Last week, I once again had the pleasure of being "Bolted".
That’s what happens when opinion writer Andrew Bolt singles you out on his blog or in his column, both of which appear under the Herald Sun masthead. Just in case any newmatilda.com readers are curious as to what it’s like, I thought I’d offer a beginner’s guide, and also flag a couple of questions it raised in my mind.
The week before last, you may remember, I wrote a piece reflecting on John Howard’s Melbourne University speech about the Australian media. If you re-read it, you’ll see that I specifically praise a number of News Ltd journalists, and, among other things, I argue that Kevin Rudd’s apparent blanking of the Australian may be bad for democracy. That’s hardly a hard-left or anti-News Ltd line, and indeed one that may well be unsatisfactorily centrist for some newmatilda.com readers.
The thing that clearly annoyed Bolt, though, was my criticism of the way in which John Howard’s repeated, unsupported assertions of left-wing bias among journalists took hold, and helped to give currency to the idea that hard-right views should be represented in the media, even at the expense of quality commentary and debate. Howard’s version of balance is one that the ABC in particular has taken on to the detriment of its current affairs broadcasting (Piers Akerman’s bizarre performance on Q&A last week offered an instructive example). I named Bolt as someone who took advantage of this version of balance to derail analysis and debate in ABC current affairs shows like Insiders.
Bolt got in his response at 7.30am on Sunday morning (you can’t fault his work ethic). The blog post was a classic opening move in a "Bolting". Though it was hardly relevant to my argument, he trawled the internet for a picture of me, with which he chose to lead the post. He described me in flatly inaccurate terms as being a "GetUp operative". (Of course, I’m no more a GetUp! operative than he is an ALP operative — I did work for them but I have no continuing links with their campaigning activities, as they or I would have told him if he’d bothered contacting either party.)
He didn’t even pretend to engage with the substance of my piece. Instead he suggested that it amounted to an assertion of my own infallibility and that of "the left" (it’s always hard to tell what Bolt means when he uses that scare-word). He also suggested a preference on my part for the Pravda model of journalism.
Ludicrous? Yes, and pretty creepy too. But the post is just the beginning when you’re getting Bolted. Like much of Bolt’s work, this post really functioned as a collection of cues and provocations for his audience and the commenters he feeds. They are a busy bunch, with time to burn, and their wit and wisdom is always the basis of the next phase of Bolt’s performance. For your delectation, I offer a sample of the free character assessments — spelling mistakes included — which I was offered on Bolt’s thread (many of which, of course, were based on the falsehood of a continuing association with GetUp!).
"Smug looking little git has an eminently punchable face doesn’t he? ALP preselection beckons."
"What makes you think he has his head in the clouds — with a job description like that I would think it’s more likely in his fundamental orifice."
"Its strange that leftards have such a bias against catholicism and yet believe themselves infallible.One can imagine how his students would react to his posing. He’s made it clear hasn’t he? Agree with me 100% and you’ll get 100%."
[I’m actually a Catholic myself, just for the record, and I’ve got someone with legal training looking very carefully at the final sentences of that comment.]
"Personally, I prefer ‘leftoid’; as in haemorrhoid, as in a continual pain in the arse that causes mild to accute annoyance from time to time but doesn’t affect one’s ability to reason and is ultimately irrevelant to anything truly important."
"What a smug little shit. It must be so comfortable in the zone of infallibility."
"What else would you expect from a tax leach. Another case of those who cant do, teach."
"What a prick."
"If this ‘GetUp operative’ seriously believers that the ABC’s hostily towards John Howard was just a figment of his imagination, how can such a biased, blinkered ideological fool be lecturing other on communications?"
"Note the mandatory head tilt in the photo of young Jason. Probably the product of insufficient parental discipline."
"They say a picture speaks a thousand words but, in this case, how about just two .. smug, self satisfied, perhaps? Just another one of the Peter Pans of the academic world endlessly waffling on with silly opinions, eternally immature in thought and deed … all at the taxpayers’ expense."
"why give this lefty lunatic the air time? he is just an insignificant, parasitic socialist wally trying to impose his sick nonsense on the rest of us. oh and a lecturer in ‘digital communications’? is that writing numbers on a blackboard???"
"Is Commissar Jason worth more than a derisory laugh? Not exactly the type of advertisement a university would want with that display of intellect — cleverly, Jase is obviously setting himself up for greater things — as a clerk in a Soviet censor’s office. I’d imagine this little tick would understand one well known digital communication. What a pity he has not yet received it from his faculty and so-called ‘university’."
And it goes on — check the thread for more choice cuts. Of course, that doesn’t include many items of hate email I received, all of which had Bolt’s post cut-and-pasted into it. One of the more bizarre emails I received was CCed to Bolt, who as far as I know expressed no disapproval of these actions. Commenters addressed a number of topics — my appearance, what they presumed was my youth, my parents, my profession, and some even chose to take a sideswipe at Wollongong. Anything, in short, except the substance of what I had said.
Mostly, I find this hilarious. What’s especially funny is that it’s clear that almost none of Bolt’s commenters have actually read my article. They have no need or desire to go beyond Bolt’s presentation of my argument and my person. Rather, on Bolt’s signal, and at a moment’s notice, they’re prepared to perform every rhetorical cliché of the grievance-addicted hard right, up to and including thinly veiled threats of violence. It’s a ritual of ad hominem abuse.
So, the Bolting has continued for much of this week, and all of this stuff is now permanently archived. Personally I’m fine with that, and in any case I was prepared for it. Many character-building years on the rugby league field taught me how to take my lumps and give them too. I can only presume Bolt’s many years as an avid opera fan have done the same for him. But there are bigger questions at stake here which go beyond the terms of this "disagreement".
I’m not the first, nor will I be the last to be Bolted. It’s his stock in trade. Last week he allowed his forum to play host to the extended abuse of an Anglican minister (check the irony of the headline on that post), and has also published comments suggesting (on the basis of another selective photograph) that a Ballarat councillor’s environmentalism is somehow equivalent to Nazism. These were almost as classy as another of last week’s bunch, which claimed that women, as a group, are more superstitious than men. If you can bring yourself to read them, there are plenty more posts where these came from, sitting in Bolt’s archive.
Now, as a supporter of free speech and a free press, one is bound to say that Bolt is free to play host to such a forum. Within the limits of the law, he’s even free to give rein to name-calling, uncivil speech, and threats. News Ltd is also perfectly entitled to make money out of it all. We might want to understand it in terms of the long, slow decline of newspaper circulations, and a retreat from mainstream concerns into more and more narrow forms of sensationalism and niche marketing, but that’s a discussion for another day.
It should be said, though, that the raw, unyielding partisanship and incivility of Bolt’s comments threads present an interesting conundrum for those who hold that online forums might help return us to a more deliberative style of democracy. It’s pretty clear that in fact they are deliberately undeliberative. Of course, Bolt is not alone in taking this approach to public debate, and no doubt there is a place for online political snarkiness, but he is in a select bunch in having this kind of platform, and in combining this with other roles.
Notwithstanding Bolt’s and News Ltd’s right to host such a circus, we might ask whether being subject to this kind of smearing and denunciation is a fair price to have to pay to enter into public debate. As I said, I found it all pretty entertaining, but there are others who might well be intimidated by the prospect of being insulted and reviled by scores of anonymous strangers on the website of a major media outlet. Is it possible that this kind of demagoguery could have a chilling effect on public discourse?
If we think that it might, we may also like to ask whether we’re happy with our tax dollars providing a platform, and legitimation, for Bolt’s approach to public debate. Although he relentlessly criticises the ABC, Bolt is always careful to say in his bio lines that he has appeared on current affairs programs like Insiders. That’s because these forums provide him with some status as a political commentator. They also show his readers that the campaign against what he calls left-wing bias in the national broadcaster is somehow working.
Ideally, public affairs programs on the national broadcaster should provide a forum for reasoned analysis and debate. I’d argue that this is what our taxes should be used for, and I wouldn’t be alone in thinking so. But as we’ve seen, Bolt’s forum indicates that this is the last thing that he’s interested in. So why should the rest of us subsidise untrammeled far-right messaging on the national broadcaster? And why should our money be used to give comfort to those whose interests are in making public debate as divisive, uncivil and personally destructive as possible?
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