This Whole Mike Carlton Mess Is Terrible For Australian Press Freedom. Here’s Why.

A few nasty tweets should be the least of our worries.

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Please be advised: the following article contains political cartoons that may be offensive or distressing to some readers.

On Wednesday, respected Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton resigned from his post after he was reprimanded by his editors for attacking some readers who responded to a column of his on the Gaza conflict. After initially receiving a slap on the wrist, Carlton resigned after he was informed he would be suspended for four to six weeks over the incident.

On the face of it, the SMH has a decent case to make for Carlton’s dismissal; while Carlton received significant abuse for speaking out against Israel’s crimes, his responses clearly went against many of the paper’s policies. As editor-in-chief of the SMH and Sun Herald, Darren Goodsir, argued that “in dealing with our readers, it is a basic principle that our staff, columnists and contributors should always behave with respect and courtesy.”

Dig a little deeper however, and there’s something wrong. This sort of behaviour isn’t actually new from Carlton. He has never been one to shy away from engaging with his readers, with a  long history of telling readers to ‘piss off’, ‘fuck off’ and ‘go fuck a pineapple’. All  this time, the SMH has let him go, letting his writing speak for itself. The question is, therefore, why now?

To give us an answer it’s worth looking at the other scandal that embroiled the paper this week. On Monday the SMH publicly apologised for publishing a cartoon from Glen Le Lievre showing an old man sitting on a couch with a remote control in his hands, casually overlooking explosions on the Gaza strip.

The cartoon, which accompanied the very column Carlton has lost his job over, was criticised for having strong resemblance to images circulated during Nazi Germany, mainly because the man was drawn with a large nose, wearing a kippah and with the Star of David emblazoned across the back of his chair. On top of this, it invoked an inappropriate element of religion in its criticism of the violence in Gaza. In other words, it criticised Jews for the violence against Gaza, rather than criticising the Israeli state for it.

There is little question that the SMH was right to apologise in this instance; the cartoon was offensive and shouldn’t have been published in its original form. The bigger question, however, is why The Australian has not undergone similar critiques. Around the same time as Le Lievre’s cartoon appeared, Australian cartoonist Bill Leak published a cartoon titled “How the West Was Won Over” depicting a Palestinian man sending his child out into the warzone with the caption “There! Now you go out to play and win the PR war for daddy.”

australian palestine cartoon

While it lacked much of the religious symbolism of Le Lievre’s work, the mere image of a Palestinian person sending out their child to die is extraordinarily racist. It is an image of the ‘savage’ that is willing to sacrifice his own children for his cause — an image we would never accept if the person was white. Yet while the SMH was attacked ruthlessly for its cartoon and has since apologised, The Australian has gone largely untouched.

This highlights an extreme double standard that runs through our media and society when it comes to the treatment of the Israeli/Palestinian debate, and the broader Arab World: bigotry towards Jewish people is still taken far more seriously than bigotry towards Arabic people in our society.

A significant chunk of this is due to a strong Islamophobia that still exists in Australia. As Jeff Sparrow has pointed out, while Le Lievre’s cartoon was the subject of a vigorous campaign, including intervention from Attorney-General George Brandis, highly racist cartoons depicting Muslim people are ignored on a regular basis, leaving racists free to attack Muslims in the most awful kind of way and get away with it.

The most nauseating example of this came earlier today, when the Daily Telegraph apologised for Photoshopping Carlton’s head onto a picture of a man running from the Boston bombing, adding a keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian headscarf, for good measure.

But when it comes to Israel, there’s more at play. We’ve heard about the influence of the Israel lobby before; earlier this year, former Foreign Minister Bob Carr spoke out about the lobby’s role in politics, claiming it wielded “extraordinary influence” on Australian policy during his time in government ranging from intense political lobbying, donations to election campaigns and sponsored trips for politicians and journalists to the region to show the Israeli government’s perspective.

What this past week shows is that this sort of influence has extended into our media as well. Both the SMH’s cartoon and Carlton’s column have been subject to intense campaigns from the Israel lobby, with Mike Carlton directly associating his suspension to a co-ordinated campaign either by the Israel lobby, or on their behalf.

The big thing he did wrong was to annoy the wrong people — a lobby that has powerful interests both in our political system and media. As Jeff Sparrow explained over at Crikey, if it had been the other way he would probably still have a job:

Oh, of course, we’re told Carlton’s offence pertained not to his column but rather his salty interactions with aggrieved readers … but if you believe that, there’s a nice bridge in Sydney you might want to buy. Had Carlton produced the usual liberal boilerplate on Palestine (“really, they want Israel to drop bombs on their kids”) and then cussed out a reader who objected, does anyone really suppose he’d now be on the unemployment queue?

With the power of the lobby behind it, criticising Israel (unlike criticising the Muslim world) as a journalist has become extremely difficult. Write a column like Carlton’s and you should expect a coordinated campaign against you, both professionally and personally.

Of course the lobby has the right to do this sort of work, and when it came to Le Lievre’s cartoon they had every right to speak up. But it becomes extremely problematic when media outlets succumb to their power, instead of sticking to journalistic principle.

It is laughable to think that Carlton’s sacking was because of his emails – if his abusive language was a problem he would have been gone a long time ago. Carlton is another scalp for a powerful Israeli lobby. And that is something that should worry all of us who care about a brave and rigorous free press.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner who writes on issues covering politics, the environment and sex, gender and sexuality. He blogs here and tweets at@SimonCopland.

Feature image via the Daily Telegraph.