Bullying, abuse and free speech

Aug 11, 2014

ABC Media Watch

Paul Barry analyses the backlash against journalist Mike Carlton who criticised Israel’s attacks on Gaza and examines two controversial cartoons depicting the conflict in Gaza.

By Paul Barry
Presented by ABC Media Watch


‘Jewish bigot’, ‘pissant’, ‘Likudnik’: Carlton ordered to apologise for torrent of abuse

From: Mike Carlton

To: Yury

You’re the one full of hate and bile, sunshine. The classic example of the Jewish bigot. Now f–k off.

— The Australian, 6th August, 2014

Hello, I’m Paul Barry, welcome to Media Watch.

And it’s been a tumultuous week for Mike Carlton, one of the marquee columnists at Fairfax Media.

Or should we say EX-columnists. Because by the time that front-page story in The Australian hit the streets on Wednesday the veteran journalist’s downfall was complete .

Mike Carlton resigns from Fairfax Media after tense pressure from anti-semitic backlash

— News.com.au, 6th August, 2014

So how did one of Australia’s most popular-if polarising-left-wing columnists go crashing down in flames?

Well, the trouble began with Carlton’s column three Saturdays ago , which launched a passionate attack on Israel’s strikes into Gaza.

The images from Gaza are searing, a gallery of death and horror. A dishevelled Palestinian man cries out in agony, his blood-soaked little brother dead in his arms. On a filthy hospital bed a boy of perhaps five or six screams for his father, his head and body lacerated by shrapnel.

— Sydney Morning Herald, 26-27th July, 2014

In an eloquent, angry and sometimes intemperate column-in which Carlton used the words fascism, and genocide-which in my view was wrong-the Herald’s opinion writer told readers:

It is a breathtaking irony that these atrocities can be committed by a people with a proud liberal tradition of scholarship and culture, who hold the Warsaw Ghetto and the six million dead of the Holocaust at the centre of their race memory.

— Sydney Morning Herald, 26-27th July, 2014

Call him brave or call him stupid, Carlton knew his fiery words would unleash a barrage of criticism.

Indeed, he warned his readers and perhaps himself:

There will be the customary torrent of abusive emails calling me a Nazi, an anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier, an ignoramus. As usual they will demand my resignation, my sacking.

— Sydney Morning Herald, 26-27th July, 2014

And indeed there was.

And indeed they did.

MIKE CARLTON: I got a fortnight of, of abuse, of threats of violence, ‘you filthy piece of Jew hating Nazi slime, people like you started world war II, Catholic Jew baiter,’ and, and so on.

And there was just torrents of this, this filth. And once or twice I snapped and hit back. We do that in this country. Occasionally you, you go and tell people to go and get effed.

— ABC Radio 702, 6th August, 2014

And THAT was what did for him.

When some of his abusive retorts were handed to the Herald by The Australian’s Sharri Markson, Carlton was first ordered to apologise … and then suspended, whereupon he resigned, as the Herald’s editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir, ruefully explained to ABC 702.

DARREN GOODSIR: I made a decision that Mike’s inappropriate behaviour with some of our readers and correspondents, you know, crossed the line and that he should apologise, but a senior executive at this company determined that that was not an appropriate sanction, and I respect that, and that was the, the message that was sent to Mike late last night.

— ABC Radio 702, 6th August, 2014

Around 10 o’clock on Wednesday morning, Carlton made his resignation public, tweeting to his 30,000 followers:

Confirming I have quit the SMH, sad that a once great newspaper has buckled to the bullies. Thanks for your support…maintain the rage.

— Twitter, @MikeCarlton01, 6th August, 2014

Soon afterwards, he was telling the Guardian’s Amanda Meade , who worked for The Australian for many years, that it was not just the Jewish community that had caused the Herald to lose its nerve.

“The immense pressure from News Limited has got to them, and that is the worst part of it.”

— The Guardian, 6th August, 2014

And sure enough, over on The Australian’s website at about this time, the paper’s media editor Sharri Markson was indeed claiming the credit for Carlton’s scalp.

Yesterday afternoon The Australian sent Goodsir at least 15 examples of inappropriate, abusive and at times anti-Semitic language Carlton has used in his emails and tweets to readers.

— The Australian, 6th August, 2014

Next day, neither The Australian nor the Daily Telegraph could hide its glee, with News Corp’s Sydney tabloid devoting two whole pages to the Carlton row , and inviting two of its most outspoken columnists to condemn him.

Tastelessly, the Telegraph portrayed Carlton as a tattered, shell-shocked Palestinian …

… suggested crudely that he liked a beer.

Carlton Shaft

— The Daily Telegraph, 7th August, 2014

And called him variously:

Mad Mike, Grouchy Grandpa and Bitter and twisted.

And if you hadn’t already got the message that media wars in Australia can almost match the Middle East for ferocity, the Tele then threw a few bombs at Carlton’s employer as well:

The Sydney Warring Herald

Imploding. Always.

IN the end, the weight of hate was far too much for Fairfax to bear.

— The Daily Telegraph, 7th August, 2014

So, was all this good clean fun?

I hardly think so.

And this made it dirtier still

Because that doctored photo of Mike Carlton wasn’t actually from the Gaza conflict, tasteless as that would have been.

The Telegraph had in fact defaced this image of a victim in the Boston Marathon bombing.

Its action soon brought a storm of outrage on Twitter which was followed by an unconvincing apology from the Telegraph’s editor .

But let’s get back to Mike Carlton. And let’s be clear about a couple of things.

First: he was absolutely wrong to abuse his readers. And he can hardly complain about his fate.

But second: let’s admit that the opinions in his column also played a part in his downfall.

And … that taking sides against Israel in the Australian media-as he did-can be a dangerous business.

Take the furious reaction to this cartoon for example which suggests Israelis treat the bombing of Gaza like a video game or TV show.

Drawn by Glen Le Lievre, it illustrated Carlton’s column, and also provoked a flood of complaints, with government ministers even adding their voice, as The Australian faithfully reported .

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull rang The Sydney Morning Herald’s editor-in-chief, Darren Goodsir, to lambast him for running an anti-Semitic cartoon.

And Attorney-General George Brandis likened the cartoon to images from Germany in the 1930s.

— The Australian, 4th August, 2014

Shortly after these attacks, the Sydney Morning Herald issued a grovelling public apology

With editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir admitting the paper had made a serious error of judgment and adding.

It was wrong to publish the cartoon in its original form.

We apologise unreservedly for this lapse, and the anguish and distress that has been caused.

— The Australian, 4th August, 2014

Now we agree that that cartoon went too far. And we’ll come back to why in a moment.

But we couldn’t help noting that an equally contentious cartoon by Bill Leak in The Australian -which was so righteously ripping into its rival-did not create anything like such a fuss.



— The Australian, 31st July, 2014

Bill Leak’s cartoon claimed that Hamas fighters push their 5-year old sons into the firing line and want them to be killed.

And, as you may imagine, some of Australia’s Palestinian community found that deeply offensive, as Issa Shaweesh, from the Palestinian Advocacy Network, told Media Watch :

For Palestinians, it’s bad enough that our children are killed in their homes, while sheltering in UN schools and playing on the beach, but can you imagine how it feels to be portrayed as sending them out in the hope that they’ll be killed?

… This is not only racist and offensive but totally untrue. There is absolutely no evidence that Palestinians have ever done this and I’m at a loss to understand why a reputable Australian newspaper would demonise us in this way.

— Issa Shaweesh, Vice-President, Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, response to Media Watch questions, 8th August, 2014

So was The Australian’s cartoon any less objectionable than that one in the Herald that caused so much grief?

Especially since Le Lievre based his cartoon on photos of Israelis watching the bombing of Gaza and, reportedly, cheering.

Well, many in the Jewish community believe it was . And it comes down to the symbols or shorthand the cartoon employed-like the kippah, the nose and the Star of David.

The cartoon attributed to Jews generally a collective guilt for the deaths and suffering in Gaza.

It was an ugly antisemitic message and a calumny of Jewish people generally

— Peter Wertheim, Executive Council of Australian Jewry, response to Media Watch questions, 7th August, 2014

And in fact this view is shared by some on the other side of the conflict, with Issa Shaweesh from the Palestinian Advocacy Network telling Media Watch:

… the caricature of a hooked-nosed Jew with the Star of David on the back of his armchair was both unwarranted and indefensible. This is not what the Palestinian struggle is about and does not represent the sentiments of Australian Palestinians.

— Issa Shaweesh, Vice-President, Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, response to Media Watch questions, 8th August, 2014

As one cartoonist suggested: put Benjamin Netanyahu on the couch and it’s much less of a problem.

But what about that Hamas cartoon from Bill Leak which offended Palestinians but did not create a public outcry?

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry thought it was fine.

As did Bill Leak, who defended it in The Australian as obviously true, and in an email to Media Watch as:

… a well established fact that Hamas has been stashing weapons in schools while knowing full well this would turn those buildings, along with their occupants, into targets for Israeli attacks.

— Bill Leak, Cartoonist, The Australian, response to Media Watch questions, 8th August, 2014

Leak’s colleague at the Daily Tele, Warren Brown, also thought it hit home:

I thought Bill’s cartoon was something that made people think …

If you were genuinely worried about kids in hospitals and schools, then don’t fire rockets into Israel.

— Warren Brown, Cartoonist, The Daily Telegraph, statement to Media Watch, 8th August, 2014

But some of Leak’s fellow cartoonists felt it was just as offensive.

David Pope from the Canberra Times told Media Watch:

In treating the deaths as though they were solely the fault of Hamas it, in a way, dehumanised a whole people, as if Palestinians don’t care about their children and are just using them as pawns.

— David Pope, Cartoonist, The Canberra Times, statement to Media Watch, 6th August, 2014

The Guardian’s First Dog on the Moon said:

I can see why people would see Bill’s cartoon as being utterly repellent. While I don’t agree with Bill’s view, I think he got away with it.

— First Dog on the Moon, Cartoonist, The Guardian, statement to Media Watch, 7th August, 2014

The Courier Mail’s Sean Leahy had a similar but stronger reaction:

I would say that Bill’s cartoon is on a par in terms of offensiveness. They’re both independent opinions which are freely expressed and I think it’s just that the Palestinian cause doesn’t have that much vocal support.

— Sean Leahy, Cartoonist, The Courier-Mail, statement to Media Watch, 9th August, 2014

But whatever you think about either cartoon, there’s then the question of whether they should be silenced.

And whether the Herald should have backed down …. or toughed it out, as The Australian did, in the face of much milder criticism.

Fairfax cartoonist Michael Leunig was at the centre of a huge storm in 2002 when he had a controversial cartoon about the West Bank, refused by the Age.

Last week Leunig told Media Watch he believes the Herald should have stayed firm this time.

Every time an editor is forced to back down and make an apology it means the next time a difficult cartoon is put to him he won’t take the risk.

— Michael Leunig, Cartoonist, Fairfax Media, statement to Media Watch, 7th August, 2014

In a long and considered statement, Leunig also argued:

I think we need to be careful of getting rid of the truth speakers because that’s their job. It’s the cartoonists who have traditionally stood up for persecuted minorities whether they be Jews in the 1930s or Palestinians today.

— Michael Leunig, Fairfax Media, statement to Media Watch, 7th August, 2014

The last thing we asked Australia’s cartoonists was how difficult this conflict between Israel and Palestine is to comment upon.

And here the replies were extremely revealing.

Because cartoonists on both sides-and in the middle-spoke with one voice.

… I can’t think of any subjects that would exceed it when it comes to sheer level of difficulty.

— Bill Leak, Cartoonist, The Australian, response to Media Watch questions, 8th August, 2014

This particular topic is the most inflamed topic you can talk about as a cartoonist.

— Cathy Wilcox, Cartoonist, Fairfax Media, Statement to Media Watch, 6th August, 2014

This is the most difficult subject to address and the response is always the most hostile.

— Michael Leunig, Fairfax Media, statement to Media Watch, 7th August, 2014

On the scale of what’s controversial asylum seekers are about a two, on the scale of one to 10, and Gaza-Israel would be a 10.

— Fiona Katauskas, Freelance Cartoonist, statement to Media Watch, 7th August, 2014

Luckily for us, cartoonists are a brave lot and some are still prepared to go there.

But those more critical of Israel are more wary of doing so. And in the light of what happened to cartoonist Glen Le Lievre and to columnist, Mike Carlton, they may be less keen to say what they think in the future.

Ten years after he first ran into flak over Israel and Palestine, Michael Leunig flew into another firestorm in 2012 with this allegedly anti-Semitic cartoon :

First they came for the Palestinians and I did not speak out because I was not a Palestinian.

Then they came for more Palestinians and I did not speak out because I feared hostility and trouble.

— The Age, 21st November, 2012

This week Leunig told Media Watch:

The pressure I copped … was so significant and despairing. I came under a lot of pressure and toxicity and it becomes relentless. It’s an appalling state of affairs. I just think a lot of people now say ‘Don’t go there’. The pressure is very significant.

— Michael Leunig, Fairfax Media, statement to Media Watch, 7th August, 2014

It would be terrible in this country if debate were to be shut down because cartoonists or columnists were bullied into silence.

And almost of them cop vicious abuse from both sides of the political debate.

We should help them stand up to it, rather than cheer when they fall to the mob.

SO … let’s come back to where we started and Mike Carlton, who told Media Watch today :

I deeply regret this whole affair. With hindsight, yes, I should have kept my cool. But I was pushed beyond endurance. I am not the slightest bit anti-Semitic.

— Mike Carlton, statement to Media Watch, 11th August, 2014

Clearly, Carlton could have handled it better. He should not have abused his readers, and should not have stormed out.

But the Herald did not cover itself with glory either.

MIKE CARLTON: I was just fed up, you know, just fed up. I wanted some support from the paper.

RICHARD AEDY: All right, well I was gonna say. How do you think The Herald should have handled all this?


MIKE CARLTON: I think perhaps if they’d invited me in for a talk or something, you know. Not just an abrupt, brusque phone call at 10 o’clock at night saying, ‘we’re suspending you’.

I think, possibly, it could have been handled with a little kid gloves. I don’t know if that’s the word, maybe might have been handled a bit more delicately.

Maybe they couldn’t. Maybe they were in damage control and panic stricken and away they went. I don’t know.

— ABC Radio National, The Media Report, 7th August, 2014

The Herald managed it badly. And the upshot is that it has lost one of its most popular columnists and may well lose readers as a result.

More importantly, the Australian media has, for the moment, lost a brave and powerful voice.

And whether you liked Carlton’s column or not-and most of the time I did-that is not something to be celebrated as his enemies have done.

And you can a full statement from Mike Carlton and some fantastic contributions from those cartoonists [will be available to read 12 August 2014] and from the Jewish and Palestinian communities on our website, where you can also get a transcript and download the program.

And you can catch up with us on iview.

And contact me or Media Watch on Twitter, preferably without too much abuse. But until next week, that’s all from us, Goodbye.

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