Malcolm Turnbull's Love Of Free Speech Just Another Right-Wing Scam


When a right-winger in Australia invokes their concern for freedom of speech, check your pockets. It is probably a scam. The invocation of those types of principles is usually a cynical mask for protecting the interests of the rich and powerful. There is ample history of this fact, and the firing of Scott McIntyre from SBS is just one more example.

As readers are likely aware, McIntyre wrote a series of unpatriotic tweets, questioning the value of Anzac Day and the behaviour of our beloved Anzacs. I observed last week that insulting the valour or judgment of our Anzacs is blasphemy to the patriotic and nationalistic, and my point was quickly proven. McIntyre was widely condemned and ultimately fired within 12 hours of the offending tweets.

One awkward fact about the firing is that it seems that almost everything he said was basically true. Professor Philip Dwyer, Director of the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle, observed that our beloved Anzacs “were no angels”.  Some of them in Egypt behaved in an “overtly racist manner”. Australian soldiers, like soldiers of perhaps every army, also engaged in rape and summary executions. Professor Dwyer concluded that “McIntyre is not all that far off the mark”.

Similarly, Geoff Lemon claims to have done research on the world wars. He notes “It’s hard to argue with Gallipoli being “an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with”. As for Anzac Day being celebrated by “poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers” who lack perspective on the relevant wars, ask the UDL-smashing Instagram kids mangling their hashtags with #letsweforget”.

Lemon doesn’t disagree with McIntyre saying that Anzacs engaged in rape, summary executions and theft. His concern is that McIntyre didn’t qualify the tweet enough, and said “these Anzacs” instead of “some Anzacs”. Lemon concludes that this implies “all” Anzacs committed all these crimes, which would be unfair, but is probably an exaggerated reading of what McIntyre wrote or meant.

Lemon also believes it is “specious” to describe the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as terrorism, as this is a retrospective application of a term. Well, the term genocide was invented in 1944, but I suspect he would not regard it as “specious” to apply it to acts occurring in 1943 or earlier.

So in short, McIntyre got fired by the government for saying things that were mostly true, but make people uncomfortable to think about or admit on Anzac Day.

One would think the right would be up in arms. Remember that “SAD DAY FOR FREE SPEECH” headline and how the Murdoch press couldn’t stop weeping, because one of its columnists, Andrew Bolt was found to have breached the Racial Discrimination Act? Or when every right-winger was declaring ’Je Suis Charlie’ over the murders in France? At the time, everyone on the right was adopting their traditional heroic posture, solemnly explaining the need to defend the right to say offensive things, and advocating the reprinting of Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

So where are they now? Well, now it’s different. Right-wing hacks who love to hype their commitment to freedom of speech suddenly see no evil. Like the Freedom Commissioner himself, Tim Wilson. Or the right’s favourite martyr, Andrew Bolt declared that McIntyre was “rightly fired”. Perhaps he would have gotten more support if instead of offending white Australians, he had picked on Aboriginal people or Muslims.

One can go on with all the chest-beating freedom-lovers who have no problem with what happened. James Allan, the Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, wrote in Quadrant, the house journal of right-wing cranks, that “Free speech is about keeping the government from banning speech you don’t like, not your employer”. If freedom of speech is only about protecting individuals from the government, why all the fuss about the murdered staff at Charlie Hebdo?

After all, they also weren’t targeted by the government. Should we conclude that no freedom of speech issue arose there either? Or do restrictions on freedom of speech only not count if they’re performed by rich and powerful organisations?

Probably the funniest performance came from the right-wing corporate advocacy group, Institute of Public Affairs. They commented on the firing at their “Freedom Watch” blog. Under the Freedom Watch banner, one of their loyal members explained that “McIntyre deserved to be fired.” The government firing an employee for expressing unpatriotic opinions in his free time is “completely distinct from the state restricting the speech of citizens.”

But amidst all the cynicism, fraud, and hypocrisy, one person in particular stands out. The so-called Honourable Member for Wentworth himself, Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister for Communications. He got in touch with the Managing Director of SBS “as soon as” he was made aware of the tweets. Turnbull denies pressuring Ebeid into firing McIntyre, but still believed there were no freedom of speech issues at stake, because McIntyre supposedly “breached” the SBS social media protocol. Turnbull helpfully linked to the protocol here.

The “key principles” for SBS employees to follow include communicating in line with SBS values, such as diversity and respect. They are also to be “authentic” and “truthful”, and to not bring the SBS into disrepute. Furthermore, “SBS, as a public broadcaster, must be, and must be seen to be, independent of political, commercial and other influences. Maintaining SBS’s independence and integrity is the responsibility of all SBS employees.” Already, we see some conflicting values.

Was McIntyre being authentic and truthful in his tweets, as many believed? Was diversity at SBS crushed by him being fired? Has the independence of SBS been compromised by the caving in to pressure from the Honourable Mr Turnbull?

It should also be noted: the code declares that “a disclaimer will not necessarily protect you from disciplinary action under the Code of Conduct if you post material on a personal account that has the potential to bring SBS into disrepute”. In effect, SBS employees have a salutary lesson that they are not supposed to express controversial opinions in their private life away from work.

Andrew Bolt’s friends may think no issues of freedom of speech arise. However, we can judge Malcolm Turnbull’s behaviour by his own standards.

Mr Turnbull has repeatedly claimed that unlike the ALP, his party stands for freedom. In March last year, he explained that “Labor believed that the arrival of the Internet required more regulation and less freedom… You could not have a starker difference between our government and its predecessor, and the difference is that we believe in freedom.” What did this mean? “I am the minister that seeks to ensure that we have the freest and most diverse media we can possibly manage.” After all, “Those who think that this Liberal minister should be like Senator Conroy and seek to persecute or suborn or bully those who do not agree with him have got it completely wrong—they are wrong in principle and they are wrong in practice.”

This was a point he made repeatedly:

I am not the Minister for right wing communications. I am not the Minister for communications that support the Liberal Party. I think my predecessor at times felt that he was the Minister for communications that favoured the Labor Party and sought to penalize those that weren’t so sympathetic to his cause. That is not the way I see my job.
My job is to ensure that our public broadcasters are free, are independent, do their job well, and above all from a financial point of view, do it efficiently. In other words there is the maximum broadcasting bang for the taxpayers’ buck. And then across the media scene I see my role as being one of promoting diversity and competition.

Mr Turnbull explained that the ABC “often has news reports that will upset people in this building. It does, it will, it always should. The ABC’s job is to provide that accurate and impartial coverage of news and information across the nation and to do so without fear or favour.”

Mr Turnbull understood that in his position of power, he should be careful about how he used his influence. In November, he responded to the view that the “Minister is responsible for ensuring that the ABC's news and current affairs is accurate and impartial.” He explained, “The Government does not and should never have any control over the news and current affairs of the ABC or SBS. Mr Putin's model of media management is no more admirable than his foreign policy.”

Mr Turnbull understood that “The job of the press is to make governments and the powerful uncomfortable.” He knew that “we will grind our teeth at the injustices meted out to us by the newspapers of the day. We will rant and rage against the unfair broadcasts and criticisms of us. We know all that, but we know that that is vital to our democracy and we would never seek to restrict that freedom.”

Or at least he claimed to. When the ABC combined with the Guardian to run a story about Australian spying, Mr Turnbull rang the ABC to complain about their decision to publish the story. At the time, he was still capable of shame over such behaviour, explaining that he hadn’t admitted “this publicly because you know what it's like as Communications Minister you don't want to be lecturing the public broadcasters that you're responsible for”. He did anyway. But at least he still pretended to believe in freedom of speech and the government not controlling state media.

In January 2014, Leigh Sales conducted a prescient interview with Mr Turnbull. She noted that the government had announced a review of the ABC budget, and was looking into making cuts. She noted also that Tony Abbott “said that many people feel the ABC takes everyone's side but Australia's and that it would be good to see the national broadcaster show more affection for ‘the home team.’” She asked, “Does the Abbott Government want a fair, robust news service that reports as it sees in the public interest and tries to uncover the truth of certain circumstances, or does it want a news service that makes value judgments about what stories maybe serve nationalistic goals?” Turnbull claimed the review was just about efficiency.

Sales asked again if what the government wanted was the ABC to be more “nationalistic”. The Honourable Malcolm Turnbull replied: “There is nothing in there that says that it should be nationalistic. The big issue, Leigh, is accuracy and balance and this is where you as a broadcaster and the ABC have got a very different role to, say, a talkback host on commercial radio 'cause you have to be – you are bound to be balanced and objective, accurate and fair.”

Well, a professor of history thinks McIntyre’s tweets were reasonably accurate and fair. But the Minister for Communications didn’t like what he said, and sent a message to SBS and the ABC about what would and wouldn’t be tolerated at the public broadcasters. They are indeed expected to be nationalistic. Mr Turnbull set himself a standard for respecting the independence of SBS, and then threw his own standards out of the window. He complained that the government exercising control over the media was akin to the worst traits of Vladimir Putin, and then decided to follow in those footsteps. He promised to guarantee free and independent public broadcasters, and bullied them when he did what he thinks is supposed to be their job: making the government and the powerful uncomfortable.

It is salutary to remember that Mr Turnbull is on the socially progressive and liberal side of the so-called Liberal party. If any of the usual right-wing hacks and hypocrites believed in freedom of speech, they’d call for some kind of legal entrenchment of freedom of speech, so that everyone’s freedom of speech would be protected. Instead, they cherry-pick cases and defend their friends, and leave out everyone else. Freedom of speech advocacy in Australia is mostly a scam, and clearly so were the fine words about freedom that the Honourable Mr Turnbull used to spout.

This probably won’t surprise many: he is, after all, a politician. However, considering the real possibility of Mr Turnbull taking over the leadership of the Liberals, if and when that day comes, we should remember what his fine words are actually worth.

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