Free speech! Well, sort of


Woman with blue tape on mouth, finger before lipsA 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 detention of asylum seekers: between $6129 and $12,259. The cost to an influential arts organisation for taking a stand on human rights? The threat of defunding. The price paid by asylum seekers in detention chanting 'freedom' in an offshore detention facility? Priceless.

At the state level, a conservative government is limiting Victorians' freedom of association and expression by increasing police powers to remove peaceful protestors from public spaces. And good luck to you if you are suspected of being involved in biker gangs in Queensland, where if you don't talk to police you'll face five years in prison. But I guess that's a violation of the right to silence rather than speech, so we can let that one slide.

Neither major party seems interested in averting this dangerous trend of eroding basic civil liberties. It speaks to the coverage of the weekend's March in March protests which attracted over 50,000 folks airing their outrage and feelings of powerlessness against a reactionary government: several news outlets did not report on it, others reported with cynicism. Conversation around the event belittled the rally to a disorganised bunch of hippies acting undemocratically for suggesting the Prime Minister is not fit for his office.

When people use their bodies politically, when they rally, and when they speak up in defence of their experiences, it's because they are acutely aware of how little consequence they are to a government and the powers enabled by a government. They have exhausted whatever options they have to be heard, and for most people, those options are very limited in the first place.

Brandis can talk liberty and freedom as much as he likes, but unless he can guarantee equal freedoms — and the resources that enable the full democratic participation of all — he's taking the piss.

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage is an Australian journalist and editor who edits an entertainment and pop culture magazine in Ho Chi Minh City. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Taped mouth image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, The Savage Mind, George Brandis, Andrew Bolt, free speech



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Existing comments

My sympathies, Ellena for your inability to refrain from clicking on click-bait. I know the feeling. One of the difficult parts to swallow in the Government's intention to repeal Section 18C is the belligerent form of much public discussion in Australia today. Given the principle that one should attack the argument, not the person, vilification and insult on any grounds should have no place in a civilised and educated society. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is one small piece of legislation which makes it illegal to attack the person on the basis of one aspect of that person's life. Repealing that section removes the one piece of legislation which suggests that offence, humiliation and insult are unacceptable in public debate.

Ian Fraser | 20 March 2014  

How dare you suggest that Brandis and company are taking the piss? You will offend the readers who work on the assumption that LNP = good and Labor = bad. You will also challenge their assumption that in the main LNP = Catholic. Sorry, good piece, well written but the right wing fogies will hate it.

John | 20 March 2014  

Ellena, from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland": 'Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,' the Mock Turtle replied, 'and the different branches of Arithmetic - Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.' Pretty well sums up what passes for a hefty slice of public discourse these days. Conduct is of consequence in journalism, and those who express opinions publicly need to be aware of assessing personal behaviour. Where will it all end?

Pam | 20 March 2014  

I think it's fair to say that Mr Bolt's career has taken him a little further than "to the edge of defamation laws". Readers might recall that in 2002, Magistrate Jelena Popovic was awarded $246,000 damages for defamation after suing Mr Bolt and the publishers of the Herald Sun. The infamous Racial Discrimination Act case of 2011 found that he went too far then as well, and was unable to rely on "fair comment" exemptions as some of his assertions were shown to be, in fact, false, or as Mr Bolt put it, poorly researched. Is it reasonable to label someone who has breached the R.D. Act as racist? Perhaps he has reformed.

J Vernau | 20 March 2014  

What puzzles me is why/how a Journalist 4th class like Mr Bolt has enough influence to have a law changed for his benefit. He found it difficult to negotiate a subsection of the Racial Discrimination Act, and suddenly that subsection becomes an affront to democracy. He certainly does attract some powerful support. Perhaps he is a magnet of some sort - or has access to a mining magnet.

Vincenzo Vittorio | 21 March 2014  

I think the ABC is being set up. The fact of poor Andrew's precious feelings being hurt by something on the ABC is another reason for it to get the chop. I don't discount the double standards, the far right can't help themselves there, but in this case there's a second agenda as well.

Geoff Davies | 21 March 2014  

Wonderful!. Marcia Langton must have taken his breath away when she apologised. More than he has ever done - but then no conscience no understanding. Brandis deserves a kick in the pants. He's not stupid so he must be deliberately malicious and self-seeking or in someone's pay. We must never give up protesting for our rights. Especially when those with vested interests ignore and/or threaten us. And pity those journalists who were not allowed to report such a large peaceful protest march. How do they all sleep at night?

Annabel | 22 March 2014  

You're apparently unaware that Andrew Bolt is for the repeal of 18C, but not for the repeal of defamation laws. Langton made several allegations about Bolt on Q&A which were prima facie defamatory - eg, that he had ruined a female academic's career (which he hadn't) by his attack on her (which never happened). Bolt did not even sue: he merely asked that the ABC acknowledge the error in allowing these remarks and to apologise. Which it did - through clenched teeth. Nothing anti-free speech in that. What's the problem? And re. the march: Perhaps the reason for the subdued coverage (still way over the top IMO) is that any further coverage would have moved the trash can lid too far, thus to reveal the absolutely disgusting death threat/foul language signage and speeches which, had they been directed at Gillard and Labor, would have had the Fairfax/ABC/Left troika morally frothing at mouth for a decade, going by the "ditch the witch" non-event. Note the whitewash approach of left cartoonists like ES's Fiona Katauskas on this issue.

HH | 25 March 2014  

HH, the "ditch the witch non-event" became prominent partly because Abbott, Mirabella and other coalition front benches stood in front of those signs to speak to the crowd and they were reported in the media. Abbott, Mirabella et al could have asked for the signs to be removed as a sign of restraint or moved elsewhere to speak, but it would appear that was not on their agenda. Their presence in front of the signs indicates approval of them. By contrast the offensive signs at the March march were not associated with any politicians, leading or otherwise and would not have received much publicity at all but for the hardline conservative commentariat. There is a difference here. I was rather surprised to hear Senator Brandis say people have a right to be bigoted. Bigotry will always be here, sadly, but to say it is a person's right indicates an acceptance of it as legitimate. We may have to tolerate bigotry in an inclusive society but it should be called for what it is and never be acceptable.

Brett | 26 March 2014  

It's pretty obvious from the footage and commentary that Tony Abbott & co didn't stand in front of that sign to speak, Brett. The sign went up behind Abbott and Co AFTER they began to speak, so that they were oblivious to its presence or content. And the media filming didn't let Abbott know, but just kept on filming. Funny about that, eh? The people around him, to their credit, tried to have the sign pulled down. It was a non-event that the leftist media nevertheless chose to blow up, as is typical. In any case, it's irrelevant that politicians weren't (directly) involved this time: it's the despicable speeches and signs of the left- aligned March in March crowd that is being whitewashed by the media. As you say, the msm gave it very little publicity. And that's not a problem in itself? Thanks only to the "hardline" conservative commentariat, we are reminded once again of the truth as to what the left is really like in this country, - they applauded a speaker calling for Alan Joyce to be shot in the back of the head, for example - and how the msm (including leftist cartoonist) work hard to cover that up. Both issues need to be reported, not censored.

HH | 27 March 2014  

Well said, Brett

Ginger Meggs | 27 March 2014  

Brett, I agree strongly with your remarks re. Sen Brandis on bigotry. No-one has a right to be bigoted, just as no-one has a right to commit any sin. As I've said before on this blog, the much-maligned phrase "error has no rights" needs to be rehabilitated. It's rather, as you put it, a question of tolerance...within the limits of peace and public order (albeit these are rather vague lines). I hope Sen Brandis better informed would rephrase it this way. But at least Sen Brandis stands by his convictions, being the subject of that rather bigoted question from Lisa Wilkinson on Q&A recently which he handled with grace.

HH | 27 March 2014  

HH, the only obvious thing is your interpretation (opinion) of the event differs from mine. Fair enough, we will never agree that Abbott and his cronies (or his minders for that matter) were ignorant or could have done something about the signs but failed to, but lets not blame the media any more than we blame the protestors for not telling them. I agree some of the March march stuff was definitely over the top, but from what I could see the bad stuff was very much in the minority, which doesn’t lessen the offensiveness by any means. You seem less concerned about the “ditch the witch non-event” than the bad stuff in March. Free speech has to be protected but bad is bad, whoever does it.

Brett | 31 March 2014  

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