Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Time to rattle the chains

Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains - JJ Rousseau

There is no better time than now for us all to stand up for the rights of people everywhere to say things we don't like.

Australians ought to at least have the right to get it wrong. When we talk about freedom of speech we often mean the right to speak freely about what is true. But what about when we get it wrong? Shouldn't we have the right to get it wrong? And what about stuff we don't like? Shouldn't newspapers have the freedom to print stuff we don't like?

As I write this today Melbourne's Herald Sun website is reporting

THE assumed right of unfettered freedom of speech was trumped by laws protecting against racial vilification this morning after the Federal Court delivered its decision on the controversial "white Aborigines" case of Pat Eatock v Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt.

I would normally link to that, but in a kind of newspeak News Limited websites are increasingly reframing and even deleting articles. News speak, I guess. Is that unfettered freedom?

The right of unfettered freedom of speech doesn't exist in Australian law, or in Australian common law. Why on earth would the Herald Sun assume it does? I knew a Melbourne writer who was imprisoned over a book he wrote. Remanded in jail during a criminal libel trial in 1950, he was eventually found not guilty by a jury and freed. Libel trials in the state of Victoria have been in civil courts ever since. A few years before that trial Australian author Max Harris faced charges of making obscene publications in a South Australian court. He was acquitted.

I knew someone whose dad was fond of libel proceedings against the news media. The family backyard contained the Packer swimming pool, the Murdoch Tennis court, and so on, all built with damages won from the respective media organizations in libel trials. Those media organizations had committed the grave, and expensive, sin of getting it wrong.

Since the seventeenth century English, and later Australian newspapers, have claimed the privilege to publish without submitting their copy for censorship. Instead, publications carry the name and address of publishers, who bear the brunt of any private or state interventions.

There is no such privilege for other Australians.

Of course anything broadcast on radio or television is subject to retrospective moderation by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, a Federal body established to regulate those media after a campaign by, guess who, Australian newspapers.

Australian artists and film makers are expected to submit works to state censors prior to publication. My own work has been referred to censors for classification, because that's what you have to do before screening a film in Australia. An Australian senate inquiry recently recommended funding more censors, in more places, with stricter censorship guidelines affecting larger jurisdictions. The defense of artistic merit to obscenity charges has been dismantled in many jurisdictions after a campaign by newspaper columnists against Australian artist Bill Henson.

Almost everybody who works in Australian media has been affected, one way or another, by laws restricting free speech. I had to make excuses to the television regulators more times than I remember. I have been questioned by police twice, but never charged, after print and electronic media I was involved in came to the attention of authorities. Once after a conservative radio broadcaster complained long and loud.

There should be no mistaken assumptions here. Australians should have the right to speak freely, and to get it wrong. But we don't.

In the vast echo chambers that characterize Australian media websites the Australian media are doing everything right. And their constant opinion polling is telling them people want to hear exactly what they say. But clearly something is going very wrong for them, when freedom of expression is under siege at every turn.

It is time to rattle the chains. It is time for Australian newspapers to stand up for the unpopular but necessary right to get it wrong. It is time for newspapers to stand up for the rights of individuals to say unpopular things. It is time for newspapers to stand up for the rights of people to exhibit photographs some find obscene.

It is time for Australian newspapers to rattle the chains. But, gripped by populism, and conflicted about free speech, even to save themselves, will they?


  1. History has shown that if you can't express yourself verbally you will undoubtedly express those feelings physically. Expect more violence in the world if 'free speech' is quashed!

  2. The level of engagement with Political comment in Australia is very low. Andrew Bolts TV program has around the same audience per cap city as a popular community tv program like Vasily's Garden, but a much higher rate of viewers tuning in for a few minutes and tuning out again. Around 35% of people who read newspapers read the op-ed pages, about 10% of those actively seek out the pages regularly. Letters to the editor, TV guide, racing form guides and celeb gossip are more popular by far.

    So when we talk about free speech in this context we are talking about the rights of a minority to speak to minorities. That's what makes the issue so important, even urgent.

    But we need to understand that while we fight for their right to say what they think the conservatives will have no problems silencing the rat of us. Think about that young woman from he Greens on TV in tears with a right wing apparachik chasing her through Frankston. They will, after all, do anything and say anything to take power, and stop at nothing to keep it.

  3. Shouldn't really post comments from an Apple portable. It changed rest of us to rat of us!