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Bolt beyond the pale

  • 30 September 2011

The decision against Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt in the racial vilification case of Eatock v Bolt raises various troubling issues that need to be contended with.

Nine individuals were the subject of Bolt's stinging attack in two articles and two blog posts in 2009 describing them as 'political aborigines' of Caucasian descent and claiming they had enriched themselves by claiming an 'indigenous' status. The nine individuals, led by Pat Eatock, sought a public retraction of the claims made, and an undertaking not to print such material again.

Justice Mordercai Bromberg of the Federal Court found that fair-skinned Aboriginal people 'were reasonably likely ... to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles'. Bolt could only lament the passing of free speech in Australia.

He has his followers. James Delingpole, writing in the UK Telegraph, resorts to hyperbole in extolling the virtues a Bolt can have in the mediascape. 'For my money probably the best political blogger in the world is Australia's Andrew Bolt.' He exposed Climategate; he has depth; he is, to put it bluntly 'one of the good guys' whose punishment suggests that 'freedom of speech is dead in Australia'.

Section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 does afford a freedom of speech defence, allowing insulting and humiliating remarks to be made on the basis of skin or colour provided it is done 'reasonably and in good faith' in the pursuit of the public interest. Certain groups, such as Liberty Victoria, argue that the section is too widely drafted.

For Bromberg, it was still lawful to cite racial identification in opinion and challenge the 'genuineness of the identification of a group of people'. Bolt had, however, gone too far. He did not take into account the facts. He had botched his research on the genealogy of the claimants. He had shown bad faith in expressing his views.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard put it rather well: people demand free speech to compensate for the freedom of thought they rarely use.

Nor was Bolt a casualty of the death of free speech, for, in the mind of the Justice, the intrusion was 'of no greater magnitude than that imposed