The good journalist and the assassins

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Alexander MinkinThe media has copped a bucketing over the last few months, particularly the extensive section of the press controlled by News International.

In England the revelations that led to the closing of The News of the World, and the evidence given to the Leveson inquiry, have shown that self-regulation of the tabloids was a lame duck and is now a lost cause. In Australia the Bolt judgment and the clinical dissection of what is good and what is bad in The Australian by Robert Manne, together with the responses made to these events and the Ricketson inquiry, were less sensational. Although the emperor may have been without clothes, at least he was not running rampantly naked as in England.

But the discussion has called into question the claims of the media to be guardians of free speech and of transparent public life. The educated response to those pretensions now is, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The greatest threat to the right to free speech now comes from the lameness of the appeal to it made by representatives of the press when defending the indefensible. At its worst, it was encapsulated in the aphorism conjured by former News of the World journalist, Paul McMullen, 'Privacy is for paedos'. That nihilistic view would be shared by few.

But it points to the lack of grasp why speech should be free, and what kind of speech deserves that freedom. Arguments for freedom must be built around values.

Alexander Minkin, a distinguished Russian journalist recently visiting Australia, showed a way forward. He did so less by what he said than by what he represented.

Minkin came to journalism in Brezhnev's time, and like other independent journalists had to smuggle material abroad, to make critical points by indirection, and faced the constant threat of exile. After glasnost the press was free, but any investigation into political corruption or of the business oligarchy became increasingly dangerous. Over 200 journalists have been killed in Russia in recent years, including Minkin's colleague, Maria Politkovskaya.

The cost of freedom of speech can be seen in Minkin's description of an attempt to kill him. He giggles as he recalls how he was saved by the tiny dimensions of his apartment. His would-be murderers slipped over the rubbish tin, knocked over and fell under the book case, and got their iron bars stuck in the ceiling.

His humour masks his courage. But it is impossible not to ask what drives him to keep seeking what is hidden, bringing court cases before corrupted judges and hoping against hope for a better society.

The answer lies in the way in which he speaks about freedom and in the passion with which he excoriates its counterfeits. For him freedom is a sacred word. It does not simply refer to freedom from constraint but embodies a vision of humanity that links him to Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky, Mandlel'stam, Akhmatova and Solzhenitsyn.

For him, to be a journalist is a calling to live up to the name of man. Freedom of speech exists for a larger freedom impossible when public communications are debased to further the financial interests of proprietors or the political will of rulers.

One coming from such a rich and exigent tradition into the Australian debate about free speech and regulation must wonder if he has landed on Mars. Here free speech is understood almost exclusively as freedom from legal constraint.

Those who defended free speech in the context of the Bolt case rarely reflected on what values speech serves and what kind of freedom is appropriate. There was no moral world into which it belonged, no sense of a wider cultural and intellectual tradition in which speech and freedom were related. Free speech was defended for commercial reasons.

At about the same time the judges in the High Court Malaysia solution case were criticised for not bowing to the desires of the executive. The interests represented in these responses were precisely the adversaries of the freedom defended by Minsky and others.

In such a world closer regulation of the media, like the regulation of banks and finance, however undesirable, is almost inevitable. In the absence of moral values regulation is necessary to limit the damage caused by wanton words, and to provide redress when reputations are wilfully damaged.

But the example of Alexander Minkin and his brave colleagues shows that a nobler concept of journalism and a higher commitment to freedom are possible. But they are costly. 


 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, freedom of speech, free press, andrew bolt

 

 

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Existing comments

I have not read an article by Fr Andrew that I so vehemently oppose as this one.

Phrases such as "what kind of freedom is appropriate" and "damage caused by wanton words" set off alarm bells for me. They smack of a well-intentioned by dangerous paternalism. They assume that a certain class knows better than everybody else what is good for us all. Like an over-conscientious parent they will only let us see, read, hear and say what measures up to what they determine to be good and proper values.

Outside of inciting someone to violence or spreading lies about another, I would say let people duke it out over honestly held opinions.

The cure to all of the supposed evils and deficiencies that Fr Andrew names is given to him by freedom of speech itself. Via Eureka Street, he is free to call it as he sees it. He puts his opinion forth into the market place of ideas. Let people judge his opinion against the opinions of others and come to their own conclusions.

Mark Steyn, defending Andrew Bolt said, "If you are not in favour of free speech you find offensive, repellent, and loathsome, then you are not in favour of free speech at all and are on the side of creeping totalitarianism."
Patrick James | 12 December 2011


Yes, PATRICK JAMES, you hit the nail on the head - it's all about freedom to express an opinion, which yourself and Andy are doing right here. The problem is when false journalistic reporting is used as the basis of an opinion. Instead of having the conviction and courage to express his opinion, Andrew Bolt hid behind the facade of blatant lies about the "white" Aboriginal people he based his opinion on.

If he just stated his opinion that he knows nothing at all about Aboriginal people but he thinks many of them are rorting the welfare system, then he would just be branded a bigot, but would not have been dragged through the courts.

There is a very sharp line between journalistic reporting and opinion.

The reporting can still be false and inaccurate, but at least the source of the information is stated so that it can be verified.

In Bolt's case, his sources were false. But I bet that his opinion about Aboriginal people hasn't changed!
AURELIUS | 12 December 2011


I thought the point Andrew Hamilton was trying to make was that there is a higher concept of journalism and a higher commitment to freedom of expression than the concept and the commitment manifested by Australian journalists. Patrick James quotes Mark Steyn as saying: "If you are not in favour of free speech you find offensive, repellent, and loathsome, then you are not in favour of free speech at all and are on the side of creeping totalitarianism." Surely Mr James can see that Steyn has used a trick of logic beloved of Philosophy 1.01 lecturers. If Bacon wrote Hamlet, then Bacon was a great writer. Bacon is a great writer. Therefore Bacon wrote Hamlet. It is up to Steyn to prove the consequence of his argument, not just assert it. At least Andrew made his point by producing the example of some Russian journalists (Alexander Minkin et al) who have a noble concept of Journalism and a high commitment to Freedom. My quandary? I agree with everything (Marcus) Aurelius said: "Remember that to change your mind and follow him who sets you right is to be none the less free than you were before."
Joseph P Quigley | 12 December 2011


The Bolts of this world survives, nay, thrives on their infamy because there do gooders among us who believe that free speech is sacred to the point that anything can be uttered under its banner, eg I don't agree with what you said but I defend your right to say it etc. Like everything else in life there is bad free speech and good one. The former incites hatred and reaffirms people's prejudices that often lead to violence, the latter is based on sound judgement and reasonableness that restore life' equilibrium. Bolt's free speech mantra is pure propaganda of hate that is both insidious as well as disingenuous, the kind that raise the fear of people against others. That's not free speech as we understand it. Isn't it the same argument that says that although we don't agree what Hitler, Stalin or Mao, they have the right to say it under the blanket of free speech?
Alex Njoo | 12 December 2011


None of the responses to my post have answered the central issue that I have with Fr Andrew's article. Who ulitmately decides what is appropriate and moral? Who appoints the regulators of the press? Who approves of their values and morals?

If Bolt, or any other columnist or journalist, is thought to be guilty of bigotry, peddling lies, harbouring prejudices, then expose them by challenging them with words. Take their ideas to task, don't take them to court or ban them. Try to persuade people with your appeals to better ideas or values. Counter them with evidence.

Aurelius, as I read it, Bolt was found guilty of hurting people's feelings. Even if his reporting was inaccurate, is that a matter worthy of legal action?

Mr Quigley, I do not see who your syllogism relates to Steyn's quote. But as evidence I will tell you that he was dragged before a Human Rights Commission in Canada. His crime was that he criticised Islam. It was hate speech to say negative things about Islam. It offended them and hurt their feelings. That sounds like totalitarianism to me.

Alex Njoo, I made it clear I reject any inctiement to hatred. However, too many people will label legitimate criticism as necsssarily leading to hatred and violence. I reject theft but that does not mean I condone the bashing of theives?

Finally, I have never read Bolt write anything that a sane person would regard as incitement to harm another. An example of this, please.
Patrick James | 12 December 2011


WEll the Australian is still running the line that everyone is wrong and we should be allowed to illegally push away refugees.

Who controls them when clearly advocating for law breaking would not be condoned by anyone else.
Marilyn Shepherd | 12 December 2011


Patrick, have you really never read Andrew Bolt write anything that a sane person would regard as incitement to harm another? Really? Or do you just mean physical harm? Have you read Robert Manne's account of his experience over several years regarding the stolen generation? http://www.themonthly.com.au/blog-name-ten-journalism-andrew-bolt-robert-manne-4088 I cannot think of any other Australian in my lifetime who has done more than Mr Bolt to destroy the legitimate aspirations of Australia's Aborigines. Can you?
Alan Austin | 13 December 2011


Alan, I am well aware of the to and fro between Bolt and Manne in regard to the stolen generation. It is with your closing statement that I again detect paternalism.

You say that no one has done more harm to the legitimate aspirations of Aborigines than Bolt. Are Aborigines so brittle that they need to Bolt to shut up or to agree with them? If they regard their aspirations as so important, why would they give a hoot what Bolt says? Let them have and seek their aspirations without waiting for Bolt's approval.

However, I would not agree that Bolt has no right to examine and judge their aspirations. No individual or culture should be beyond criticism. Too many people cry "Mummy" when someone starts to put the blowtorch to the belly. Legitimate criticism is branded as bigotry, hatred or offensive. No one has the right not to be offended as offense is so often in the eye of the beholder.

Go hard for the argument but respect the person.
Patrick James | 13 December 2011


In response to Patrick James: With every freedom we enjoy comes responsibility except, it seems, with freedom of speech. As an Australian citizen I am free to enjoy the benefits that flow from a democratic, resource rich, stable country. However I am not free to abuse it by stealing, raping, cheating and the like. I am free provided I act as a responsible citizen. No freedom is absolute. As a licensed car driver I am free to use the roads within the bounds of the traffic laws. More importantly, I believe I am also bound as a human to treat other drivers, bike riders and pedestrians with respect. Andrew’s articles invariably are courteous and respectful unlike the misinformed and often misrepresented bile that emanates from Andrew Bolt and his ilk. If those decrying the recent court decision regarding Bolt came from a position of respect and responsibility for truth and not merely license to say and print whatever they like I would have some sympathy for Patrick James’ position. My other concern centres on who actually has this ‘freedom’. If Andrew Bolt and his kind were limited to their personal blogs or commentaries like this I would have little to argue with Patrick. However the Bolts of the world are supported by wealthy backers. If you have the money you have more freedom! Is this genuine ‘freedom of speech’?
Tony W | 13 December 2011


In response to Patrick James: With every freedom we enjoy comes responsibility except, it seems, with freedom of speech. As an Australian citizen I am free to enjoy the benefits that flow from a democratic, resource rich, stable country. However I am not free to abuse it by stealing, raping, cheating and the like. I am free provided I act as a responsible citizen.

No freedom is absolute. As a licensed car driver I am free to use the roads within the bounds of the traffic laws. More importantly, I believe I am also bound as a human to treat other drivers, bike riders and pedestrians with respect.

Andrew’s articles invariably are courteous and respectful unlike the misinformed and often misrepresented bile that emanates from Andrew Bolt and his ilk. If those decrying the recent court decision regarding Bolt came from a position of respect and responsibility for truth and not merely license to say and print whatever they like I would have some sympathy for Patrick James’ position.

My other concern centres on who actually has this ‘freedom’. If Andrew Bolt and his kind were limited to their personal blogs or commentaries like this I would have little to argue with Patrick. However the Bolts of the world are supported by wealthy backers. If you have the money you have more freedom! Is this genuine ‘freedom of speech’?


Tony W | 13 December 2011


Patrick, I don’t think it is Andrew Bolt's approval or disapproval that matters – to Aborigines or to anyone else. He is entitled to express any opinion he wishes. Justice Bromberg found, however, that Mr Bolt’s articles were filled with "errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language".

If we are to "try to persuade people with appeals to better ideas or values" and "counter them with evidence", then where? In what publications?

You may recall the Popovic case against Andrew Bolt in 2002 where a jury found an article was defamatory, untrue, not a fair comment upon a matter of public interest and not a faithful and accurate report of legal proceedings.

This action had been brought only because there was no forum available anywhere for the correction of highly damaging factual errors.

Media law analyst Andrew Kenyon wrote afterwards: "She (Magistrate Jelena Popovic) couldn't get [an apology] from the media, she sued, and the law in the end can't currently enforce an apology, it can't order that, so the only remedy it has is damages."

Michael Kroger is deeply engaged in Australia's political life, yet still believes the false assertion by Andrew Bolt that Robert Manne has failed to name ten stolen Aboriginal children. Does not this suggest Australia still has a major problem here?

Alan Austin | 13 December 2011


Tony, in your reply to Patrick James' posts, I think that you are mistaking freedom of expression with how big an author's readership is.

On the matter of Bolt's wealthy backers. I read the Herald-Sun and dislike the bile that sometimes pours forth from the pens (keyboards?) of Jill Singer and Susie O'Brien, especially in regard to the Catholic Church. They are on the opposite end of the political spectrum to Bolt. They are backed, at least in part, by the same wealthy backer that employs Bolt to write his column and blog.

When the same publisher employs columnists of such differing opinions, I think that they are getting it right.
Nguyen Duy | 14 December 2011


Alan, I can see what you are saying. However, I see no problems that need to be solved with a regulator of the media saying what can and cannot be said. I think that the free exchange of ideas, even false and prejudiced ones, is the best way to go. The present system may not be perfect, but appointing a regulatory body, as Fr Andrew suggests, will create more problems than it solves. Any regulatory body of the media is too open to corruption and bias. What would stop it becoming the arm of the government?
Patrick James | 14 December 2011


Patrick, do we agree that any person can express any opinion however bigoted, immoral and offensive without restriction - but that damaging allegations that are factually wrong should not be permitted? Your first post suggests you concur: “Outside of inciting someone to violence or spreading lies about another, I would say let people duke it out over honestly held opinions.” However, your second post suggests you are exercised over the expression of opinion: “Who ultimately decides what is appropriate and moral? ... Who approves of their values and morals?” Australia does not need anyone to arbitrate on morality or determine what is acceptable opinion. But Fr Andrew seems to mount a reasonable case – bolstered by the findings in both Andrew Bolt matters – that the status quo is unsatisfactory with regard to maliciously spreading deliberate lies. I have no model for a body to sanction mendacious media campaigns, such as those we are seeing today from the Murdoch media in Australia and the US. But Australia certainly has many regulatory bodies which are at no risk of becoming the arm of government. Auditors, small claims tribunals and the various statutory bodies come to mind. I wonder if Fr Andrew has a model in mind. Andrew?
Alan Austin | 14 December 2011


Alan, I can see what you are saying. However, I see no problems that need to be solved with a regulator of the media saying what can and cannot be said. I think that the free exchange of ideas, even false and prejudiced ones, is the best way to go. The present system may not be perfect, but appointing a regulatory body, as Fr Andrew suggests, will create more problems than it solves. Any regulatory body of the media is too open to corruption and bias. What would stop it becoming the arm of the government?
Patrick James | 14 December 2011


Alan, it has been discussing this issue with you. I must admit that I am not clear on what you mean when you say that my second post suggests that I am "exercised over the expression of opinion." On the Bolt case; I have read part of the summary of the decision from Justice Bromberg. The issue of Bolt's honesty or mendacity was NOT pertinent to his judgement. He sets out that for the claim against Bolt to succeed, "Ms Eatock needed to establish that: It was reasonably likely that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the conduct.." There is no issue of deliberately spreading lies mentioned for the claim to succeed. The law required that some people of a certain group were reasonably likely to have been offended, humiliated etc. All of these are highly subjective responses. Like or hate Bolt, it is wrong to think that honesty or lies came into establishing the claim against him.
Patrick James | 14 December 2011


Patrick, pretty sure Justice Bromberg’s findings relied substantially on the frequency of factually inaccurate statements, omissions and deficiencies in truth he found in Andrew Bolt’s articles.

Refer paragraph 425: "The lack of care and diligence is demonstrated by the inclusion in the Newspaper Articles of the untruthful facts and the distortion of the truth which I have identified ..." (He had previously highlighted about 20 instances.) Refer also para 390: "Untruths are at the heart of racial prejudice and intolerance."

But it is correct that the judgment was not primarily about the falsehoods concocted in the course of Mr Bolt’s extended campaign of "offence, insult, humiliation and intimidation" (para 425).

And that seems to be the problem. In Australia, other than costly defamation action, readers have no recourse against destructive media campaigns built on malicious lies. And Mr Bolt’s campaign against Australia’s Aborigines is only one of several being waged currently by News Limited.

Would Australia be well served by some mechanism to minimise the incidence and damaging impact of campaigns of deliberate lies? Yes, I believe so. Do I have a specific proposal? No. Would it be hard to come up with something, such as a beefed-up press council? No, I don’t think so.

It has been good discussing this with you also, Patrick.

Alan Austin | 15 December 2011


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