Flat White

Time to tackle the bullies or risk freedom of speech

6 March 2019

4:07 PM

6 March 2019

4:07 PM

While American conservatives can rejoice after President Trump announced an executive order to withdraw funding from public universities if they don’t uphold free speech, the recent targeting of Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine by well-funded professional activist groups attempting to rob them of a platform show that the battle for free and informed debate in Australia is only going to get harder.

‘Sleeping Giants Oz’ is the local offshoot of Sleeping Giants, an American group founded in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. It is active on Twitter across several countries and rallies its followers against companies who advertise on TV channels and media outlets which host personalities who they deem bigoted or offensive. Invariably, the targets of these attacks are from the right side of politics. By targeting the social media accounts of the advertisers with a barrage of tweets, they are pushed to withdraw sponsorship, mounting pressure on media companies to stop hosting opinions that the far-left group find controversial.

Bolt and Devine were singled out simply for expressing the view that the jury in the Cardinal Pell case could have gotten it wrong. A concerted Sleeping Giants campaign resulted in the absence of advertising for the evening broadcast of the Bolt Report.

Similarly, Australian Catholic University Vice-Chancellor – a distinguished legal scholar and former Foundation Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia – has been the subject of protest action from university staff this week for a comment piece supportive of Pell.

Though the Cardinal’s conviction came as a unanimous verdict, it is well within a journalist’s role to examine that verdict. Up to seven percent of Australian convictions are false by some estimates, and we’d do well not to forget the trauma inflicted on Lindy Chamberlain and her family in the 80s after her false conviction for killing her child. One wonders how much of that trauma could have been averted if the truth had been brought to light earlier.

Jury trials also have a chequered history and have been banned in several countries after high-profile wrongful convictions or acquittals, especially involving high-profile figures.

Attempting to de-platform commentators like Bolt and Devine for their dissenting views instead of engaging with them then, does nothing for the victims of abuse. An appeal is underway which could overturn Pell’s conviction. If that happens now, it won’t just be a moral victory for supporters of Pell. It will also be a cause celebre for those who, wrongly in my opinion, believe that the pursuit of the church for historical abuse is a witch-hunt. This will only encourage cynicism if future victims of clergy abuse come forward.

Free speech is not a threat to justice. It is part of the solution. In a public Facebook post shared over 14,000 times under 24 hours, Clare Linane, an abuse survivor and partner of a clergy abuse victim, called Bolt out for his column. Linane argues that Bolt cannot claim to have ‘overwhelming evidence’ of Pell’s innocence.

She notes that many of Bolt’s criticisms of the evidence against Pell, such as that one of the two victims denied the abuse, do not indicate that the abuse never happened since victims of traumatic childhood abuse are often embarrassed into silence and denial. Linane also points out that contrary to Bolt’s contention, it is not uncommon for abusers in high positions to act where there is a significant risk of being caught.

This is freedom of speech functioning exactly as it should by fostering a society that confronts controversial topics through free and informed discourse. One where the powers and institutions that be, as well as the commentariat themselves, are held to scrutiny and their arguments are tested on merits. One which benefits greatly from confronting genuine issues, like the reliability of jury trials and circumstances where child abuse could occur, rather than engaging in histrionic battles to stop critical perspectives on public affairs from reaching the public. The latter is the worldview promoted by the likes of Sleeping Giants and other outrage-powered activist mobs who won’t rest until those with the wrong opinion have been punished for it.

Ironically given their stated opposition to sexism, the group has no problem in accepting funding from the likes of millionaire hedge fund manager and former PM’s son Alex Turnbull who resorts to publicly shaming conservative journalists like Janet Albrechtsen for her alleged sex life.

Far-left activist “groups” like Sleeping Giants – often just a name adopted by a handful of compulsive Tweeters – are a symptom of the cancerous and unforgiving tribalism which has infected public debate in recent years while undermining public confidence in politics and the media. However, their success in convincing media companies and advertisers that they reflect mainstream views and act on altruism is purely the result of conservatives failing to mobilise, speak out, and strike back.

What better evidence of this than the recent revelation that hundreds of tweets on behalf of their campaign were sent by a single taxpayer-funded academic during his work hours? These groups do not speak for the mainstream or the vast majority of the population- they are merely a well-organised band of outrage merchants operating tactically and funded by those who have a bone to pick with dissenters from the norm.

If we do not take the bullies on by standing up to demand a free and open society that doesn’t shame us into silence, then we will lose it for good.

Satya Marar is a Sydney writer and Director of Policy at the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.    

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