While I share the concerns raised in The Australian’s editorial (“Freedom of speech must include freedom to offend”, 12/12) regarding the reversed onus of proof in proposed anti-discrimination law changes, its defence of convicted racist Andrew Bolt would not stand up in court; in fact, it did not.
Bolt was found guilty not simply because his rants “might offend ‘fair-skinned Aboriginal people'” as it claims, but because he used race as the means to hurt and intimidate named individuals, and did so without making fair or even accurate comment. Although clearly spelt out in Justice Bromberg’s ruling, this crucial distinction consistently escapes Bolt’s apologists.
Further, it is a melodramatic furphy that his columns were “banned”; they are still available online, albeit bearing a disclaimer.
The Australian may regard the proposed widening of such legal provisions as “overreach”, but the same could be said of its claim that “[o]ur national character and strength of our democracy” require the “freedom” to sell newspapers using race as an offensive weapon.
Kerryn Pholi’s argument (The Australian, “Feelings no motive for respect”, 8/12) is founded on the fallacy that Andrew Bolt was convicted simply because the people he offended were Aboriginal. This is a cross-eyed misrepresentation of Justice Bromberg’s ruling: Bolt used race as the means to cause offence, and thus breached the Racial Discrimination Act.
It is one thing to raise sincere questions about racial identity. It is quite another to defame specific individuals, using their race as a tool to manufacture controversy, as Bolt did. He may well have suffered a heavier penalty had the plaintiffs chosen to prosecute him under ordinary defamation law, but their concerns were broader.
Pholi repeats the Right’s melodramatic conceit that the Bolt case somehow “shut down dissenting voices”, as if regurgitating the clichés of street bigots were a form of insurrection or intellectual boldness. In fact, Bolt’s nasty piece is still freely available on the Herald-Sun website. There is a big difference between real censorship and merely being held accountable for one’s actions.
No, Brendan O’Neill (“Silence of the illiberal lambs”, The Australian, 5/10), Andrew Bolt was not “simply expressing his opinion about the weird fluidity of modern-day identity politics”.
This “fluidity” is nothing new; for example, many Jews have little genetic connection to the ancient Middle East, and many are not religious. It is one thing to discuss this in general terms. It would be quite another to accuse individuals, by name, of assuming a Jewish identity for financial gain.
Bolt singled out individuals for public humiliation using their cultural identity as a weapon, with brutal disregard for truth, reputation and feelings. He paid the price.
In taking issue with this result, O’Neill seems to be arguing against the notion of defamation itself, or at least that in his view, some classes of plaintiff are not worthy of redress.
Not wanting the facts to get in the way of a dramatic phrase, Brendan O’Neill (“Silence of the illiberal lambs”, The Australian, 5/10) claims the Bolt case “censored everyone else in Australia by ruling that…[Bolt’s] words must be purged, like those generals who found themselves scrubbed from group photographs with Stalin”. This would be nothing unusual for defamatory material, but in fact the articles are freely available on the Herald Sun’s website.
Barry Cohen is disingenuous when he asks “why many people, who don’t appear to be Aborigines are treated…as if they were” (“Does it all boil down to a question of colour?”, The Australian, 4/10). Race is a fuzzy cultural notion which does not withstand scientific scrutiny. Racism hangs its hat on skin colour or eye shape, but it is fundamentally about one culture dominating another. Where there is no visible trigger, religion or language will do just as well.
We are not bound to our cultures by genes, but by social bonds and formative experiences. We cannot choose our culture as if it were a shirt.
By way of comparison, many Jews have little genetic connection to the ancient Middle East, many are not religious, many “don’t appear to be” Jewish. Should their cultural identity questioned?
More pertinently, do we publish our doubts about someone’s identity as fact, as Andrew Bolt did, with brutal disregard for truth, reputation and feelings, and expect to get away with it?
Now that Andrew Bolt has been convicted of racial defamation, watch as his cheer squad call for a new legal system rather than accept his guilt. Funny how conservatives become radical when hoist with their own petard.
Mark Steyn’s wisecracking style (“Using rights to gag free speech”, 14/9) fails to cover up the basic flaw in his 3000-word argument, one we are already familiar with from the very audible mouths of Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen, Brendan O’Neill et al, namely that any calling to account for the harm done by words is somehow a restriction of freedom of speech. By the same argument, laws against carrying a suitcase full of gelignite onto a plane restrict freedom of movement.
His dishonestly-told examples of prosecutions on behalf of unpopular victims like gays and Muslims are cherry-picked, and conspicuously absent are cases like those against Mel Gibson and John Galliano for anti-Semitic outbursts – does he regard these as anti-free speech as well? Does he reject the very notion of defamation? No, it’s just that he doesn’t regard certain classes of plaintiff as deserving of redress.
Steyn puts the words “racist” and “human rights” in quotes as if they’re not real words, and compares anti-racism to communism. “Let us accept for the sake of argument that racism is bad”, he graciously allows.
The professional loud-mouths of the Right don’t seem to be able to get it through their heads that no-one is opposing their free speech, only insisting that they accept the consequences of their actions like everyone else.
If multiculturalism is “out of touch with the mainstream” and even “dead”, as decreed by the conservative commentariat, why has the AFL designated Round 17 as the popular Multicultural Round? If racial vilification laws infringe free speech, as Andrew Bolt and his fans would have it, why does the AFL ban players and spectators alike for such abuse? Either the AFL is a left-wing elite, or it is the conservatives who are out of touch.
Bolt’s small but noisy and support group loves to make its hero out to be a misunderstood dissident, but the fact is that free speech has always been moderated by law, including defamation and vilification laws, and they were not made especially for Bolt. He blew his dog-whistle a little too hard and has been called to account, but in typical Bolt style, he wants to change the whole legal system rather than face the consequences of his actions.
The Australian’s extraordinary attack on rival newspapers (“Fairfax shows how not to run a serious newspaper”, 16/6) is itself a demonstration of how not to write an editorial. The Age’s Michael Gordon in no way suggested, as The Australian claims, that newspapers should omit genuine stories on ideological grounds. He cited The Australian’s front-page story, which uncritically gave great weight to the coal-industry’s predictable opposition to the carbon price, as an example of the obvious fact that the Murdoch press has been running interference on the tax. To call this “blatant disregard for…journalism’s code of ethics”, even speaking of “the dark heart of Fairfax”, is sheer melodrama.
They have similarly criticised Fairfax for not making enough of Dr Larissa Behrendt’s off-colour tweet, while themselves virtually ignoring the Bolt racial defamation case for which she is actually noteworthy (except to call it a “threat to free speech”); they have given disproportionate coverage to refugee boat-arrivals, presumably because they are considered damaging to Labor, and so on. It’s all about emphasis.
While it is true that Fairfax has a mildly progressive leaning, The Australian’s commentariat is heavily weighted with ex-Liberal staffers and right-wing think-tankers – and it shows, both in emphasis and analysis. They are in no position to preach neutrality.