Dutton, Barilaro and the right’s defamation culture war

Graphic: Isaac Nellist

It seems to have become flavour of the month for politicians to sue for defamation.

Former Attorney-General Christian Porter attempted to sue the ABC for reporting on credible rape allegations and Defence Minister Peter Dutton is suing refugee activist Shane Bazzi for a tweet that said he is a “rape apologist”.

The latest target of the Coalition’s legal wrath is YouTube comedian Jordan Shanks — aka FriendlyJordies — who is being sued by NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro.

FriendlyJordies, in collaboration with Michael West Media, did an exposé on the lucrative sale of a Queanbeyan property to Barilaro’s family. The report raises serious questions and suggests, at the very least, unethical if not illegal activity by the family.

Shanks has also accused Barilaro of corruption, blackmail and perjury.

Shanks “lowbrow” humour is, unfortunately, reactionary, relying heavily on fat-shaming, prejudice and profanity to land its blows. He acts for Labor in trolling the Greens and has attacked the Unemployed Workers Union.

However, Barilaro’s legal threats — and the June 14 arrest of Shanks’ producer Kristo Langker — amount to undue harassment of social critics by the powerful.

Judging by FriendlyJordies' account, Langker’s arrest was heavy-handed and executed by the NSW Police’s little-known and Orwellian-named Fixated Persons Investigations Unit.

Dutton’s legal action against Bazzi exemplifies the right’s culture wars against people daring to criticise those in power.

Bazzi has chosen to stand up to Dutton’s bullying behaviour, garnering support from activists and politicians. A well-supported legal fund, organised by the Greens MLC David Shoebridge, has raised $150,000 for Bazzi’s legal fees.

On June 16, a federal court judge ordered Dutton and Bazzi to attend mediation by August 31, saying Dutton’s defamation case over a tweet calling him a “rape apologist” could be settled pre-trial, if they were sensible.

Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who described Dutton in a similar way in a tweet in February, was also threatened and issued an apology in March.

Being a rape apologist is not just about defending rapists: it is also about propping up a culture and system that allows rape and sexual assault to persist. From this point of view, the Duttons of this world certainly qualify.

Dutton didn’t have a problem describing journalist Samantha Maiden as a “mad fucking witch” after she reported on former minister Jamie Briggs’ inappropriate conduct.

Dutton is also on the record saying that refugees who had been raped on Nauru were “trying it on” to receive medical treatment and stay in Australia.

Further, he dismissed former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations against another Liberal staffer as “he said-she said”.

Porter’s failed attempt to sue the ABC and Four Corners’ reporter Louise Milligan following the airing of a historic rape allegation against him was another attempt to silence critics.

The ABC is certainly in a stronger position than an ordinary dissenting citizen, but it is still under sustained assault from the right. Porter’s claim of victory, after dropping his defamation case, was pure spin aimed at putting the boot into the ABC.

In yet another example of the culture wars, the head of the Local Government Association of Queensland Greg Hallam is suing socialist councillor Rob Pyne over an allegedly defamatory anti-corruption cartoon Pyne shared on his Facebook page.

Feminist lawyer Jocelynne Scutt told the Green Left Show in March that defamation is “based on notions of superior power and status”. Traditionally, she said, it is about protecting the “reputations of important or powerful people”.

The current surge of defamation actions by apparently thin-skinned politicians is another illustration of the political crisis facing the capitalist elite today.

They know that their pro-billionaire policies are unpopular — even satirical videos or sharp tweets can find a resonance — and they want to stifle dissent.

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