AFTER Martin Hirst, pride of Deakin, has trotted out before the Press Inquiry his rationale for applying the gag, the big show will continue with a trio high-profile witnesses, each with his own dubious motive. Stephen Mayne’s is, as always, to get some attention for Stephen Mayne, which might make for an interesting competition, as fellow witness Bundoora Bob has never been known to open his mouth for any but the same reason. If Wayne Swan hopes to preserve that highly unlikely move to a surplus he keeps talking about (and is today talking down), a quick tax on the first-person pronoun would see the budget pushed firmly back into the black by the end of tomorrow’s hearings. (For the curious, Andrew Bolt has more on Mayne and the mysterious bureaucrat who invited him and why.)
Crikey's Eric Beecher, by contrast, is likely to be singing for his supper. A keen advocate of the peculiar notion that incompetent and failing newspapers, like the Age, must be preserved at all costs, he is especially keen to see those costs borne largely by the taxpayer. The fact that Beecher is sometimes referenced as a potential acquirer of Fairfax, or parts of Fairfax, should not be allowed to colour his audience’s perceptions with suspicions of self-interest. If he argues for subsidies, it will be solely as a means to save such invaluable thinkers as Laura Tingle, Butch Carlton, A Dill Horin and blonde economics writer Jessica Irvine from doing their reporting to Centrelink.
The key witness, the one who really needs watching, will come at day's end. She is Professor of Law at the Parkville Asylum Adrienne Stone, another of those who believe free speech should not be, well, free. In talking to the ABC about the same law later used to lynch Andrew Bolt, here is how she summed up the need for authorities to keep the gag handy. Read it carefully and marvel at her circular argument’s hermetically sealed, self-referential logic:
Perhaps freedom of expression, a true commitment to freedom of expression, would require us to tolerate that material that freedom of expression means freedom for the thought that we hate.
I have to say that although I'm sympathetic to what I take to be the sentiment behind that idea, I think that there is a better understanding of freedom of expression available to us, and one that doesn't see a very strong philosophical kind of inconsistency between, on the one hand, a commitment to freedom of expression and on the other hand, an anti-vilification law. Because it seems to me that there's a good argument to say that this kind of highly offensive, untrue material—levelled at someone because of their race, ethnicity or religion, or some other like characteristic—that it's neither valuable in free speech terms...and indeed it might even undermine those values which freedom of expression is directed to. So in fact I think the best argument, our best understanding of freedom of expression would accommodate laws of this kind.
So they are the main voices likely to dominate the witness box – an old Trot, a short wanker, a tall wanker, a rent-seeker and an academic who supports freedom of speech except she doesn’t.
If you are not obliged to play golf on Tuesday, why not turn up? Up until now, we have not had too many show trials in Australia. Tomorrow will bring a little taste of what to expect if this lot gets its way.