Overstepping the Boundaries of Polite Discussion


Six years ago, I met an elderly Englishman named Bill Porter who was wandering the world trying to resurrect public values in journalism.

A farm boy from Lancashire, Porter returned from World War II and became a journalist with the aim of trying to create a better world. Fourteen years later, when he left newspapers to enter the publishing industry, he had, in his own words, become "hardened" and his two principal aims were making money and becoming important. It was, he said, as though journalists were not part of the society they were working in, as if they had come from another planet to report on the dying days of human civilisation and that, when that event occurred, they would return to the distant place from which they had come.

In 1990 Porter read an article in the Financial Times reporting that the mass media was one of the biggest industries in the Western world. This disturbed him. Where was its anchor, its sense of social responsibility? He had a nagging sense of having betrayed his generation, the one that stood up to Hitler and defeated fascism with its direct threat to democracy. He also saw polls that regularly showed that less than 10 per cent of people believed that politicians and journalists had credibility. If these professions represented democracy’s third and fourth estates, what, he asked himself, was the future of democracy?

On reflection, what had to be worked for, Porter came to believe, was an idea of civilisation; one that he said "represented the human search for stability and purpose through structures and systems, and which enables our creative aspirations, both personal and social, to be achieved."

To this end, he inaugurated the International Communications Forum which first met in Sarajevo — that tragic symbol of late 20th-century conflict — in 2000. In the course of the conference, repeated references were made to the part played by state-owned television networks throughout the Balkans in fuelling the Bosnian tragedy. I was particularly taken by a paper by Faustina Starrett, a media analyst from Northern Ireland, analysing the failures of journalism in relation to the armed conflict in that province, explaining what is lost when journalists revert to clichés of religious and ethnic identity. She said journalists had a duty to get "the view from the ground, and be a much-needed witness to hope".

A few years later, Bill invited me to a conference he had organised in South Africa. That trip remains a landmark experience in my life. I have been involved, as a journalist, in the reconciliation movement here in Australia for 20-odd years. In South Africa, a young Afrikaans woman was shot one night when a black paramilitary stepped into a fashionable Cape Town bar and randomly opened fire. Her mother, Ginn Fourie, now appeared on stages with the black man who ordered the attack, arguing for reconciliation.

Earlier that day I had gone to Robbins Island where Nelson Mandela had been held as a common prisoner for more than 20 years. Our guide, a former inmate who had been tortured, was less than wholly sane. He took us into the dormitory where he had been held at night and slammed the door behind us, making people jump. That’s how they slammed it on me, he cried. Once he had everyone inside, he gave a long and detailed account of his torture, of having his body bound in chains and being dropped from a height, of having his genitals savaged by an Alsatian. At the end of the tour, he walked away from us crying, a wild jumble of emotion.

By then we had passed the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela sat, conceiving the path whereby South Africa could avoid civil war. As I understand it, the principle Mandela worked on is just about the exact opposite to torture: Mandela said that if you treat people as if they possess integrity, — and that includes your prison guards — eventually they have to treat you in the same manner. I’m not sure it would work for all of us, but it worked for Nelson Mandela.

At the conference I met a lot of journalists, black and white, who’d been sent to prison for their belief in journalism. I met a radio journalist from Zimbabwe whose radio station had been blown up by the Mugabe Government. "What keeps you going?" I asked him. "The people," he said. "The people support us."

Then I met an onlooker at the conference I’ll call Stephen. This is not his name but he has family in Zimbabwe to protect and he himself was tortured there — a black man tortured by black men. Stephen reminded me of Archie Roach, the first Aboriginal man to call me brother. There was a connection between us from the start. I ended up going home with him and meeting his family.

I played cricket with Stephen and his kids in the backyard. Africa at evening: lush and magnificent. Here I was playing backyard cricket — backyard cricket being to me an image of Australian innocence — with a man who had been tortured, hurt horribly in a sustained and deliberate manner by a vicious and paranoid regime. My friend Stephen, a small man, is a moral mountain who turned his back on the armed struggle to work for social change in non-violent ways. There was no politics of race here. None of the twentieth century’s moral relativities applied. I was confronted by plain old-fashioned evil.

Stephen ran me to the airport when I left South Africa. I’d lost my ticket. All I had to get me home was a piece of paper with the name and number of a Qantas official in another city. I handed it over to a man who then disappeared and suddenly I had no way of getting home. The man from behind the counter reappeared on the other side of the airport, my piece of paper in hand, hurrying about his duties. I said I was going over to tell him to make sure he didn’t lose the piece of paper but Stephen said, "Trust him. Sometimes it is better". And it was. I got home and a certain good spirit had been preserved. But at the airport, Stephen also referred to his torturers: "They did terrible things to me." I saw the fire of a pain that would never be extinguished and knew then that torture is an insult to whatever it means to be human.

The next installment of the story took place back here in Australia about two years later when I happened to turn to the back cover of my favourite literary periodical, the New York Review of Books, the page where the most eminent of the new books are advertised. There — alongside one on Louisiana dance music and another on the history of Latin as a language — was a book titled Torture in which "social experts discuss the advisability of maintaining an absolute ban on torture".

Suddenly, it seemed to me, torture was a subject for polite discussion like Louisiana dance music or the history of Latin as a language. Why? One answer was because it was a discussion being conducted among "social experts". You show me a social attitude or practice, I’ll find you a "social expert" who’ll justify it.

Not long afterwards two Australian academics from Deakin University did just that and published a paper in an American magazine arguing for the ethical validity of torture. Faced with a backlash here in Australia, I seem to recall one of them said the discussion of torture in America was "more rational". Various polls in that country over the last three years have found majority support for the use of torture in certain circumstances. I hereby assert what I believe to be a general rule of human nature: people who approve of torture in opinion polls do so with the confidence that they are not the ones who are going to be tortured.

And so, in response to the book advertisement on the back page of the New York Review of Books, I wrote an essay on torture which I was fortunate to get published, initially in The Age, and later in an international collection. My friend Stephen helped me, singing me home when I read it to him. Oh Martin Martin Martin.

The essay started: "Torture – to me the most repugnant of human practices – is coming back into intellectual fashion". It ended: "The arguments for torture haven’t really changed since the Inquisition. What has changed is what’s terrifying us and who we suspect its agents among us to be."

And so I made my statement. But it was what happened next that scared me. What happened? Nothing. Nothing happened.

This is an edited version of an oration delivered by Martin Flanagan at the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, Melbourne on June 19, 2008 to mark the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The full speech can be read here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.