It was an overwhelming leftist baying mob that rocked up at Docklands in Melbourne last Monday as audience members of ABC television’s live Q&Aprogram. Presenter Tony Jones seemed powerless to moderate the public expressions of anger and loud feigned laughter directed at Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and, in particular, Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill.
O’Neill grew up in London. His parents were Irish Catholic immigrants from Galway. O’Neill was once part of the small-C communist libertarian Left. He remains an uber defender of free speech and, as such, has become a public enemy of the mainstream Left that is particularly strong in educational institutions, sections of the public service and parts of the media. Hence the reaction to O’Neill from theQ&A audience.
At least Fifield and O’Neill got a hearing last Monday because of their ability to direct their views to a TV audience. It is unlikely that either man would be able to give a public speech on a controversial topic (say, asylum-seekers or the primacy of free speech) on any Australian campus.
In recent years, senior Coalition ministers Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne have faced intolerant student protesters intent on silencing them. This despite the fact most tertiary institutions were built with, and remain subsidised by, taxpayers’ funds.
In Western democracies before World War II it was the extreme Right that led on intolerance, most notably Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in London.
However, the 1960s and 70s saw the extreme Left step forward as the principal opponent of freedom of expression in Western democracies.
In my column of March 14 last year, I referred to the teachings of left-wing French philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), who advocated what he termed “repressive tolerance”. Marcuse was a prolific writer. However, his views on this issue are perhaps most concisely summarised in his essay Repressive Tolerance, which was published in 1968 in the collection titled A Critique of Pure Tolerance.
Put simply, Marcuse proposed that the Left should enjoy free speech but not the Right. He rationalised his censorious approach by claiming to advocate “liberating tolerance”. According to Marcuse: “Liberating tolerance would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.”
Few today would recall Marcuse. Yet it is the impact of the successful advocacy of repressive tolerance that influences contemporary Q&A audiences and campus protesters alike.
Clearly the Q&A gathering on Monday regarded panellist Corinne Grant as their hero. She was introduced by Jones as a “comedian, writer, actor and law graduate”. Soon after Q&A ran the following tweet: “Corinne has a law degree, Brendan. Be quiet and listen.” It’s unlikely the tweeter would have made such a comment concerning Attorney-General George Brandis QC.
Once upon a time, the role of a comedian was to make an audience laugh. But onQ&A Grant evoked loud feigned laughter to ridicule O’Neill’s support for free speech. The audience joined in the mock hilarity. Yet laughter in this context is not a substitute for argument — just another form of abuse.
The paucity of Grant’s position was evident when O’Neill referred to the case of the Queensland University of Technology students who are facing action under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. They complained that they were not able to use a computer in an empty room set aside for indigenous students. This case has been covered extensively by Hedley Thomas in The Australian.
The Q&A exchange went as follows. O’Neill: “They (the QUT students) wrote something on Facebook. They did not hit anyone. They did not damage property. They said something. Do you think they should be fined $250,000 for saying something? Yes or no, right? It’s a really simple question.” Grant: “I mean, no it’s not.”
So there. According to Grant it is possibly OK to fine a young student $250,000 for writing something on Facebook about not being able to access a computer.
ABC journalist Uma Patel joined in this particular chorus, tweeting: “People have to pay money for saying things all the time (not just $250,000 for 18c) — Fairfax had to pay Joe Hockey $200,000 for a tweet.” Patel’s entry into the debate overlooked some important truths. The Federal Court found that Fairfax Media had acted with “malice” with respect to Joe Hockey when it referred to him as a “Treasurer for Sale” in a tweet that directed readers to a newspaper story. Second, Fairfax Media is a public company, not a person.
Despite calls from some members of the Coalition, along with the likes of senator-elect Derryn Hinch, it is most unlikely that Malcolm Turnbull will take action to amend 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Even if the Prime Minister wanted to amend the legislation, he (like Tony Abbott) would not have the numbers in the Senate in view of the opposition to any change from Labor, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team. Also, there is support for the present legislation among some Liberal Party members and senators.
Yet section 18C does pose a problem for free speech in Australia. The best known case with respect to the Racial Discrimination Act is Federal Court judge Mordy Bromberg’s decision in Eatock v Bolt.
Certainly, Bromberg did point to some errors in two Andrew Bolt columns concerning what were termed “fair-skinned Aboriginal people”. What was disturbing in Bromberg’s judgment turned on his nine references to Bolt’s “tone” and two references to the need to “read between the lines” when analysing Bolt’s writings. Tone is purely a subjective judgment and nothing is written between the lines.
In other words, the judge ruled against Bolt not merely for what he wrote but also for what he didn’t write.
Both the Bolt decision and the still-unresolved QUT case are a challenge to freedom of speech in Australia. Section 18C is not akin to the shouting down of opponents but virtually all of those who are intolerant of different views happen to support 18C.
Correction: Last week I provided an incorrect name for the producer of the ABC News Breakfast segment on Australian Vietnam war correspondents. The producer was Jenya Goloubeva.