Free speech is one of those virtues which is incontestable as a good in itself. It is necessary for ensuring uncomfortable secrets are laid bare and ensuring that society's rulers are accountable to those whom they are supposed to represent.
Unfortunately, as I have previously suggested, it can also be a convenient cover for hate speech: a flag of convenience under which arms can be taken up against unpopular racial or religious minorities who are already marginalised.
Over the past week, we saw this taken one step further when 'free speech' was used as a justification for shutting down the speech of an opponent — and thereby significantly undermining the virtue of free speech itself.
As is now widely known, Duncan Storrar, an audience member on the popular ABC television program Q&A, pointed out that, as someone with a low income and a disability, he would have benefited much more from the tax benefits offered in the 2016 budget, than those to whom they were actually given (people earning in excess of $80,000 per year). He asked the panel members why he was not deemed as worthy of a tax cut as higher income earners.
As is also known, a torrent of media abuse followed with successive articles in the Murdoch press making allegations about Storrar's tax affairs and his personal and family history.
At the end of last week, Damon Johnston, the editor of the Herald Sun, was questioned by broadcaster John Faine about the ethics of submitting Storrar's life (including details dating back some 15 years) to the sort of scrutiny traditionally reserved for politicians or celebrities. Johnston responded that, 'If you're going to be on the national stage in the middle of an election campaign, it's equally legitimate to have your own past looked at, and that's what we've done.'
This sort of justification is well-established in libel cases against politicians — people who thrust themselves into the limelight cannot then demand privacy, especially not when the matters up for discussion impact on the conduct of politics.
It is hard to see, however, how the peccadillos of politicians can be equated to the private life of a man whose sole foray into politics was, as a member of the general public, to ask a question on a news show which invites questions from the general public.
"This was not about public debate. At no stage were Storrar's questions addressed. The arguments in the Murdoch papers were all ad hominem, playing the man rather than the ball."
To put it bluntly, this is the point at which the free speech argument, like the Ouroboros serpent of ancient myth, eats its own tail. While the newspapers claimed that they were exercising their rights to free speech in their daily articles against Storrar, the effect of their dragging his name and life through the mud was undoubtedly that any other member of the public who dared ask awkward questions of their rulers would think again.
It is hard to believe that this chilling of Storrar's free speech (and those who would emulate him) was accidental. Let us be clear, this was not about public debate. At no stage were his questions addressed — the arguments in the Murdoch papers were all ad hominem, playing the man rather than the ball. The papers' right to free speech was, in short, invoked in order to prevent others from exercising their rights to free speech.
This is important, not merely for Duncan Storrar (and those appalled at his treatment), but for anyone who values democracy and human rights. A healthy democracy depends for its existence upon people being able to question governments and their decisions. An important part of this is feeding back to those who are supposed to represent us how their decisions affect our lives and our decision making. This requires active participation by everybody, at all levels of society. Only in this way can it be truly effective in securing a society in which politicians represent those who vote for them and policies serve the people who vote for the politicians.
If, on the other hand, people know that attempts to hold their rulers to account will result in ridicule and censure which has nothing to do with the questions which we have asked, this will lead to a disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. People will be increasingly disconnected from (and fearful of) those who are supposed to represent them and society will become less and less democratic (in the sense of government having any meaningful connection to the people's will or interests).
We will then be perilously close to a return to those pre-human rights days when dissidents, especially those of the 'lower classes' (most, if not all, of us), were placed in the pillory or stocks for public humiliation for daring to insult the ruling classes.
Justin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
18 May 2016
Mud can have very beneficial effects: it is good for the skin, children love playing in mud, there are those inclined towards mud wrestling. However, mud also sticks. So, it's a big clean-up job. I think Damien Storrar rattled a few cages. Teams who play the man and not the ball fall foul of the umpire. And thank you for the reference to Ouroboros, I'll read more about that.
18 May 2016
The press in many quarters has no ethics, no credibility and no professionalism in this country. They appeal to all these virtues, however, in defence of their transgressions in the quest for sensationalism regardless of the damage to others. Democracy has always had the seeds of its own destruction firmly sown into place and free speech and its hybrids are a very good example of that.
18 May 2016
Duncan Storrar pointed out the elephant in the room and then the toxic enablers almost killed him.
18 May 2016
The recent 60 Minutes incident in Beirut and the attack on Duncan Storrar remind me of the old rotten apple in the barrel saying. Unfortunately these incidents do reflect on all our press.
18 May 2016
Respectfully I disagree. Rather, I believe Mr. Storrar is "the ball". His situation is what he was drawing attention to. The press kicked the same ball back that he played forward. He presented a view and the press presented an account of him that undermined that view. Believing one can put forward an argument in any public setting and not be subject to public scrutiny is an unrealistic view and certainly not in keeping with the responsibility we demand of our press. The most damning criticism of course arose from Mr. Storrar's own son. This is a young man who had the courage to reclaim his own life after being introduced to meth amphetamine as a teenager by his own father. Are you really suggesting that such action should be outside public scrutiny when the man is suggesting he has received a bad deal ?
18 May 2016
I refused to read anything on Duncan. My response is:
Storytelling at it's worst, character assassination and the audience appetite for schadenfreude.
My advice to Duncan:
Don't judge yourself by your past You don't live there anymore.
Everyone makes mistakes in life, that doesn't mean you have to pay for those mistakes every day for the rest of your life.
I chose not to consume any of the Sixty Minutes and Johnny Depp media coverage, too.
A premeditated rescue drama with twists and turns, a sixty minutes version of the Liam Neeson movie 'Taken'. Seen it.
On the Depp story:
A naive smuggling drama over, contrition and a happy ending
The mass media communication propaganda machine is a mind manipulation device. The thought police. Unhelpful.
19 May 2016
The attacks on Duncan were an absolute disgrace by a foreign owned media group who are by stealth invading the privacy of all Australians and restricting the rights of all Australians to free TV sport I was also annoyed by the responses of both the Minister and the man from the industry council for their dismissive answers to Duncan's legitimate question
20 May 2016
It really surprises me that people are unaware that we have not moved beyond publicly humiliating those who dare to question the status quo if they come from a humble background. At around the same time in the election campaign a single mother publicly questioned Mr Turnbull about whether he is listening to people and she pointed out to him that government policies are decreasing opportunities for social mobility and it is this generation of children who will suffer the consequences. He did his utmost to smother her free speech with his faux concern. Whoever has control of the story has power. People need to realise this is how it works and not be deluded into believing all those stories told about how undeserving the poor are.
21 May 2016
Well said. Coming up with an attack on the morals, one might say, of Mr Storrar as an argument against his eligibility to be listened to, taken seriously as a representative of those not able to take advantage of the magnificent tax cuts being waved around!