The speech censors given a free media pass

David Seymour’s proposal to abolish the Human Rights Commission reflects widespread suspicion that is has become a taxpayer-funded nest for people plotting to end the freedoms it was established to protect. As Janet Albrechtsen explained last week in The Australian, the same problem afflicts Australia. Instead of defending free speech the Australian Human Rights Commission has been among the institutions trying to punish people who challenge politically correct views.

The Australian is behind a strict pay-wall, so Janet has authorised the Free Speech Coalition to reproduce her article below. Unfortunately we cannot reproduce the long list of comments the article attracted.

Janet is a highly qualified lawyer but is best known for her journalism, having been a published commentator in most of Australia’s quality news media.

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has been described as a handbook for difficult times. In a week that marks its publication 70 years ago, please open the handbook for some guidance, for these difficult times.

Last week Australian Federal Police officers rifled through the home of a News Corp journalist and the offices of ABC journalists. Nothing flashy, no brown-shirted stormtroopers kicking in doors. Just a team of polite civil servants, ordering sandwiches and coffee while they rummaged through homes and workplaces, armed with slippery words in laws to justify them infringing our freedoms.

Outraged journalists said it was chilling. Alas, many of these same journalists have not been doing their job if they haven’t noticed this is how free speech is silenced today. In the past decade a growing cadre of civil servants, from human rights commissioners to university vie-chancellors, all good mannered, nicely dressed people have used crafty works in laws and other instruments to curb out most fundamental right to speak freely.

Many of the same journalists who, last week, held up signs for the cameras saying that it is not a crime to be a journalist having not raised so much as an eyebrow about other dismally illiberal events. That makes them complicit in a stifling culture that gave rise to last week’s AFP raids. After all, a free press is only one part of our basic right to speak freely. If you don’t defend the latter, expect to lose the former soon enough.

Orwell warned us to watch out for New Speak, Thought Police and the Ministry of Truth; their common denominators is slippery language to control speech in order to control how people think. So it came to pass. More than 10 years ago, the Alberta Human Rights Commission in Canada investigated a complaint brought against commentator Ezra Levant for publishing the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The complaint was dropped, but not before a bureaucrat questioned Levan about his intention in publishing the cartoons.

Levant described it like this: “No six-foot brown shirt here, no police cell at midnight. Just Shirlene McGovern, an amiable enough bureaucrat, casually asking me about my politcal thoughts, on behalf of the government of Alberta. And she’ll write up a report about is and recommend that the government do this or that to me.

“I had half-expected a combative, missionary-style interrogator. I found, instead, a limp clerk who was just punching the clock … In a way, that’s more terrifying,” he wrote about the process that reminded him of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil.

While a handful of journalists in Australia recognised the early danger signs, many of those outraged by last week’s AFP raids showed little interest. Even when the same thing happened here a few years later, they fell silent.

In 2011, Andrew Bolt was prosecuted under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act for causing offence by pointing out the foibles of claiming indigenous ancestry. In passing, the judge frowned over the tone of his writing. The Australian Human Rights Commission used the same laws to investigate The Australian’s Bill Leak in 2016 for his powerful cartoon about the complex issues of individual responsibility and the dismal plight of indigenous people. Liberal MP Julian Leeser once said of the UN Human Rights Council: “We read Orwell as a warning; they read Orwell as a textbook.” His observation applies equally to the AHRC: as race commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane encouraged complaints to come forward over Leak’s cartoon.

The AHRC toyed with students from Queensland University of Technology too after they made innocuous comments on Facebook when they were kicked out of an indigenous-only computer lab. One student wrote: “QUT stopping segregation with segregation.” What part of that was untrue? Yet it took two years of complaints, investigations, interviews and mounting legal bills before the complaint was thrown out. And the chilling effect of those laws remains intact.

Some of us have reported extensively on the creeping, and creepy, mission of the AHRC. It needs to be renamed; its name is an insult to genuine human rights. And these dismal events need to be laid out, over and over again, until we defeat an illiberal culture that is strangling freedom of expression, the single most important piece of machinery that drives a robust marketplace of ideas. It is the centrifugal force of Western progress.

Last year, physics professor Peter Ridd was sacked by James Cook University for raising questions about the quality of climate research by some of his colleagues. The university used a code of conduct and claims of “collegial behavior” to get him off campus. ABC HQ showed no interest in asking why the university didn’t encourage a debate about Ridd’s claims or even why it shut him down.

During the federal election, the ABC’s senior journalists showed no interest when Greens leader Richard Di Natale said he wanted hate speech laws to regulate the media to hold the likes of Bolt, Alan Jones and Chris Kenny to account. This proposal would kill a free, independent media in Australia. Hate speech, as defined by the like of Di Natale, will be defined by the media they hate. Orwell warned us about this, too. The ABC gave Di Natale a free pass.

There was no ABC outrage, only nonchalance, when the Gillard government proposed an Orwellian regime of government oversight to make the media “balanced” and “accountable”. As James Paterson, now a Liberal senator, wrote then: “The last time that media outlets were subject to press licensing in the English-speaking world was 1693. What was too tyrannical for the English in the time of William and Mary is apparently acceptable in 21st-century Australia.”

Note the manipulation of subjective language to curb free speech: the AFP relies on “national security” to search a journalist’s underwear drawer, the Gillard government wanted to legislate for a “balance” and “accountable” media, 18C prohibits people saying things that “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate”, the Greens want to outlaw “hate speech”, and a university relied on “collegial behavior”.

It is critical that we constantly check where society, governments and bureaucracies draw lines to restrict free speech. Journalists want buffer zones around themselves to protect a free press. Fair enough. But where the heck they been when it comes to defending the rights of other Australians to speak freely?

High-profile hosts at the ABC paid taxpayers to report and comment on this country should be been at the frontline, championing out rights to speak, to draw and to debate freely. As Canadian commentator Mark Steyn famously said about free speech, it is not a left-right thing. It is a free-unfree thing. And therein lies the curse of the modern left: a pusillanimous attitude towards a core piece of intellectual machinery necessary in a healthy democracy.

By Janet Albrechtsen

Opinion columnist for the Australian