David Jones vs Clive Hamilton

Upmarket department store David Jones is taking the Australia Institute to court, accusing it of misleading or deceptive conduct for describing DJ’s advertising of children’s clothes as ‘corporate paedophilia’. According to the Australia Institute, the department store’s catalogue posed child models in sexually provocative ways, something David Jones denies strongly. Whatever the merits – or lack thereof – of David Jones’ claim there is some irony to be enjoyed here. In his 2005 book Affluenza Australia Institute Executive Director Clive Hamilton includes a ‘Political Manifesto for Well-being’ that declares:

‘advertising codes of conduct should be legislated so that irresponsible and deceptive marketing is outlawed’.

An adverse finding for Hamilton will see him punished by legislation he thinks should be strengthened and enforced much more vigorously. Be careful what you wish for…

Irony enjoyment aside, I think this is a regrettable action by David Jones. The best course of action here was a debate over the value of the Australia Institute’s claims, which indeed occurred last year. Clearly the Australia Institute was engaged in hyperbole (otherwise the DJ’s advertising people would be behind bars), but there were divided views over whether their advertising in question went too far or not. But if people didn’t like the advertising, nobody is forcing them to shop at DJ’s.

Given his persistent opposition to freedom of commercial speech it’s going to be hard for Hamilton to credibly play the free speech martyr. But perhaps this will be lesson to him in the virtues of not regulating speech via the courts. There are widely differing views about what constitutes acceptable speech, and this diversity has been dealt with via a mix of social norms as to what it is and is not acceptable to say and show, and helping people avoid what they don’t want to see or hear via ratings systems or self-help. Generally, censorship has been limited to extreme cases where there is little disagreement or clear harm flows from publication (though with exceptions such as vilification laws). If you think DJ’s catalogues are offensive, just put them straight into the bin (or the recycling bin, as Clive would insist). The alternatives – censorship or heavy-handed legal action – are worse than the original problem.