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Free speech! Well, sort of

  • 21 March 2014

A few months back, I promised myself I would stop clicking on click-bait; would never again step into the dark abyss of reactive journalism and professional trolling. The real news lately has been difficult enough to swallow without wading through sloppy think pieces on why gen Y is literally the worst, what beards and/or Beyonce really say about café culture, and what Andrew Bolt's opinion about something is.

But I fell down the rabbit hole this week when the ABC apologised to Bolt for airing panellists' comments on last week's Q&A that suggested he was 'racist'.

Yes, back in 2011 the Federal Court found that certain pieces of Bolt's writing were in breach of part of the Racial Discrimination Act, and so one could suggest that Q&A was within its legal rights to broadcast such an accusation. Marcia Langton, chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at Melbourne Uni, apologised for causing offense, but not for the intentions behind her words, stating Bolt's 'obsessive writing about the colour of the skin of particular Aboriginal people is malicious and cowardly'.

Public opinion, at least that on the right-hand side of politics, says the racial vilification legislation is political and therefore not about enduring notions of justice. Free speech! it says, as if unqualified freedom to information and expression has ever and could ever possibly exist in a civil society. So I can see why the ABC apologised, apologies being easier to procure than permission slips.

Bolt's response to Q&A's airing was surprising. While no human is immune to emotional distress, it seems excessive for a man whose career has taken him to the edge of defamation laws to publicly wither under his opponents' attacks. Sincerity aside, what this matter brings to light is the discord between Australian conservatives' rhetoric about liberty and free speech, and the reality their policies and opinions impose.

Take Attorney General George Brandis' explanation behind his commitment to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. He says 'it's not the role of the Government to tell people what they are allowed to think and it's not the role of the Government to tell people what opinions they are allowed to express.' Sounds reasonable.

It would sound a lot more reasonable if Brandis' party's policies actually supported a liberal agenda and the freedom of expression, which they don't. Ben Pynt at the Sydney Morning Herald reports the cost of accessing the information outlining the legality of the arbitrary