Down the memory hole part 1: Repeat a lie long enough someone will believe it

The Armstrong Delusion

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed because they’ve been quite subtle, but whoever writes editorials for The Australian doesn’t like the idea that there should be some responsibility and accountability in the news media — particularly when it comes to News Limited papers.

I have collected more than a dozen editorials from The Australian that relate to media regulation, the Finkelstein and Convergence Review recommendations and the war on free speech that is currently crushing the news media. I have a pile of op-ed pieces 20 centimetres high and I’m slowly piecing together the story of the memory hole and the big lie.

It is impossible to include everything in one post because it is necessary to constantly check the facts. Big lies work through repetition and by relying on the assumption that no one will check the history and correct the record.

But I am working on a book about journalism ethics at the moment and a second one on freedom of speech so this is a research exercise. I am happy to share as I go along.

The memory hole is the device used in Orwell’s 1984. Winston Smith is obliged to correct (redact and edit) editions of The Times on behalf of the Inner Party. Whenever he corrects a piece of copy — usually because of some previous lie that now needs to be altered — the old story and all his working notes are sent to a furnace in the vast apparatus of the state. The offending materials are dispatched down the memory hole.

In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.

George Orwell, 1984

The Australian and its free speech absolutist supporters are relying on the memory hole to erase any idea that there might be some value in media accountability and light touch regulation.

Protecting freedom of speech

As News Limited chief executive Kim Williams told Australian Agenda last weekend, the regulatory intervention proposed by former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein would be an absurd “deliberate act of sabotage of free speech” akin “to a Stalinist kind of position . . . deserving of no consideration whatsoever”.

The Australian 30 June 2012

Well, it’s worth looking at the quote from Williams in a bit more detail here.

“And I look at it in very, very stark and severe terms of the advocacy that Finkelstein advanced for a new regulator that can impose conditions on journalists where journalists would be subject to imprisonment if they did not comply, where the regulator would not be compelled to publish reasons and where the decisions of the regulator would not be appealable is frankly so absurd.

“And to cast it in such a Stalinist kind of position is, I think, to be deserving of no consideration whatsoever.”

Here we see the introduction of the big lie… that journalists would be ‘subject to imprisonment’. It is also accompanied by the no published reason furphy and the no appeal scare tactic. The conditions are not on journalists, they are on news organisations and there is no threat of imprisonment.

It is starting to look as if someone has provided talking points for Kim Williams. As we shall see, this triumverate of excuses is trotted out regularly.

Free speech opens minds

Many of the people in academia, the media and the law who usually defend human rights and liberal views have fallen silent. Astonishingly, journalism academics, such as Matthew Ricketson and Margaret Simons, have played an active role in promoting the new authoritarianism.

The Australian 13 July

I have said before that this is a slander against Matthew and Margaret. But more importantly this editorial is an evidentiary link in the chain of belief that The Australian is building around the issue of an all-out attack on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The editorial references two other pieces in The Australian: an op-ed by NSW Solicitor-General Michael Sexton and a news story about Ita Buttrose’ speech at the National Press Club.

Sexton’s column is remarkable because it gives a veneer of respectable third-party endorsement to the big lie. It repeats the company line about the defence of Andrew Bolt in the racial discrimination case and it adds a twist that is not really appropriate for a government-appointed legal official:

It is not necessary to like everything that Andrew Bolt writes to think that it is bad federal legislation that allows a newspaper article to be found unlawful simply because it might offend or insult some members of the community. And what is to be said about the Victorian legislation that makes it unlawful to engage in conduct that incites “serious ridicule” of a person or group of people on the ground of religious beliefs or activities? No one likes being the subject of ridicule but it has always been a means of public debate and it works only if there is something ridiculous in the conduct that is under attack.

What? Read that last line again:

No one likes being the subject of ridicule but it has always been a means of public debate and it works only if there is something ridiculous in the conduct that is under attack.

So Michael Sexton SC, solicitor general for NSW, are you saying here that Bolt’s ridicule of Pat Eatock and the others was justified because their conduct is somehow ridiculous?

That is sure what it looks like. But surely as a legal brain of some standing you would have read the court’s decision before making this statement. And, if you had you would also know that Bolt got his facts wrong. You are defending something that is not defensible here. It brings shame on your office to think that you would associate with this political attack on the reputations of eminent Australians.

The other aspect of Sexton’s comments that deserves attention — because ity continues to crop up — is that somehow the Finkelstein report argued that ordinary Australians are stupid and cannot make up their own minds.

This is not what Finkelstein said or meant in his report, but it is another convenient talking point given legitimacy here from the fingers of Michael Sexton.

In fact, when we go back and check the quote in Sexton’s piece with what was actually written in the Finkelstein report we can see that there has been a deliberate and unacknowledged truncation of the full passage in such a way as to totally change its meaning. This is necessary to make the big lie work.

Here is Sexton’s garbled version:

the Finkelstein inquiry… rejected any traditional notion of free speech in the following terms:

“While it may be accepted that freedom of expression is important for self-fulfilment, it is not clear that unlimited free speech is essential for self-fulfilment; the speech that warrants protection is not all speech but ‘that speech that is constitutive of the formation and planning of one’s life in ways commensurate with one’s informed conception of the good’.”

But the full passage makes it clear that this is not Finkelstein’s view, he is quoting from someone else:

2.39 While it may be accepted that freedom of expression is important for self-fulfilment, it is not clear that unlimited free speech is essential for self-fulfilment60. Indeed, as Gelber observes, under the capabilities approach, the speech that warrants protection is not all speech but ‘that speech that is constitutive of the formation and planning of one’s life in ways commensurate with one’s informed conception of the good’61. And even speech that performs this role may be subject to limitations under the capabilities approach where it causes harm to others.62

The numbers are footnotes in the text and I have underlined the missing pieces. But importantly, paragraph 2.39 should be read in conjunction with paragraph 2.40 because it provides context and gives us a much better idea of what Finkelstein meant to say:

2.40 If this is correct, there may be a conflict between free speech as a means of self-fulfilment and other freedoms which may also be self-fulfilling—for example, the right to be treated with equal respect. The point is usefully demonstrated by hate speech and pornography, which are demeaning of particular groups in society and may impact on the ability of those groups to enjoy equal rights. 63. Where there is a conflict between speech rights and other rights, it is not clear that speech rights should always prevail, although as Greenawalt observes ‘suppression of communication is a more serious impingement on our personalities than many other restraints of liberty’64

You can read this for yourself at page 35 of the report. A second false positive reading is also introduced here — though I have seen it repeated ad nauseum in The Australian — that Finkelstein said most people are too dumb to make up their own minds. With some clever selective quoting and fancy footwork it is possible to make it seem so, but again context is everything.

To follow this you need to read the section in the Media Inquiry report on “Rationales for free speech” – it begins on page 26. Here Finkelstein quotes approvingly from J S Mill and from Milton’s Areopagitica and he also quotes from several submissions that discuss the concept of the ‘market place of ideas’. This is something that The Australian claims to believe in and so does Ray Finkelstein!

The market place – The Australian proclaims loudly — and not government regulation is how free speech is best protected. But there is a debate to be had here and Finkelstein’s mistake, it seems to me, is that he did not just agree wholeheartedly with the Murdoch minions. He exercised a free-thinking mind – always dangerous around groupthinkers and acolytes.

The quote that it mistakenly attributed to Ray Finkelstein — Citizens must have the capacity to engage in debate, in the form of the relevant critical reasoning and speaking skills — is actually from a submission by Dr Sarah Sorial. But this line is then seamlessly joined to the next one to create the impression that the Judge thinks we are morons:

There is real doubt as to whether these capacities are present for all, or even most, citizens.

But what capacities?

The full quote from Dr Sorial includes another line that is always omitted in The Australian’s commentary:

They must also have equal opportunity to participate, in the form of access to public forums where they can articulate their views and debate with one another.

Once again we can see how the repetition of a lie creates a false sense of truth. If you dont go back and check the source, but rely on the trail of mischief left by The Australian then you may well think that Finkelstein is an elitist bag of wind. This second important social condition – the public space and access are also essential capacities that must be in place.

But that does not suit the agenda of discrediting the Media Inquiry and staving off further encroachments on the LimitedNews honchos and their political agenda.

The use of Ita Buttrose as a useful idiot in The Australian’s media wars is a clever piece of marketing and propaganda. We all love Ita and as an icon she is above reproach.

So when she calls for the Government to butt out of media regulation, we should listen and her homespun advice about how we all need to understand media moguls and give them some personal space is simply divine:

Buttrose — who was also the editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph — said what really mattered was that the public understood proprietors influenced their publications, “balanced by good journalism of the kind that provides an impartial point of view”.

It’s not the first time (and not the last, I’m sure) that Ita will be called on to battle with the demons of media control and last time she was even more useful. Her comments provide further third-party legitimation for the big lie about Finkelstein’s elitism:

Buttrose said: “The public is not stupid, although Finkelstein does not seem to share this view. In his report he says most Australians are too dumb or ignorant to decide for themselves what they see, hear and read in the media. What arrogance – and what an elite, legal point of view.”

No he didn’t, but thanks anyway Ita, I’m sure Tony will give you a gong of some sort for services to The Australian media.

What if the ‘hate media’ had been brought to heel?

Our freedom of speech is under threat in a variety of ways — from authoritarian social media policies imposed on sports stars to journalists being prosecuted under anti-vilification laws for causing offence and broadcasting authorities chastising radio hosts for the ‘‘tone’’ of interviews. This is additional to stringent defamation laws, strict rules covering suppression and contempt in court reporting and moves for new privacy laws. But of most concern are proposed new federal government interventions, especially plans to regulate all editorial content through a news media council.

14 July Weekend Australian

You really shouldn’t tempt us to answer that question, you won’t like the answer.

If we unpack this paragraph we can see clearly that for this editorial writer any form of regulation that prevents .News Limited from doing whatever if fucking pleases – whether about taste, or racist slurs or defamation or court reporting and fair trials or for us to demand privacy – is out of order.

The advice to sports stars about social media  is actually to stop them doing stupid things – like sending racist or offensive tweets. It is nothing to do with the news media and it’s not a ban on freedom of speech – unless of course the freedom to be a racist dribblejaws is something to aspire to.

ACMA – the broadcasting regulator – has statutory obligations to police the airwaves and has done for many years. The fact that the likes of Alan Jones or Kyle Sandilands ocassionally and belatedly get a rocket up them for some of the outrageous and offensive things they say and encourage listeners to say is hardly going to bring down Western democracy.

Freedom of speech is not the freedom to be offensive and to vilify, but LimitedNews editorial writers don’t get that. Their egos and hubris are beyond huge.

The prosecution being referred to here is, of course, Andrew Bolt. It is wonderful (if you’re Andrew Bolt) to see how LimitedNews is so solidly behind him, but that does not alter the facts of the case.

Bolt was wrong; he was being racist and he deserved everything he got. And ironically enough, he probably would have faced a tough time defending himself against defamation action too because he had several key facts in the story wrong.

Defamation laws in Australia are hardly stringent or an infringement on freedom of speech. You only have to prove that what you’re saying about someone is true in order to defend a defamation action.

Suppression orders are, in most cases, legitimate – they are used to protect the identity of children (most often innocent parties in legal proceedings) and victims of sexual violence. If they are abused or over-used then the news media can campaign on specific cases. Remember, not even the world’s richest woman  Gina Rinehart could get a suppression order to stop reporting of a nasty court fight between her and several family members.

Free speech must be protected

Julia Gillard has a political hot potato on her hands in the form of the Finkelstein report, proposing a government-funded star chamber to regulate the media. If set up as recommended, it could result in journalists being jailed, without appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The Australian, 24 July 2012

I have read the Finkelstein report and I cannot find any reference to a recommendation that journalists be fined or sent to prison under proposed regulations. This issue is taken up in Down the Memory Hole Part 2

That’s a lot of subtle and not so subtle re-inforcement and when you combine it with the amazing brain power of groupthink in the letters pages and among columnists it is a pretty overwhelming force to reckon with.

I am almost at the point where I no longer enjoy The Australian shouting at me each morning in strident tones that give me a headache and make me worry all day.

Maybe it’s time to stop my subscription.

I only keep it going because it’s costing Rupert money.

For $7.95 a week I get the paper delivered six days and unlimited access behind the paywall.

But you know it’s almost not worth it any more.

I want to get the voices out of my head.

Some days it feels like this…at the breakfast table:

Pop Hangover

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