Abbott backs ‘free speech’ for the powerful

August 8, 2012

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.


he needs to speak up a bit or get his head out of his arse.
Once upon a time progressives used to believe in freedom of speech.
This article conveniently omitted the following from Justice Mordecai Bromberg's verdict where he found that "fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed in the newspaper articles" published in the Herald Sun. If it was a question of truthfulness they could have easily used existing libel laws. One of the reasons Andrew Bolt lost under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was because some people were offended by his views. We all get offended by other opinions but that is no reason to gag people from expressing their views no matter how wrong or offensive. The alternative is to silence debate and let issues fester away - not exactly healthy for a democracy.
Which means you are only in favour of free speech unless someone is rich enough to use libel laws to sue people. So, that is actually only a very limited defence of freedom of speech. That you say we should be more principled than you, and ignore Australian law, in favour of such a principled position where Aboriginal people should hold back from using the law says that you are okay with the powerful using this rather than the powerless. Unless you are in favour of removing ALL libel or slander laws, singling this case out speaks more about who you want to have speech than your support for speech in general. If I write an inaccurate article, even if just because I failed to research it properly, I can be sued by anyone with the power to hire lawyers and prove that it could cost them - a requirement of libel laws. An inaccurate article that has "offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated" would not necessarily "cost" people, so the Racial Discrimination Act was used instead. The inaccuracy and lack of research or fact-checking is still central to the ruling. tl;dr: Your concern trolling is pathetic and hypocrtical.

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