MANY journalists love to think that a carte blanche freedom to write what they want is as fundamental to democracy as the right to vote. Bunkum!
First the Murdoch press in the UK and now columnist Andrew Bolt in Australia have demonstrated the reason why it is appropriate to have checks and balances to prevent misuse of power – just like every other part of our democracy.
“The public deserve to be protected against irresponsible journalism.”
This phrase, taken from the Privy Council, was most recently used by Federal Court judge Mordecai Bromberg in holding Bolt to account for his racist slurs on light-skinned Aboriginal people.
Some of the reasons provided in the summary to the extensive judgment included: “Fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations; people should be free to fully identify with their race without fear of public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying; and, is likely to be destructive of racial tolerance.” And he did not accept any excuse.
The comments came as Bromberg found the right-wing journalist and his publisher, Herald & Weekly Times, guilty of a serious breach of the Racial Discrimination Act.
There have been howls of protest from other journalists and columnists who (although often vigorously disagreeing with his sentiment) believe that the Act and the judgment go too far in curtailing freedom of speech.
Margaret Simmons, writing one of the alternative views published by the website Crikey, suggests that although this may be considered “bad journalism”, it should not be illegal.
She questions where the line should be drawn. It is an important issue at a time when accountability of the press is being questioned internationally. David Marr supported the decision in the Fairfax media pointing out that Bolt will probably launch an appeal and reflected on the likelihood of “spectacular rhetoric” from him.
The motivation of the plaintiffs was clear in seeking to redress a wrong.
They did not seek financial reward through a defamation case, but rather used the Racial Discrimination Act to achieve a clear statement demonstrating recognition of their rightful status and to ensure that someone such as Bolt was held to account.
The response of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community was swift and extensive.
The decision has come at a time when our community is making some progress in dealing with racial slurs and prejudice.
The apology to the stolen generation, the federal parliament’s “welcome to country” by local identity Matilda House and the efforts at reconciliation are all put at risk with this sort of pitiful journalism.
Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) has used the opportunity effectively to call for support from all Australians, saying: “As we consider the issue of Constitutional recognition of the First Peoples we need to recognise and respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity and celebrate, rather than denigrate, Australia’s indigenous past, present and future”.
Let’s hope that the Federal Government’s Inquiry (by former justice of the Federal Court of Australia, Ray Finkelstein QC, with the assistance of Dr Matthew Ricketson, Professor of Journalism at Canberra University) will also consider other issues such as invasion of privacy and concentration of the media.
We do need a free and open press for our democracy.
However, living in society means curtailing some of our freedoms for the good of the community and we will need to work hard to keep the balance right.
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government.