Mike Carlton
Wednesday, July 24, 2019
Justinian in Journalists, Mike Carlton, On the Couch, Tom Hughes

Veteran broadcaster, foreign correspondent, columnist and acidic Twitterer is on Justinian's Couch ... A masterful wordsmith ... Tireless combatant of the Murdocracy ... Issues with refrigeration and Christian piety ... The lure of the sea and its saltiness ... T.E.F. Hughes at the urinal ... Raging against the dying of the light 

Mike Carlton was an ABC war correspondent in Vietnam in 1967 and 1970 and for three years the national broadcaster's bureau chief in Jakata. This was followed by reporting stints in London, New York and various Asian capitals. 

He was part of the original team on the ABC's This Day Tonight in the 1970s. He turned to commercial radio, first at 2GB's top-rating breakfast show, then four years in London at the FM station NewsTalk. He collected a Sony Radio Academy gong in 1993 for Britain's best talk breakfast show. 

He also broadcast from Radio 2UE for many years, which included his famous satirical feature Friday News Review. More recently he wrote a illuminating column for The Sydney Morning Herald and hosted a three-part documentary for SBS called Indonesia: A Reporter Returns

He is the author of three naval histories - Cruiser: The Life and Loss of HMAS Perth and her Crew; First Victory 1914: HMAS Sydney's Hunt for the German Raider Emden; and Flagship: The Cruiser HMAS Australia 11 and the Pacific War on Japan

Last year he published his autobiography On Air, a romp through various feuds, friendships, family and follies.

He is married to Morag Ramsay the supervising producer at the ABC's Four Corners. These days Carlton is a lacerating Twitterer and right now he's on Justinian's couch ... 

Describe yourself in three words.

Serenely sardonic septuagenarian.

What are you currently reading?

Just finished Julia Baird's splendid biography of Queen Victoria. I'm now shovelling through a pile of salty old memoirs to gird myself for another book of naval history, this time on the RAN's storied Scrap Iron Flotilla of WW2.

What's your favourite film?

I have a warm spot for Peter Weir's Dead Poets' Society. But it'd be a toss up between The Battle Of Britain or Das Boot (The Director's Cut.)  I have an adolescent passion for war movies, which I can quote at length. "Tally ho, bandits 12 o'clock, Red Leader."  My particular favourites are those black and white British war films of the 60s, inevitably starring David Niven, Kenneth Moore, Trevor Howard, Richard Todd, Anthony Quayle and Jack Hawkins emoting through stiff upper lips and clenched teeth.  Susannah York got the occasional look-in as the love interest.  Curt Jurgens and Maximilian Schell made a tidy living from playing the beastly Jerry.

What is your favourite piece of music?

Almost anything by Beethoven, but pipped at the post by the Mozart Piano Concerto No 21.

The war correspondentWho has been the most influential person in your life, and why? 

Possibly Robert "Bert" Finlay, a ferocious martinet and deputy headmaster at my school, who dragged me screaming and kicking to Shakespeare and the glories of English.  But I would add to that a squad of long-deceased sub editors at the ABC who taught me how to write words to be spoken.   They were generally patient and kind enough to instruct a wet-behind-the-ears cadet in the black arts.  "Take that back and cut out the adjectives," they would cry. 

When were you happiest?

If we're talking naked hedonism, it would have been three rollicking years as a 20-something foreign correspondent in Jakarta, covering the downfall of Sukarno and the rise of Soeharto.  By day I was the ABC's Indonesia Bureau Chief.  By night I sang in a rock band, did dope and screwed around. For profound happiness, though, I recall watching the birth of my three children.

What is on your bedside table? 

The usual clutter of tissue boxes, eye drops, some of the above mentioned naval memoirs and an iPad that I cannot live without.

As a seasoned journalist can you tell us what's wrong with journalism today - if anything?

How much space have we got? Rupert Murdoch and his myrmidons are a cancer in the rectum of journalism and democracy on three continents. The Murdochracy business model in newspapers and television is to lie, cheat and distort to accrue power and profit. With a few exceptions, Murdoch's hectoring op-ed columnists, tabloid and broadsheet, are the dregs of the alt-right. The rise of crude populism personified by Trump, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison is due in no small part to his poisonous command of large chunks of the news media in the US, Britain and Australia. Sensibly, I have recently cancelled my subscription to The Australian after however many decades. It felt like the liberation of Paris.

That apart, we have lost a lot with the eclipse of the street-wise, working class journalist.  When I began in the 60s the trade was full of 'em: savvy and articulate men (and a few women) who had pulled themselves up out of high school by sheer talent and energy but remained grounded in the communities from which they had sprung.  There was a larrikin, iconoclastic vibe to the trade, and a thriving pub culture. Now it's all smart young things laden with the glittering prizes of "communications" degrees, delicately picking at their kale and ancient grain salads but with little or no understanding of how anything works. Much of the reporting from the Canberra press gallery is a depressing farrago of gotcha politics.

You are an inveterate Twitterer. Why is that so? 

God knows. Soaring narcissism, I suppose. A rampant ego.

What is your mission on Twitter? 

"Mission" would be putting it a bit high. But I do enjoy kicking against the pricks, afflicting the comfortable. I've been blocked by most of the federal cabinet and most of Murdoch's sewer columnists, a badge of honour.  It's actually quite an art restricting your slings and arrows to 240 characters, or whatever it is.   

Is it a worthwhile pursuit? 

Oddly yes. It can be the canary in the coal mine.  The first hint of breaking news often appears on Twitter, and you take it from there. There is a group of like-minded people I follow and who follow me, and they'll often point you to something interesting you might otherwise have missed, an article in the New Statesman or The Atlantic or whatever. And occasionally there is some very funny stuff too scandalous or salacious to make it into the mainstream media.

Who do you admire professionally? 

Teachers. My 10-year-old son is at a NSW state public school and his teachers all the way through have been fabulous: diligent, intelligent, dedicated to the kids in their charge. They work extraordinary hours for not much pay and they do it with skill, grace and enthusiasm. In a fair world they'd be paid much more than lawyers or journalists.     

What is in your refrigerator?

We have two. One is full of wine and cheese and Diet Coke and the weird stuff you stupidly buy on impulse, such as truffled aioli or pretentiously artisanal jams, sauces and curry pastes. We keep these for three years until they turn to penicillin and then throw them out. The other fridge has the usual kitchen clutter. And I shudder to think what's in the freezer sections.    

What is your favourite website?

I don't really have one. I flick around the news apps on the iPad. The ABC, NYT, The New Yorker, the BBC, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, the SMH among others. I confess to a peculiar addiction to Country Life magazine, the bible of the English squirearchy, which I devour weekly. A card-carrying Anglophile, I perve on the real estate porn. One day I shall buy a tastefully renovated, eight-bedroom Georgian vicarage and 40 acres somewhere in the home counties. They'll be going for a song after the lunacy of Brexit.

What words or phrases do you overuse? 

I can't think of any apart from "fuck off," which gets a fair run on Twitter. There are loads of phrases I abhor, though. "Reaching out" is my current hate.  

What is your greatest weakness?

Probably wearing Speedos. I once had the body for them but, alas, no more. But I don't care and nor do I have to. They are comfortable and practical for the kilometres I try to swim or paddle most days. 

The radio talk man in LondonWhy did you want to be a journalist? 

When I began at the age of not quite 17 it seemed rather a glamorous thing to be. Trench coats, smoke-filled newsrooms and people shouting " Hold the front page!" and so on. I had no noble notions of exposing crime and corruption or of speaking truth to power, or whatever the current buzz phrases are. Functionally innumerate and a scientific dolt, I knew only that I had done ok at history at school and could write a decent sentence. Yet I didn't have the money to go to university. Every newspaper in Sydney turned down my offer to work for them and for two weeks I was a Qantas executive trainee. Then, inexplicably, the ABC offered me a job as a cadet journalist. I have never worked out why. These days I would not even get in the door.

What other occupation would you have liked to pursue? 

Naval officer. The first adult book I read - at the age of eleven - was Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea, a searing account of the WW2 Battle of the Atlantic. I was mesmerised by it and I still am, to some extent. I had visions of myself hunting U-boats:  duffel-coated and salt-stained, eyes red-rimmed with fatigue, peering from the heaving bridge of a destroyer into the teeth of an Atlantic storm. "Starboard ten, slow ahead both, stand by depth charges." I came very close to applying for HMAS Creswell, the RAN's officer college, but was talked out of it by a naval officer friend of my widowed mother who explained that the job was wet, cold and poorly paid and that, anyway, my maths were shit.  

Readers might now be detecting a pattern here. Thwarted, I hurled myself instead into a passion for naval history, both British and Australian. I have read all 21 of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels three times. Beyond anything I did in journalism, I am most proud of the three books of naval history I eventually got to write, Cruiser, First Victory and Flagship.     

If you were on death row, what would be your request for your last meal?

Sausages. Fine fat pork and apple sausages with onion gravy, mashed potatoes and lashings of buttery, minted green peas.  With a bottle of Krug to wash 'em down.

If you were a foodstuff, what would you be?

The above.

What human quality do you most distrust?

Piety, particularly - although not exclusively - of the Christian variety. Religion has been the cause of most of our woes for centuries and it still is. Piety stands in the way of reason and common sense, and often in the way of plain old humanity, decency and kindness. Those who are genuinely pious speak of it least but act upon it. Ostentatious piety, flaunted like a weapon, is all too often a mask for hypocrisy, humbug, misogyny, homophobia, vindictive cruelty and, not least, the buggery of small boys.

What would you change about Australia?

It would be good to recover the energy and optimism of the Australian people at Federation and the years before 1914. Our forbears were aware they were pioneering not just a continent and a nation but a progressive variant of western civilisation born in an ideal of egality greatly superior to that of the Mother Country. They lunged forward and upward with universal suffrage, the secret ballot, and world-beating conditions for the working class. A century later we have forgotten all that. We have never been more prosperous, yet never more frightened of the future. 

Who, or what, do you consider overrated?

1). John Howard.  

2). The trickle down theory of economics. They are entwined, actually.  Howard's one great skill was to convince the masses to vote for him against their own self-interest. Inevitably he over-reached and hubris clobbered him in the form of WorkChoices.  His cold, dead hand on our political, economic and social growth will be derided by historians in years to come. 

If it is to survive, capitalism will have to reinvent itself in a model less selfish and greedy. I am a great fan of John Kenneth Galbraith's scorching dictum that trickle-down economics is "the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows". There are glimmers of hope here and there, but we need a few thieving bank executives and celebrity chefs banged away behind bars. Any immediate advance will founder, though, on the reactionary stupidity of Scott Morrison and Co.    

What would your epitaph say?

"Here lies a citizen of the Republic of Australia."

What comes to mind when you shut your eyes and think of the word "law"? 

Oddly enough, a vision of The Hon Thomas Eyre Forrest "Frosty" Hughes AO QC, Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur and quondam lion of the Sydney Bar. In 1986 Tom led for the plaintiff in the celebrated matter of Wran v Macquarie Broadcast Holdings Ltd & Anor, the then NSW Premier imagining that I had defamed him in a series of radio comedy sketches. Tom put me through a brisk day in the box, a duel from which we emerged with the score about equal, I think. I did enjoy his hoary old defo barrister's trick of quoting Shakespeare's Iago to the jury:  "... he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed," blah blah. 

It always sounds dead posh and generally works a treat, most juries being entirely unaware that Iago was the Bard's blackest villain. 

For the record, it was a hung jury and the matter sank without trace. But Tom and I met by chance in the gents' urinal while the jury was still out. "You earn your money, Mr Hughes," I told him. "And you yours, Mr Carlton," he replied with a wintry smile. Many people thought he was an arrogant old sod, but I always found him genial when our paths crossed. He did personify a certain grandeur of the law long since evaporated. 

 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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