by Carolyn Ovington from The Weekend Australian
Mark Latham was sacked from Sky News this week and plenty of people are cross about it, especially our readers. This I know because I took the time to go through the comments under the story that announced his departure from Sky (which, for the record, is now 100 per cent owned by News Corp, which also owns The Weekend Australian.)
People are saying he has been silenced. They’re angry about the way he has been denied his right to free speech.
OK, so before we get to whether Latham should or should not have been sacked, here’s some background. Latham was this year hired by Sky to host a program called Outsiders, alongside the editor of The Spectator Australia, Rowan Dean, and former MP Ross Cameron. These three made a big song and dance, right from the start, about how their show was going to be different from all the other panel shows on TV. They weren’t going to be all leftie PC. They were going to call it like they saw it, without fear or favour.
They were going to offend, and why not? There’s no law against it, and plenty of people are thirsting for a show that has some flame-throwers on it.
And so the show began, and Latham — once the leader of the opposition, who came really close to winning the Lodge — started attacking people. His first target was Sky colleague (and this paper’s contributing editor) Peter van Onselen, whom he called a man toddler. Next was van Onselen’s wife, Ainslie, for the work she did on diversity projects while at Westpac; then he went for another Sky colleague, former Labor premier of NSW Kristina Keneally, whom Latham described as a “protege of Eddie Obeid”.
Wait … what? Obeid is a former Labor minister who is now in jail on corruption charges. So what was Latham actually saying when he described Keneally was Eddie’s “protege”?
He must have known he was sailing close to the trip wire that is defamation law in Australia with that one, and if not, well, he should have known, because Keneally promptly lodged a complaint with Sky management.
This was the moment for Latham to pause and reset. But Latham doesn’t seem to have a pause and reset button. He kept going.
His next target was the ABC’s Wendy Harmer. She had tweeted that she didn’t like Latham’s show, so he said: “Wendy, of course, we know her well. She’s a proven commercial failure, so naturally she got a job at ABC radio at the sheltered workshop there for all the lefties.
“She fits the criteria: she’s female, she’s got a disability — that’s what they mean by diversity.”
Now, I’m not a defamation lawyer, but surely even people who aren’t trained journalists can see what he’s done there. There’s a difference between expressing an opinion and saying something that isn’t true, and what Latham said wasn’t true. Harmer doesn’t have a disability, and even if she did, so what? That’s not why the ABC hired her. She’s also not a commercial failure. She’s a successful stand-up comedian, radio broadcaster, TV host and author. That’s why you know her name.
At this point, somebody should have realised that Latham was in trouble. The rules of defamation law are fairly simple. You can be offensive. You can be rude. You can be biased and revolting. But you can’t be wrong. (For the record, Harmer did not want him sacked; she wanted an apology.)
But it was already too late, since reporters had found, or been alerted to, yet another clip of Latham being offensive on Outsiders — and this time, the target was a schoolboy.
He picked on a schoolboy, saying he thought the kid, who had made a YouTube video for International Women’s Day, was gay.
OK, you wouldn’t put up with that on the school grounds, so why did Latham think he would get away with it on TV? Which of course he didn’t: as soon as Sky News chief executive Angelos Frangopoulus became aware of the comments, he sacked Latham.
And here is where it gets tricky. This is a free-speech newspaper, and if the comments on the story about Latham’s sacking are a guide, many of our readers don’t believe he should have been sacked. Here’s a sample: “I cannot tell you how appalled I am at this decision on Latham. It’s Orwell’s 1984 being played out for real.”
There have been reports of people cancelling their Foxtel subscriptions, such as reader Lyn, who wrote: “Rang Foxtel this morning, advised I was cancelling. The bloke at the end of the line was horrified that such a long-term customer would do such a thing.”
And this: “Pathetic from Sky News! What a disgrace. No such thing as free speech any more. Mark Latham was one of the best and most entertaining presenters. The thing we loved most was he was NOT politically correct.”
A Change.org petition has been launched to try to get the decision reversed. It says: “Mark Latham’s commentary on Sky News has been a breath of fresh air. He’s always called it as he’s seen it and many of us have appreciated his non-PC approach to current affairs. Far worse things have been said by the ABC’s Chaser boys over the years and the worst that they’ve ever copped has been a one-off two-week suspension of their show.”
The feeling is that Latham has been silenced for being politically incorrect. Now I don’t expect many people to agree with me, but I’m sorry, that’s just not so.
Latham was sacked because he picked on a schoolboy. To make the point more plainly: he’s an adult with a TV show, bullying a kid about his sexuality, or perhaps his manliness, because the kid spoke up for women on International Women’s Day.
It’s wrong for adults to try to humiliate kids. Do I really have to explain why? Should Sky have fired him for it? In my opinion, no, but I can see why it was thought he was just too loose a cannon to keep on contract.
Yet he still doesn’t seem to get it. In the days after he was sacked, his Twitter account, @RealMarkLatham, came back to life, and it is now full of complaints about how the PC warriors are winning the free speech war.
One of his followers asked him: “So where to now Mark? You have loyal followers who still want to see & hear you. Don’t give up please.” He Tweeted back: “Already fielding offers … to continue important work, free from those who cave in to pathetic PC outrage industry.”
But that isn’t what happened. Latham wasn’t sacked by Sky for speaking his mind. They let him go because they thought the risk of having somebody saying something defamatory was too high, and ultimately the costs of that outweighed the benefits. That’s not about free speech. That’s the free market.