About the same time as I was finalising the leading article for last week’s Spectator Australia, a boffin at the Age was doing a similar job for the Thursday editorial of that once proud Melbourne institution. My contribution re-committed the Speccie to, inter alia, free speech, the contest of ideas, and to the right to be offended (as I was, frankly, by last week’s grotesque cover cartoon, but I’m unlikely to sue). The Age’s editorial board likewise had its own editorial position in mind when it announced, “Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act should not be changed.”
September 8, 2016 will probably go down as one of many decisive dates in the decline of Fairfax (and specifically the Age), but it should also be a date which will live in infamy, as one of Australia’s newspapers of record literally gives up on free speech and press freedom. Not that the editorial admits as much: “Our commitment to freedom of expression remains as robust as ever,” it declares without a hint of Orwellian irony. The Age’s previous stated position was that:
Section 18c of the act – which makes it illegal to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the basis of race, colour or national or ethnic origin’ – should be abolished because it sets the bar too low, in effect allowing people to take legal action for hurt feelings.
There are other problems with the Racial Discrimination Act, such as its administration by the bungling Australian Human Rights Commission, but the Age’s previous opposition to section 18c was well founded. As is that of Robert Magid, proprietor of the Australian Jewish News, whose readership is routinely subjected to anti-Semitic offence, insults and humiliation. The Australian Jewish community has generally been opposed to amending the Act, but Magid wrote powerfully last week on “free speech and the need to amend Section 18c.”
Obviously, earlier editors of the Age had read the Act and realised how pernicious it is, and how dangerous it is to free speech. The current incumbents, however, appear to have no understanding of the legislation, and even less understanding of the value of a free society. All they know is that to propose a change is bad and racist. And homophobic, apparently. This, from the editorial before it was revised:
We are altering our position for two main reasons. First, were the proposed plebiscite on marriage equality to go ahead – and we believe it is absurd and hugely wasteful and should be abandoned – it is evident that LGBTI people and their families will be vilified.
It may well be that Fairfax’s present financial woes require interns and work experience kids to write the editorials, but isn’t there anyone literate and not the product of a Safe School that might be able to check their work? Furthermore, the intern alleges that “one of the most vocal and insidious opponents of marriage equality is the Australian Christian Lobby, which wants 18c suspended for the plebiscite.” It goes without saying that “insidious” is used here in a way not intended to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate, but the charge is still wrong. The ACL seem to actually have studied the Act, and so their unsuccessful request was only for the partial suspension of state anti-discrimination laws – a request rendered not unreasonable by the curious Tasmanian case of Archbishop Porteous.
After Victorian Senator James Paterson and the Herald Sun’s Rita Panahi took to the internet to correct and mock respectively, the grown ups assumed direct control of the editorial board room. A heavily edited version sprung up on the Age’s website, but even still they couldn’t help themselves, making a slightly different but no less spurious connection between the national racial discrimination laws and the proposed same-sex marriage plebiscite. Conflating the two issues is amateurish for political journalists and appears foolish to an electorate already suspicious of at least the criminalisation of offending and insulting. This week’s Essential poll reveals 45% approve of changing Section 18c so that it is no longer unlawful to “offend or insult” someone because of their race or ethnicity and only 35% disapprove.
Conflating the two issues, however, is very telling. Never before have Fairfax’s censorious instincts been so clearly laid out. In allowing the first version of the editorial to be printed – and even the second to be published – the desperation of the Left is clear: insulting Aboriginals is mean; therefore we shouldn’t have a same-sex marriage plebiscite. And if we do, racism is bad, therefore vote to change the Marriage Act.
But it’s also a harbinger of the politically correct utopia the Age’s editors (and work-experience kids) dream about. In what is actually a dystopian vision, “right” thinking is encouraged, and right speaking is enforced. Identity politics is the societal foundation, thanks to the criminalization of offendedness. And free expression, on any topic, is an illusion, not that its non-existence precludes robust commitment to it, of course.
Journalists, editors and publishers used to be gatekeepers and reliable champions of free speech and press freedom. These days Fairfax at least is not just a shill for its own political commitments, but a spruiker for illiberal laws that restrict what can be said and printed, and that make criminals out of university students and journalists alike.
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