UN shelter is bombed.

    If Mike didn't response back with language I believe these more powerful forces would have continued through other means to pressure Mike and Fairfax until they got their outcome.

    Commenter
    Piped Piper
    Date and time
    August 13, 2014, 6:22AM
    • Well Pipes, I disagree with 95% of what you say most of the time, but I certainly support your attitude towards the brutal invasion of Gaza. Mike reacted in a
      way that ,in my opinion was justified, and JH using the "don't come in the kitchen if you can't stand the heat" type analogy is equally applicable to his attackers. I have my own personal opinion on Mike being "disciplined" by SMH management, which is that there's more to it than meets the eye; I leave it up to you to decide what.

      Commenter
      phillyj
      Location
      Mullaway
      Date and time
      August 13, 2014, 7:53AM
    • We didn't need Carlton to tell us the fact of 4 kids being killed on a beach. That fact got blanket msm coverage, and no one is going to be deterred from reporting facts by what's happened to him. Many other "facts" have come to us through the factually unreliable and media-savvy Hamas, and even the Foreign Press Association has belatedly slammed Hamas for threatening journos.

      Carlton is a commentator so he gets considerable leeway in expressing his personal opinion. While his column doesn't have to be balanced in the same way as a news report, it behoves him to use his column responsibly. His effort wasn't about initiating reasoned discussion on an important subject, it was about indulging his pre-conceived ideological views and inflaming what he knew to be a sensitive subject. He was almost salivating at the prospect of the "Likud lobby" responding so he could make his usual claims of world Zionist conspiracy, itself having sinister "cosmopolitan" connotations. Of course he can, and should, criticise Israel if he thinks it has done the wrong thing. But accusing Israel of genocide and ethnic cleansing, while glossing over Hamas's actions and stated goals which might reasonably give rise to security fears on Israel's part, is so devoid of balance as to be dishonest. He was misleading his readers by pretending there was no other side, that Israel's aim, simply, was to kill Arabs. Little moral outrage at Hamas's absence of morality in trying to kill Israelis and sacrificing its own people as human shields, and then chastising Israel for not leaving itself vulnerable to rocket and tunnel attack in order to compensate for Hamas's disregard for life. Carlton wasn't courageous, he was irresponsible.

      Commenter
      Beagle
      Location
      Northbridge
      Date and time
      August 13, 2014, 10:04AM
  • Which flies are you using for Salmon?

    Commenter
    Peter R Aust
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    August 13, 2014, 7:54AM

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