Mike Carlton: From hard-nosed journo to house-husband
MIKE Carlton might have a reputation for being outspoken, opinionated, controversial, but when we telephoned him for this interview, we found him in his kitchen prepping for dinner before going out on the school run to pick up his nine-year-old son.
At 72, the Sydney broadcaster, journalist, commentator, columnist, television and current affairs reporter has more than 50 years' experience in the cut-throat media industry, but now he's a mellow fellow, relishing his role as house-husband while his wife, Morag, 28 years younger than him, works long hours as a producer of ABC's 4 Corners program.
"I did not believe it was possible when I heard our son was about to be born," he said. "I was shocked, thought it would interrupt my serene retirement, but it has been an absolute joy to have him. He keeps me young. I must keep up with life for him, keep up with the world for him. It is an incredible pleasure."
Mike Carlton has just released his memoir, On Air, a mighty 550-page tome recording his life - all the good, bad and the ugly - and while he set out to write his personal story, he has written a record of modern Australian history that every baby boomer will relate to.
"I did not consciously write it as (a record of our modern history)," he said. "But I didn't want it to be just about me. I wanted it set in the context of the times."
Those times Mike refers to begin in the 1950s, when, as a suburban school boy in Sydney, he lived with his widowed mother, younger brother and bigoted grandmother. Every penny counted in that household. Mike recalls time of great financial difficulty as a boy after his father died when Mike was just five and his mother struggled to keep the roof over their heads. However, it was also happy time, an enlightening time of modest ambitions and boyhood rites of passage. Unable to afford a university education he left school at 16 and gained a journalism cadetship with the ABC, a journey that began humbly but eventually propelled him to the very top.
"I would like to think my book speaks to baby boomers," he said. "Things were a lot simpler then in terms of everything from schooling to education. Now I look at my nine-year-old son, at the range of social media available to him, it's quite scary,"
In insightful and often hilarious prose, Mike has dredged his memory to talk of school days in Australia in the 50s, when education taught him little of the world and virtually nothing of real life. It wasn't until he wandered into journalism that he started to learn about the outside world, especially on assignment as foreign correspondent in Vietnam in the 60s.
"The Vietnam horror," he said. "I talk a lot about it in the book. I had had a sheltered life in Sydney and going out into that was an eye-opener."
One horrific account in the books tells of Mike driving into a village just over the border of Vietnam into Cambodia looking for stories with different angles, when he and his cameraman came across a burnt and raised village where hundreds of bodies, including many children, has been stuffed into a well. The impact on him was profound.
After stints as a foreign correspondent in Indonesia and Singapore, he returned to Australia, still a young man, but with eyes wide open to the short-comings of almost all our world leaders of the time.
"Vietnam was the real eye-opener," he said. "I learnt how politicians work, the lies and deceit by the Americans and the Australians. I did not believe it possible."
In the book Mike writes: 'the profound lesson I had learned was that authority has an infinite capacity to distort and lie to protect itself from the consequences of its mistakes."
Many such harsh criticisms and blatant statements are peppered throughout On Air, and Mike does not hold back in his scathing assessments, whether talking about Gough Whitlam, Indonesia's Suharto, or Queensland's Bjelke-Petersen who he describes vividly as 'pig-ignorant and cynically cunning, a grasping crook - barely literate, bumblingly inarticulate, but most certainly financially numerate - who plundered Queensland and its people and raped their democracy behind a pantomime of hayseed bonhomie.'
"I held a few things back but not a lot," Mike said. "There is no point in trying to gild the lily. No point going around in circles, a memoir should be as candid as possible."
Candid indeed. Mike does not hold back when it comes to criticism of some of the media industry's personalities, from radio broadcasters to television presenters to board members and management. Many enemies were made during his 50 years during the industry and his criticisms of those enemies are mocking, contemptuous, cutting...and always colourful. Is he worried about the backlash to his memoir?
"I'm nervous," he said. "Writing this is striping yourself bare. After all those years in the media I have built up a slate of both friends and enemies. I am more nervous about what my friends will think, and my brother. I don't really care what the enemies think. It was fun taking a stick to a few people. It would be dishonest to say it was not enjoyable."
Mike has two adult children and a 12-year-old grandson to his first wife Kerri, as well as his nine-year old son with his wife Morag. Now he has finished he is writing his memoir, he spends his days looking after the family household in Sydney's Pittwater, supporting his wife in her career, managing to fit in a swim and surf as often as he can as he believes 'regular immersion in salt water is essential to life.'
On Air is an important book of our political history, of our growing up and leaving colonialism behind, written in riveting and lyrical prose...unabashed, unputdownable. After reading it many egos will be bruised, some shattered, but Mike is beyond concern, heading into another direction with his now quiet and contented life.
"It took a while to get used to the slower pace of life," he said. "I am very glad I am out of the media. I was in it at the best of times, when the media was thriving. Now I eat very well and do things that keep the mind in trim. I like cooking dinner and doing the school run. My wife works ridiculously long hours on 4 Corners. I plan to be around for another 20 years."