How to skirt around the substance in a “good discussion”
Tony Jones was very happy on Monday.
On the ABC’s weekly QandA programme, “where you get to ask the questions”, the panellists included Bill Shorten, Julie Bishop, Richard Flanagan, Ron Merkel, and Caroline Overington. They all pretty comprehensively dismissed Andrew Bolt and pretty much agreed that he got what he deserved on the basis of inaccuracies in his facts about the complainant Aborigines in his recent Federal court case on racial vilification.
This would be expected of the three panellists of the left, and of Tony Jones. It was certainly expected of Ron Merkel, the plaintiffs’ barrister, whose rotund smiling visage strangely reminded me of a very self satisfied Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But it was expected less so of Caroline Overington of the Australian and of Julie Bishop. Overington apparently knows Larissa Behrendt well and thinks her “witty, saucy and sexy”. These must have been just those qualities displayed by Behrendt with her disgraceful insults and the contempt she showed towards Bess Price. Nevertheless, Overington did concede that given Bolt “told lies about us” — Berendt’s own words — the plaintiffs should have used defamation laws. However, she steered clear of so much as hinting at any of the controversy that was central to the case.
Julie Bishop, having herself worked in defamation law, also stepped carefully around these central issues, emphasising that freedom of speech had responsibilities. She thought simply, like Overington, that the plaintiffs should have used the defamation laws.
What was being so carefully and scrupulously avoided — as is the constant practice on the ABC of course — was the subject of Bolt’s articles, the question of what constituted Aboriginal identity and also the subjective issue of “offence”. As Keith Windshuttle summarised in this month’s edition of Quandrant:
while Aboriginal people can question others’ identity with impunity, when non-Aboriginal Andrew Bolt did the same he found himself in court. In short, there is a racial double standard on this issue.
It was all the more shocking that Julie Bishop, in particular, did not seem interested, or even appear to be aware of the core issues in the defence of Bolt and free speech, notably in many well argued pieces from the likes of James Allan, Mark Steyn, James Delingpole, and especially George Brandis, her own parliamentary colleague and the shadow Attorney General. He concluded in a recent article that:
By making the reasonable likelihood of causing offence or insult the test of unacceptable behaviour, in any political context, section 18C is a grotesque limitation on ordinary political discourse.
Bishop, to her discredit, was not even able to answer why the plaintiffs in the case chose to use the Racial Vilification Act rather than simple defamation. She simply repeated the tangential fact that Bolt had erred on things that were “reasonable, logical and factual”.
It is simple, if sadly predictable. The QandA panel was uninterested in this issue. Bill Shorten complained sarcastically that Bolt had not been censored in spite of his protestations, and Richard Flanagan added that Bolt was a “propagandist” and had been “caught out”. They all gave a sigh of relief and agreed that they had just had “a pretty good discussion”.
So much for closing down debate on important issues.