There’s free speech, and then there’s speech free of a moral base. Michael Brull explains the difference.
We constantly hear about how freedom of speech is under attack in Australia. Mostly, these calls ramp up when someone says something offensive about Muslims or Aboriginal people. If people request an apology, that is treated as some kind of vicious attack on freedom of speech.
Yet when it comes to issues close to the heart of right-wingers, entirely different values come into play. An illustrative example of this is the question of Palestine.
Contrary to their professed love of vigorous, offence-giving debate, what actually happens is that the rare signs of dissent are ferociously sought out and pounced upon.
Apologies are demanded and acquired, yet this is never regarded as a freedom of speech disaster by the freedom warriors. I will give two examples, one from the ABC, the other GetUp!
ABC and Q&A
On one episode of Q&A, a tweet was aired which offended supporters of the Israeli government. It said “Any young radicals who join ISIS or Israel should not be allowed into Australia”. The private Israeli lobby group AIJAC complained that this was “totally inappropriate” and “inflammatory”.
The Coalition’s Communications Minister complained to the ABC. In the rendering of the Australian, they were “forced” to apologise. Previously, Senator Mitch Fifield had also complained about a Muslim guest being allowed to question Pauline Hanson, as he had “denigrated two female politicians online”.
Yet for some reason these attempts at pressuring the ABC to apologise didn’t trouble the right-wing freedom warriors. Whilst debate should be more free about Muslims, evidently we should be more sensitive to AIJAC and their devotion to Israel.
Unlike the “lickspittles claiming to be journalists” who requested the Australian apologise for the Bill Leak cartoon, the ABC is far more vulnerable to the Communications Minister. Yet just as Turnbull having SBS journalist Scott McIntyre fired didn’t trouble the freedom warriors, neither did the ABC being forced to apologise. Whilst Australian columnist Chris Mitchell explained that it was good how Bill Leak manages to “push, prod and offend in the world of contested ideas”, it seems some people are not to be pushed, prodded, or offended.
The opinion that “radicals who join ISIS or Israel” should be barred from Australia is not “wildly inaccurate”, as AIJAC claims. It is simply an opinion that they don’t like.
Though Mitchell and his colleagues claim to value contested ideas, it seems that this is the type of idea they don’t want contested. On our taxpayer-funded media, some blasphemies are inappropriate for the delicate ears of the public.
Yet whilst the ABC is attacked for mildly stepping out of line, it seems clear that one way or another, they have learned obedience. The other day, the ABC issued corrections for a report on Gaza. They included this: “In the online version of the story, Gaza was described as ‘occupied’. This was not correct and has been removed.”
They don’t explain on what basis they formed this opinion. Note how categorical the ABC’s judgment is. Gaza is not occupied, and this is beyond dispute.
There are others who do not share this opinion. For example, Human Rights Watch regards Israel as an “occupying power”. So does Amnesty International. And the Red Cross says Gaza is occupied. And John Dugard, the former special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, thinks Gaza is still occupied. So does the World Bank. And the CIA, and the US State Department. And the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
Anyone who would like a detailed explanation of this issue can consult paragraphs 26-31 of the McGowan Davis report on the 2014 attack on Gaza, which reaffirms that Israel occupies Gaza.
The point of this is not that the ABC is wrong. It is that its correction flatly contradicts a well-established point of international law, as upheld by numerous experts and reputable international organisations. Yet whilst free speech would die if the Australian were to apologise for a racist cartoon, there has been zero critique of the ABC’s apology.
In a story from two weeks before the corrected story on Gaza, the ABC identified an area as in the “occupied Golan Heights in Israel”. In fact, the Golan Heights are occupied by Israel, but they are not in Israel. They are in Syria.
I contacted the ABC to correct this assertion. Though I contacted the ABC about this story before the Gaza report was published, I have not heard back from them. It is striking that the ABC corrected its factually correct claim, whilst leaving the factually incorrect claim up.
Earlier this week, Sharri Markson wrote for the Australian that a board member of activist organisation GetUp!, Sara Saleh, supports boycotting Israel, and made critical remarks about it in a speech in March this year.
What is the significance of this? Markson didn’t explain. Presumably, being critical of Israel in and of itself is somehow inappropriate for an avowedly progressive organisation. GetUp! has traditionally infuriated conservatives, so it is likely there will be more trawling of social media to fuel further attacks.
Yet there is no evidence that GetUp! intends to change its non-position on Palestine. In a Q&A from the event Markson reported on – just as available on YouTube as the speech Markson reported on – the first question to Saleh was whether she would push GetUp! to take a stand on Palestine. She replied that:
“… at the moment, its remit is basically to try and, it’s a movement basically that is for a more progressive Australia. A more progressive Australia in every sense be it refugees or Indigenous issues, or talking Islamophobia and whatnot. And as you know, as was mentioned in the presentations earlier today, what’s been happening in the discourse lately is that refugees, brown people, Muslim, Palestinians have all been lumped into this one big narrative just to basically link them all together…. So what we’ve been doing is trying to make sure that that doesn’t happen, especially in terms of Australian policy, and inevitably, that does, when you talk about refugees, or when you talk about global equality, and anti-racism, you tend to obviously bring in the question of Palestine. Especially when parallels are made with the colonisation here, and obviously Aboriginal history. So, it does come up, it’s not something that they have worked on in the past, and I’ve been a board member now for 6 weeks, two months…. So maybe it’s something that we can put on the agenda, but they’re definitely aware, and it’s definitely something that they’re happy to support in their propensity, and maybe in the future as well.”
I suspect most people in the audience, and the 171 people who have watched the YouTube video at time of writing, did not take this as a sign that GetUp! had any serious plans to change its long standing silence on Palestine.
In the four and a half months since Saleh’s comments, GetUp! has given no indication of taking a position on anything relating to Israel and Palestine. Though it was founded in 2005, it has never campaigned against the actions of Israel. It has not commented on the war on Lebanon in 2006, the wars on Gaza in 2008-9, 2012, or 2014.
It has not opposed house demolitions, torture, administrative detention, the occupation, the destruction of Bedouin villages, or the siege on Gaza. The only time I am aware of it having ever hinted at opposition to anything Israel does, is in its support for a ban on cluster bombs.
In its FAQ, it included Israel in a list of countries that have used them. For balance, it then included Hezbollah as a non-state group which has also used cluster munitions.
Markson’s article is based on the premise that there is something inherently inappropriate about criticisms of the Israeli government. Yet GetUp! says it campaigns on issues relating to human rights. In a sane world, GetUp! would have taken a position on Palestine by now. The strange thing is not that someone in GetUp! doesn’t like Israel, but that Australia’s largest non-political progressive organisation has nothing to say about Australia’s role in human rights abroad.
Yet GetUp’s silence on Palestine is still not enough, just as the actual guests on Q&A sparing Israel any criticism wasn’t enough. Even the hint of dissent that may come is enough to set off the right. They claim to value vigorous debate, but Palestine is just one example where you’re hard-pressed to find any real debate in mainstream political discourse. Instead, we witness the sorry spectacle of fanatical supporters of Israel, and major organisations doing their best to bend over backwards to appease them, or otherwise remaining silent.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.