Not much has been interfering with Tony Abbott’s freedom of speech lately. The Opposition Leader has been speeching it up on China, defence spending, mining magnates, you name it. Yesterday, he addressed the IPA on freedom of speech and media regulation.
The take home? More freedom, less regulation.
We’ve heard much of what the Opposition Leader had to say before. He’s against a public interest test for media owners and in favour of impassioned, untrammelled debate. Free speech is an unqualified public good, the more of it we get, the better. There’s no debate about that, right? In fact, in Abbott’s hands, free speech is a blunt stick with which to bludgeon the centre-left.
In a turn worryingly reminiscent of the bad old days of the Culture Wars, Abbott reminded his audience that freedom of speech "is not just an academic nicety". It’s real stuff, in the real world. Small-l liberals recoil from the idea of restricting speech and have often struggled to defend legislation which does so. Fostering free speech in the name of democratic debate sounds like a liberal goal, as does Abbott’s intention to "increase the number and the range of people who can participate in public debate, not reduce it".
Like it or not, it requires a few academic niceties to unpick who participates in public debate and to what end — even if without nuance is the way Abbott likes it.
Abbott laid out the cultural battlelines clearly. David Marr v Andrew Bolt. Philip Adams v Alan Jones. Either you’re with us, or you ain’t. Read the whole speech here.
The IPA has already launched a campaign to defend free speech, asking fellow travellers to cough up and contribute to the fighting fund. The rhetoric is, shall we say, unmuzzled:
"Enemies of freedom of speech have already bombarded politicians with demands to regulate the media until it becomes more compliant to their agenda. And they’ve bombarded private media companies with demands to block prospective owners who have the ‘wrong views’".
In Abbott’s view, free speech can be messy and it can be blunt, bland, passionate and offensive. "The price of free speech is that offence will be given, facts will be misrepresented and lies will be told. Truth, after all, only emerges from such a process."
This is precarious ground. Misrepresentation, distortion and deception may be part of the way we reach truth (or consensus). The thing is, laws which regulate speech work to filter outright deceptions and misrepresentations. And that’s a good thing, right? Hence defamation law, which essentially prohibits telling injurious lies about people in public. Or consumer protection laws, which forbid advertisers from making misleading claims.
Abbott’s script was full of fuzzy feelgood claims about freedom of speech that don’t hold up well to scrutiny. At more than one point in the speech, Abbott’s insistence that you might need to misrepresent the facts to get to the truth (or make your point) looked a little bit self-serving.
Abbott is a big fan of parliamentary privilege too. MPs need to be "absolutely unmuzzled" rather than being constrained by fear of defamation suits. In fact, "on matters of the greatest moment, all that should ever gag individual MPs is their own judgment." To which the reasonable response might be something like: God help us all.
This is not to say elected representatives shouldn’t cop a bit of free speech if they do a bad job or if they make themselves unpopular. "They should face criticism, censure, loss of office and electoral defeat if they misuse their freedom but they should never be legally constrained from expressing what they think the national interest demands." (Bernard Keane’s top-notch piece on misogynist attacks on the PM in Crikey yesterday suggested that this aspect of democratic process is thriving.)
And here the defence of freedom of speech shapeshifted into an attack on the federal government. According to Abbott, the Gillard Government "simply howls down its critics using the megaphone of incumbency." That’s not all, "the ferocity of this government’s return of serve often goes way beyond reasonable counter-argument to become a form of state-sponsored bullying."
Who’s getting bullied? Gina Rinehart, John Hartigan and other News Ltd editors — and then there’s the "assault on mum-and-dad anti-carbon tax protestors in Canberra" and the "jihad against mining magnates".
What bothers Abbott and his audience at the IPA is that the Gillard Government is proposing yet more regulation using the Finkelstein Report as a stalking horse. He is opposed to a public interest test for media owners and he scoffs at the recommendation of a News Media Council. "Any new watchdog could become a political correctness enforcement agency destined to suppress inconvenient truths and to hound from the media people whose opinions might rattle Phillip Adams’ listeners."
Furthermore, based on the reasonable premise that media must be independent of government if it is to adequately scrutinise its operation, he opposes any government involvement at all in the day-to-day business of journalism. That looks like a greenlight for misreporting and sloppy fact-checking.
The speech had a sting in the tail: Abbott delivered a promise to roll back the racial discrimination provisions which got Andrew Bolt into strife. "Additional regulation is one current threat to free speech in Australia. Another is the operation of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, " he said. Why? Because a "hurt feelings" test is incompatible with "maintaining the fearless pursuit of truth which should be the hallmark of a society such as ours." That’s a fearless pursuit of truth which involves a few lies and a dab of misrepresentation.
Abbott’s list of real-world constituents who benefit from freedom of speech includes plenty of groups whose members have argued in favour of limitations on free speech under the banner of vilification and racial discrimination laws:
"Freedom of speech empowers Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, environmentalists, climate change sceptics, conservatives, socialists, gays, gen Ys and gen Xs, baby boomers, veterans, everyone and anyone publicly to affirm whatever it is that is important to their identity."
Abbott pitches free speech as if it’s a big tent that can shelter everyone in the community. His list of people covered by free speech includes groups whose interests he doesn’t usually champion. He’s playing games here. Shoving people with competing interests, such as environmentalists and climate change sceptics, into the one leaky tent exposes the complexities and contradictions of freedom of speech.
Free public speech lets people identify themselves and their views — that’s good for public debate. But free speech can simultaneously be damaging, especially if it misrepresents, distorts or destroys facts.
The Opposition Leader wants free speech and at first blush, that’s hard to argue against. "The more powerful people are, the more important the presumption must be that less powerful people should be able to say exactly what they think of them." Who can disagree with that?
Abbott is likely to become ostensibly the most powerful person in the land. And his speech to the IPA will soothe powerful commentators, media owners and mining magnates. But there’s much more to free speech than muzzles and megaphones. Andrew Bolt may not like it but shutting down the academic niceties won’t do much for the public debate that Abbott claims he wants.
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