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Australians deserve freedom of expression

Editors' Comment, 30 July 2011

In the wake of recent events, anyone who cares about the quality of public debate in Australia must take a stand for freedom of expression. If our shambolic minority government offers one consolation, it‘s that more Australians than ever are seeing their political and media establishment in its true colours. Few are coming away impressed, and many are shocked. They’re learning, above all, how little they count in the scheme of things. Politicians and journalists on the progressive end of the spectrum have shown little but contempt for free-ranging consultation. Overwhelming hostility to the carbon tax, both before and after “Carbon Sunday”, barely matters. Julia Gillard has no choice but to “stay the course”, we’re told. If the public is angry, too bad.

It doesn’t matter that the tax was ruled out days before last year’s election, or that the Climate Commission was stacked with partisans, or that the package was cobbled together by a clique operating behind closed doors, or that essential features of it were leaked in advance to “reliable” journalists, or that the government dodged parliamentary scrutiny, or that the legislation will be rushed through to redeem Gillard’s faltering “shoe leather” campaign, or that her sales pitch boils down to repetition of shonky terms like "carbon pollution". It doesn’t matter because the public doesn’t matter.

Compare the ABC’s shy coverage of disquiet over the carbon tax to its frenetic, around-the-clock obsession with the UK phone hacking scandal. How, as a publicly-funded broadcaster, could the ABC have ignored so many stories of more immediate relevance to settle scores with a rival media organisation? If that wasn’t bad enough, Gillard, Bob Brown and Christine Milne and a bevy of commentators promptly jumped on the bandwagon, calling for an enquiry into privacy laws and “media diversity”, proxies for muzzling News Limited. Among other things, News committed the sin of ventilating criticisms of the climate agenda.

Yet there was hardly a murmur against Milne’s illiberal and authoritarian rant on a recent edition of Q&A. “The Murdoch press has been running a very strong campaign against action on climate change”, she screeched, “and one of the useful things about the hacking scandal in the UK is that it will lead to an inquiry into the media in Australia, we are at least going to see some real discussion ... around issues such as the level of ownership and dominance of the Murdoch press in several capital cities in Australia”. The irony of demanding “diversity of ownership” to suppress diversity of opinion is lost on her. Our culture's democratic pulse is fading by the day.

This over-reaction to the hacking scandal represents another instance of a now transparent and predictable tactic. Having vanished as a mass movement decades ago, today’s left is little more than a lobby for the economic, social and cultural interests of public servants and functionaries in the publicly-funded education and social policy sectors. Relatively small in number (but growing), they have disproportionate power over the circulation of information and ideas. But their arguments struggle to gain traction, often rejected as tendentious and self-serving by a broader public with different priorities. Hence their resort to what can be described as the emotional shift. This is the cynical manipulation of emotion-charged events to marginalise and discredit critics or prop up arguments which otherwise fail on rational grounds.

The grand-daddy of all emotional shifts occurred over climate change. Anxiety about drought and water shortages was blown up into a far-reaching transformation of the economy. Critics were howled down as greedy, planet-destroying, grandchild-sacrificing deniers. Similarly, disgust over the hacking of a murdered British girl’s phone is being used to discredit News Limited in Australia. The objective is blatant censorship of a media organisation which questions green orthodoxy.

Now the whole conservative media presence is under fire. Several left commentators have rushed to pin the Norway massacre on a “climate” whipped up by conservative or right-of-centre media. This is as absurd as it is malicious. Just consider some elementary facts. The United States is a populous country of 300 million which affords its people a large measure of freedom, including on gun ownership. It has robust conservative talk radio, tabloid newspaper and cable television outlets, along with an assortment of online platforms, which account for a substantial portion of the media market. Yet serious violence by “right-wing extremists” is virtually non-existent.

To argue their point, left commentators have had to reach as far back as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and while the perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, had ties to extremist groups, his actions had more to do with disordered grievances relating to his service in the first Gulf War than any conservative talking-point. But McVeigh is pretty much all there is. Attempts earlier this year to fit Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter, into this frame collapsed when all the facts came out. No evidence of conservative influence was found. If anything, the reading material in his possession leaned in the other direction. There is no cause for complacency, but if the left commentariat is correct, violent outbursts by “right-wing extremists” should be happening every second week.

Take our own country. We have a vigorous conservative talk radio, tabloid newspaper and online culture, and Fox News is broadcast here. But violence by “right-wing extremists” is unknown. Then look at Norway. Like most of Europe, it has a staid, left-of-centre public culture where political correctness is keenly enforced. There are no conservative media outlets comparable to those of the United States, or our own. Still, a deranged individual like Anders Breivik was undeterred.

What conclusions can be drawn from this? The opposite of those proposed by the left. The best antidote to the festering resentments of disturbed and isolated individuals is a free media culture where all shades of opinion are openly ventilated. Or perhaps left commentators will take responsibility for the violence and destruction regularly visited on the world’s cities by anti-globalisation anarchists, not to mention a host of other leftist thugs.

This comment featured on Quadrant Online, Catallaxy Files and Menzies House.

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