Opposition leader Tony Abbott says he wants to open a “new debate about freedom of speech”. But Abbott is most interested in defending “free speech” for Australia’s rich and powerful at the expense of oppressed and marginalised groups.
In an August 6 speech hosted by right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, Abbott spoke out for the “freedoms” of Australia’s richest person and the most-read columnist from Australia’s biggest media corporation.
He defended mining billionaire Gina Rinehart’s drive to take over Fairfax Media and said a Coalition government would revoke a key anti-discrimination law under which News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt was found guilty of vilifying Aboriginal people.
Abbott’s defence of Rinehart’s bid to turn Fairfax into a mining industry mouthpiece is nothing new. It fits with the corporate media’s self-serving agenda to limit the definition of “media freedom” to the right of the super-rich to decide what news we are allowed to see and hear.
This pro-corporate view of media freedom includes the “freedom” to distort facts and manipulate public opinion for commercial advantage. It also includes the “freedom” to sack or exclude journalists and opinions that do not suit commercial interests.
Abbott also said section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was a “threat to freedom of speech” and promised to repeal it if he takes government. The section makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people on the basis of their race or ethnicity.
Last year, Bolt was found guilty of racial discrimination under this section of the act. The columnist wrote two articles that named 18 Aboriginal people and implied they had pretended to be Aboriginal for financial or political advantage.
Abbott said this section was just a “hurt feelings” test, which should not trump Bolt’s right to “cause offence” or “write badly or rudely”.
But in his ruling on Bolt’s case, Justice Mordecai Bromberg noted that section 18D of the same act “exempts from being unlawful conduct [that] which has been done reasonably and in good faith”.
He found Bolt’s articles were racist not because they discussed the racial identification of a group of people, but because they did so in a way that disparaged that group on racial grounds.
As Aboriginal leader Pat Eatock, the lead claimant in the case against Bolt, told Green Left Weekly after the judgement: “It’s tragic that we’re led to believe that ‘free speech’ means you can say anything discriminatory. Justice Bromberg’s ruling did not deny free speech to anyone.
“He said that you cannot base opinion on racial prejudice. You have to have facts to support what you write. It’s about professional journalism.
“Bolt can say what he wants. He can have an opinion, but he has to be answerable to that.”
Abbott’s promise to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is not about defending the right to free speech or even the right to “cause offence”. Rather, it’s about legalising and legitimising racism in the media and in society.