When ego overtakes talent

Opinion from Peter Saxon

I’m not ashamed to admit it, I’ve long been a fan of Mike Carlton’s talent – ever since his 2GB days in the 1980’s when I used to listen for hours on a daily commute by car from the Blue Mountains to the city. I found most of his views in the same ballpark as mine and we shared a common love of all things Python. I even bought his book, Off the Air. It’s not Hemingway but it’s a fun read, if you like that unique Carlton comic style of writing. Which I do, it never failed to amuse me.

As much as I admired him and his Friday News Review on radio, most of all I loved reading his column in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was the first thing I’d read of a Saturday morning – these days, moments after it was published online. Now that little mall of pleasure has, sadly, been closed to pedestrians like me. As a writer, he has more talent in his little finger than I have in my whole body, as evidenced by that cliche I just used. He’d invent something original and more pithy.

For around 35 years, Mike Carlton’s been a favourite of mine, albeit one that’s deeply flawed. I first discovered that flaw back in the ’80’s while listening one morning. The exact details may be a little hazy but to the best of my recollection; the topic of the day was about a Vietnam veteran who, according to Carlton’s monologue, was being hounded by an uncaring Veterans Affairs department to immediately repay money that had been placed in his account in error due to their incompetence.

‘Surely a man who had served his country and was wounded in battle deserved better from his government,’ he railed. To answer for this outrage, Carlton had the Minister for Veteran Affairs lined up to to be interrogated after the 8 am news. He made it clear to his listeners why we should despise him, even before he was given a chance to utter a word.

When he came on, by the introduction he heard while waiting his turn on the phone, the Minister knew he was on a hiding to nothing. He trod very gently to suggest that although this man may have been a hero under enemy fire, it didn’t necessarily follow that he’d be an exemplary private citizen in peacetime. Simply put, he’d tried to keep money that he knew didn’t belong to him. The department had tried to resolve the situation amicably with a very reasonable repayment plan for the past nine months, to no avail. Their patience had run out. The Minister ended by making the point that ‘with some 137,000 other vets to look after, it would be unfair to them if individuals were allowed to get away with more than their entitlement.’

Carlton was having none of this. He’d already decided where this story was going to go. Hell, he’d already told his listeners, ‘blue ball, side pocket.’ Nothing the minister could say was going to make him miss and pot the black instead. I vividly recall the very first caller he put to air after the interview telling him, “Mike, you weren’t listening to what the Minister was saying.”

Nothing much has changed over the years. Many a time Carlton would follow his own path to a story’s conclusion and no amount of facts to the contrary could persuade him to veer from his pre-determined assumptions.

Whether he’d admit it or not, Carlton had set himself up as a champion of the left – a rare voice on commercial talk radio to counter the many on the right. If they said “black,” he’d say “white,” no matter where the truth lay. As much as I enjoyed his eloquent demolitions of Andrew Bolt, who he liked to call “Melbourne’s Village Idiot,” I cannot help but conclude that Carlton really is no different, only the village he comes from.

He never seemed to grasp the difference between professional rivalry and obsessive hatred. He was roundly criticised by many in the industry, me included, for his comments on the day of Stan Zemanek’s funeral in July 2007 telling his listeners he “loathed” and “hated” his former colleague and he would only go to his funeral “to check he was actually dead.”

His boss at the time, Graham Mott, described Carlton’s statements as “despicable” and “disgraceful.”

Derryn Hinch showed considerably more class, writing in The Age, ”Stan and I were never friends, but when I had my own brush with death at Cabrini Hospital last year, I got a call from Stan offering words of support. He really surprised me. He called to say, ‘cheer up, you’ll get through it.’ I asked him why he was calling me. I didn’t even know him, and at the time he was in much worse shape than me. I was really touched by that call.” 

Just last year, six years after Zamanek was buried, Carlton still couldn’t leave him in peace, accusing him of defrauding 2UE. What was the point of criticising a dead man when clearly the only people it would upset would be his family?

2UE insiders who have worked with him tell of wild mood swings. “You could tell what mood he was in by the way he walked into the office in the morning. And if it was a bad one, watch out,” I’ve been told by a source who did not wish to be named.

In the end, it was his ego that led to his resignation from the SMH last week. He’d written a number of abusive replies to some readers who were incensed at his controversial column of July 26.  

After discussions with Editor in Chief Darren Goodsir, Carlton had agreed to provide his written personal apologies to those readers who had received vitriolic emails and tweets from him. But as the issue became red hot, with the News Corp media fanning the flames, that agreement was overruled from higher up the Fairfax chain and Carlton was asked to make a public apology and cop a four to six week suspension. Carlton decided to quit instead.

In an interview with 702 ABC’s Richard Glover, Carlton claims that, “It was the torrent of filth I was exposed to myself” that made him snap and write equally filthy replies to some readers.  Yet Carlton offered little defence when Glover suggested that as a seasoned journalist surely he’d know what to expect from a topic as emotionally charged on either side of the Israel – Palestine conflict. His SMH colleague Paul Sheehan who takes an opposite view to Carlton’s on this topic also receives poison letters for his efforts but one can only assume that his professionalism prevents him from “snapping.” He either ignores the worst of the correspondence or provides a polite reply. 

As I made clear in my opinion piece on this issue last week, Carlton is being totally disingenuous by inferring that he was unprepared for the “torrent” of abuse. He was not only prepared, but he used his column of July 26 to goad a section of his readers to give him exactly what he got when he wrote, “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. As it’s been before, some of this will be pornographic or threatening violence.”

Carlton agreed with Glover that had his abusive correspondence come from a cadet journalist or a complaint centre employee or a waiter, he would have been dismissed and that the offer of suspension was probably a reasonable deal. But it seems to me it was his ego that prevented him from taking it. He was not going to back down, even if he was wrong – which he pretty much admits under Glover’s expert questioning. 

As respected Media columist Mark Day wrote in The Australian, Carlton, by his actions beyond his column, turned his talent into a tragedy.

Personally, the thing that galls me most about Carlton is that he quit on a whim because he didn’t like the tone by which he was asked to cop a suspension. Did he once think about his readers? Did he care about me? Who am I going to read on Saturday mornings now that he’s gone? Is this what I get for 35 years of loyal service as a fan? If the SMH had sacked him I’d be angry at them. But he quit, that’s why I’m angry at him.

No doubt, Mike Carlton will pop up elsewhere sooner or later. Notoriety is not a bad thing in this business and accordingly his Twitter following has reportedly increased by 5,000 since his parting with Fairfax. But I doubt I’ll remain a fan. I want my heroes a little less flawed. His talent is unquestioned. His intellect is enormous. Shame it’s been overtaken by his ego.

Peter Saxon







Tags: | | |