Wednesday, August 24, 2011

everywhere in chains

A couple of events this week tested a lifelong commitment to the ideals of free speech. I don't mean the patchwork of principles, common law and case law that privilege some speech as free in Australia. I mean a commitment to a right to freedom of speech without reservation as an overarching principle in Australian life similar to that the United States of America enjoys in its constitution. An ideal that would prevent the Commonwealth, States and their officials acting in ways which impede the free expression of ideas by citizens.

Freedom without responsibility is a hollow affair. If we could only stop debating the extent to which the expression of ideas may be legitimately regulated, and begin instead a dialogue about personal responsibility and the practical limits of freedom of speech, the standard of public debate in Australia might rise like the well baked cake it ought to be. What we have now is a half baked system of privilege, for a privileged few, that seems open to abuse at every turn.

Last weekend an exhibition of photographs by Czech artist Jan Saudek began at the Ballarat Art Gallery without its centrepiece work. A photograph of a semi naked girl and her mother was removed from exhibition after representations by Ballarat Council and Tourism Victoria that the work illustrated or encouraged child prostitution. The Director of the Ballarat International Foto Bienale, Jeff Moorfoot, told The Age newspaper he was warned not to display the photograph because "if this goes to ministerial level chances are we won't fund the next festival" (link contains semi-nudity)

The photograph was published in yesterday's Age newspaper. I have to say I'm repelled by it. It is not the kind of work I would seek out in a gallery. It is a photograph I would avert my eyes from if I stumbled upon it. I feel the strong belief I hold in the ideals of free speech strained like an elastic band wrapped too tightly around a big box and stretched to almost breaking. I felt the same when Andres Cerrano exhibited his Piss Christ in Melbourne.

These are visceral responses to extremely strong images, to a feeling of total wrongness that threatens to, and truthfully sometimes does, overwhelm reason. Over the years I had to occasionally cope with similar feelings about scripts I shot. I have come to understand that a commitment to the ideal of free speech is not without consequences, or any guarantee of freedom from doubt.

The second event which stretched a lifelong commitment to the ideals of free speech to almost breaking was the convoy of no confidence that showed up in Canberra outside Parliament House on Monday to call for a double dissolution election. Inside Parliament the leader of Government business labelled the protest a convoy of no consequence. I would have thought that a single Australian turning up at Parliament House with a beef of some kind is of consequence to the people inside. But that's not what I found disturbing.

Outside Parliament House Broadcaster Alan Jones, who just a few weeks ago I was sticking up for on these pages, alleged his protest was being suppressed. Federal Police, Mr Jones alleged, had been instructed by unnamed others to stop protesters at the NSW/ACT border, and his audience had therefore been significantly diminished by what he described as a conspiracy. Additionally, journalists reporting the event were singled out and some claim bullied, one from Sky News for reporting his observations that the police had not prevented Mr Jones audience attending the protest, and another from the Sydney Morning Herald for asking Mr Jones if he was receiving a fee for his role as master of ceremonies, a question Mr Jones has often asked scientists talking about climate change on his radio program. She was labelled a grub and a disgrace, told she had no right to be there.

I could barely believe my eyes and ears. Mr Jones is a passionate broadcaster, often storied as an honorable man, who sometimes apologizes for the strong rhetoric he customarily uses. His speech is probably protected by the Australian High Court's insistence that utterances about matters connected with free and fair elections must not be interfered with.

Nor should the rights of anyone to ask, report, and be in public places, even to protest in public places, within the law, be interfered with.

The allegations of conspiracy Mr Jones raised must now be carefully investigated to clear the air, in my opinion, because if true our great nation, with its careful separation of executive and operational powers, is seriously broken. A parliamentary inquiry may be in order to restore public confidence in the Federal Police, and I understand the Speaker of the House of Representatives is making some initial inquiries into police operations that day. That is an entirely appropriate response to these extremely serious allegations of official interference in the democratic process. Mr Jones is also entitled to, and absolutely should, allow the allegations of deliberate misreporting be investigated, where appropriate, by the Press Council and the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Australians are entitled to conduct themselves without fear. Australians ought to be able to attend Parliament House without fear. Working Australians, police, journalists, are not above scrutiny, but ought not to be singled out and publicly berated, in the name of freedom of speech, for simply doing their job. “I found the whole experience extremely intimidating - having your name yelled out by Alan Jones in such a hostile way, to such a hostile crowd...was frightening”, one journalist said. We need them all, every one, to do their job for us without fear, to make our democracy strong.

And neither should Directors of Arts Festivals be privately bullied. The rule of law should be paramount in our society. There should be an independent inquiry into the suppression of Jan Saudek's photograph to establish why the rule of law was not applied in this case, the third I know of this year where our new State Government seems to have acted to suppress publications by throwing around their weight rather than through the weight of the law. One Sunday before Easter the Government appeared to threaten a Melbourne pub with closure over an event by Melbourne Goths that appeared blasphemous. A member of State Parliament is under investigation for misleading Parliament over a dispute about the distribution of political material at a city railway station. Now an arts festival Director appears to have been pressured (link contains semi-nudity) into withdrawing a controversial work that might have more properly been referred to the film and literature classification system for fair and independent evaluation on its merits, however dubious they appear to me.

I have been considering quite carefully a response to Julie's post about the riots in England last week. Most if not all commentary on those events point to a breakdown in the rule of law, and a lack of respect for authority, especially police authority. How can we expect young people to have confidence for or respect in either the rule of law, or the police that enforce the law, when one is neglected, and the other stands accused of a grievous conspiracy against the Australian people?

Freedom is a question, not an answer. "People are born free, but live everywhere in chains", wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau also described the social contract: “legislative power belongs to the people, and can belong to it alone”, he wrote. Rousseau had some complicated ideas. In modern Australia the people’s house, the Parliament, is one place for sure where questions of all kinds, even unpleasant ones, demand answers rather than scorn. It also demands the people’s unfettered presence, however unpalatable that might be to a government of the day. An art gallery is also a place to ask questions, however unpalatable I personally find them. I would challenge anyone concerned about child abuse, myself included, to walk instead the difficult path of supporting the establishment of a comprehensive, perhaps continuing, Royal Commission on the abuse of children in care, and to support legislation compelling the churches, orphanages and child welfare organizations involved in child protection for the past fifty years to open their books for inspection. Those would provide more constructive routes to learn about and prevent child abuse than suppressing objects that remind us of the great responsibilities society has to its most vulnerable, and how badly we let them down.

Whatever the merits of these two singular but troubling events this week, each illustrate, in their own way, both the limits of freedom as we currently comprehend it and a glimpse of the issues that freedom raises for us but remain, for the present, unresolved. Until we might discover ways to live as free as we are born.


  1. I think Jan Saudek's photo is quite beautiful and don't find it offensive at all. However, I do understand that some people viewing it may consider that the child in the photograph is being used to provoke a sexual response from pedophiles. I've looked at many of Saudek's photographs on his official website: and they are generally sexualized images. I don't know what the problem is in regards to the gallery showing Saudek's photographs if the curator placed the image in a separate room with a disclaimer on the door. I may be wrong, but I can't imagine pedophiles targeting art exhibition for their jollies, and an art audience will attend purely for the aesthetics involved. I'm surprised that just one persons voice can have so much power when it comes to whether or not art is exhibited. I suspect that these things are generally reported on to encourage people to go and look at the exhibition. Free advertising I think.
    In regards to your concern about a 'lack of respect for authority' - I believe it is because many people in authority, including police officers have betrayed our 'trust', no wonder we disrespect them!

  2. You know me well so my comments won't be a surprise. I do make an effort to be thoughtful about my feelings. Agree that profit motives add a bit of murk to already muddy waters. Undercurrents, I was thinking, but not drowning,I'm waving here :)