Freedom of speech is not freedom to say whatever you like, whenever you want about anything you please.
It’s not OK to use the pages of a newspaper or the bandwidth of a blog to defame and vilify people.
That’s why Herald Sun propagandist Andrew Bolt is crying crocodile tears over the Federal Court ruling that found he breached the Racial Discrimination Act in a 2009 column attacking so-called “light-skinned” Aborigines for – as Bolt would have it – milking the system to the detriment of “real” Aboriginal people.
Of course Bolt plays to his audience of dribblejaws. He stokes their prejudice and fans the flames of intolerance and white Australian grumpiness by simplifying his argument to the point of nonsense and focusing his attacks on the easy targets he knows will excite and agitate the usual suspects among dedicated Herald Sun readers.
He knows his coded racism will also act as dog whistle politics to those on the right fringes of Australia’s underbelly who see Bolt as some Glenn Beck-like messiah of salvation for that small-minded minority of Australian bigots who want a return to the days of the White Australia policy.
That’s why Bolt is a propagandist, not a journalist, not a columnist. He uses his position of influence to deliberately rake over these political coals attempting to catch a spark of righteous indignation.
That’s why Bolt deserved to go down in the Federal Court this week.
But of course, for a seasoned campaigner like Bolt, victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat. In the Murdoch press war rooms up and down the east coast of Australia the planning included how to respond if Bolt lost his defence.
The editorials were already pencilled in and already paid-for tame opinionistas were phoned and told to sharpen their vitriolic pens ready to do battle on behalf of the Bolter.
One such is Gary Johns writing in The Australian. He returns to Bolt’s theme in an attempt to shore up the wrong argument that ‘free speech’ has been wounded by the Federal Court’s decision.
“The provisions of the act used to silence Bolt are bad law.”
Well, actually Bolt hasn’t been silenced – he had three pages to himself in the Herald Sun the day after the Federal Court decision and plenty of air time. No doubt he’ll come back to this on his TV platform too.
And the Racial Discrimination Act is not bad law. It is designed to prevent institutionalised and indiscriminate discrimination against those who have been historically and consistently marginalised in this still whiter-than-white nation.
What’s more surprising is that this is the first time the RDA has been used successfully against Bolt. He is a familiar face when it comes to racially-motivated diatribes against ‘difference’. Muslims and others have been targets before and will be in the future.
Johns’ defence of Bolt also revisits the ideas behind Bolt’s original offending pieces — that the group of nine who were named (and those like them) are light-skinned but identify as Aborigines “because there are public benefits in so identifying”.
This is the exact same defamatory imputation that Bolt made. It implies that this group chooses to identify as Aboriginal because they can milk the public purse by so doing.
As others have pointed out, Bolt’s words, phrases and meanings carried clearly defamatory imputations. His use of words like “official”, “political” and “professional” “white Aborigines” appear to knowingly damage the reputations of the people named in his columns.
More importantly, any defence Bolt might have to accusations of defamatory speech evaporate because he got even basic facts about his targets wrong. He wrote about one complainant that she had a white, German father. Problem was, Larissa Behrendt’s dad was an Aboriginal man.
When looking at this case over the past two days (I was living in New Zealand during 2009 when events happened and had not at that time read Bolt’s columns) I came to the same conclusion as David Marr:
Perhaps the Herald Sun and Bolt should be thanking their lucky stars not to be facing nine separate defamation trials.
[Freedom of Speech rides on - David Marr, SMH 29/9/11]
Yep, lucky that the nine complainants chose to use the Racial Discrimination Act where the test for harm is actually harder to pass than in defamation actions. The RDA contains a clause that explicitly defends freedom of speech when offensive speech is used “reasonably and in good faith”.
In the Federal Court it was proven that Bolt had not acted reasonably, or in good faith. He had knowingly used offensive speech for an explicit political purpose. To promote the myth of black privilege and to use this lie to incite hatred of his targets.
What Bolt and Johns fail to mention — though they both know it all too well — is that there is also public pain in identifying as Aboriginal in Australia. Just ask any dark-skinned Aborigine living in poverty and subject to daily racism anywhere in the country.
The myth of so-called black privilege is trotted out incessantly by the likes of Bolt – the cultural warriors who would do anything and say anything to carry out their jihad against “the left”.
These professional reputation killers know that they cannot muster any argument based on logic or rational attention to fact, so they make shit up and pander to the most base of prejudice in a small section of the community to rally the troops.
And the proof of this is in the Federal Court decision itself: Bolt got stuff wrong, he didn’t carry out basic journalistic checks on his sources (most of which were from a Google search), but found enough rubbish circulating in cyberspace to bolster his weak argument.
The judge also rightly skewers Bolt for being “intent on arguing a case”, but not making a “diligent attempt” to get the facts right.
Bolt doesn’t deny this point, but he won’t apologise or admit his mistakes to his acolytes and foot soldiers. To do so would expose as another lie the image he wants to present of himself as a martyred victim of political correctness gone wrong.
Johns tries to argue that Bolt has been prevented from discussing issues of what has become “cultural identity” in common parlance. But any honest reading of the Federal Court decision shows clearly that Judge Mordecai Bromberg explicity and rightly rejects this idea.
“In finding against [Bolt & the Herald Sun] I have taken into account the value of freedom of expression and the silencing consequences of finding a contravenion…Given the serious of the conduct involved, the silencing consequences appears to me to be justified…An expression of identity is itself an expression that freedom of expression serves to protect. That expression also derserves to be considered and valued.”
So the principle of free speech has consequences for those who choose to exercise it without due care and who knowingly claim the principle to defend wrong actions. But this point is not recognised by Bolt and his cheer squad.
In his defence of Bolt, Gary Johns intones the holy grail of the propagandist: “nothing is more sacred than free speech.”
This quasi-religious phrase is the last refuge of the coward and the scoundrel. Free speech is of course an important principle in any democratic society, but it is not the most sacred principle that a democratic society should uphold.
More important is a commitment to truth and to principles of common humanity and a commitment to fight racism and prejudice in all forms.
Bolt makes mealy-mouthed appeals to such principles as a sop to his base of supporters. He doesn’t really give a fuck. He is a paid propagandist and a mouthpiece for all that is vile and wrong in Australia today.
He should really just admit it, put on the black, shiny uniform and frog march his way into the history books.
Bye bye Bolter, I for one won’t miss you when you go.