LET’S JUST recap what the past few days have told us about the state of free speech in Australia.
A much-published author with a life coach, personal trainer and busy travel itinerary receives $90,000 in public money to publish a memoir of her success in having a court affirm that a relatively small drop of Aboriginal blood affords legal protection from hurt feelings.
Her book is titled Am I Black Enough For You?, and when the topic is opened for discussion by the ABC, the answer is made so rapidly and abundantly clear that the thread is allowed to remain open for less than two hours. The following day the national broadcaster makes those comments vanish altogether, while the audio link for the interview that started it all acquires an extra digit in its URL and becomes unplayable.
At her publisher’s website a similar stream of comments suffers an identical fate. None are rude, vulgar or racist, but they are most definitely scathing. As many commenters note, one of just two possible answers to the question posed by the title of the author’s book can be given only at risk of prosecution. This makes the title not a query but a sneering taunt.
Her publisher neglects to close all website pages devoted to the author, and commenters find another avenue to answer the big question. This, too, will vanish very soon, not because the sentiments are contemptible, but because the opinions that are frank, blunt and true. This cannot be allowed.
Meanwhile, the columnist the author took to court cannot respond to her provocations, his employer is too craven to appeal the ruling and a large piece of the broadsheet media will find nothing about the curtailment of its own liberty that is worth the trouble of reporting, If that is not enough, a squad of would-be censors awaits the power to impose contempt penalties, up to and including jail, on writers who fail to report events in the light they prefer. Most worrying of all, the same censors cite the author's legal triumph as a positive development in defining the limits of acceptable discourse.
This is where free speech stands in Australia: under frontal attack by a government frantic to silence its critics and eroded on the flank by a national broadcaster’s insistence on silencing opinions it actually has a charter obligation to echo. Free speech has been betrayed by two publishers, and its full set of shackles is even now being forged by people who believe recalcitrant editors need to be stamping number plates.
And yet, despite all these threats and attempts to intimidate and gag, hundreds of average Australians immediately spoke up for the right to be heard when given just the briefest chance to do so. The New Establishment will squash and ignore this little eruption, but the last few days proves its grip on debate is nowhere near as secure as it has imagined.
Free speech is in trouble, but only if we do not continue to speak up for it.