The media gatekeepers vs free speech

Katharine Murphy’s Age column yesterday attacking big ad campaigns against government policy is the third such argument I have seen from journalists in the last six months or so. George Megalogenis made a similar argument in his Quarterly Essay (though for reasons I did not entirely follow, he thinks campaigns are ok after laws have been passed), and Peter Hartcher argued that ad campaigns threaten economic reform.

Murphy says:

We have a choice. We can either bump along and slide into a combative political environment where vested interests set the agenda, or we can stop, think and consider the alternatives.

Should there be full public funding for elections, ensuring that politics is left to the politicians? Should we require truth in political advertising?

Or should we do nothing, and wake up in a decade to find that politics can’t do anything; that politics is now solely about carving up the spoils, that reform has become impossible?

Though I strongly disagree with the Murphy’s views, she does more or less correctly describe what campaign finance reform is about. Its purpose and effect is to insulate the political class from the views of those who disagree with them or might challenge them. Continue reading “The media gatekeepers vs free speech”

Free speech and hate speech

Katharine Gelber’s new book Speech Matters: Getting Free Speech Right is for the most part a useful summary of speech laws in Australia, and the issues surrounding them. The key chapters are on using or destroying the flag to make political statements, the speech aspects of anti-terrorist laws, hate speech, demonstrations, political art, and corporate use of litigation against critics.

The few policy disagreements I have with Gelber come I think from our different underlying philosophical positions. Her commitment to free speech is more qualified than mine by social democratic ideas. For example, she supports laws against ‘hate speech’, which I oppose. Her position on this comes from her ideas about an ‘inclusive speech culture’:

[hate speech]’s very purpose is to exclude its targets from participating in the broader deliberative processes required for democracy to happen by rendering them unworthy of participation and limiting the likelihood of others recognising them as legitimate participants in speech.

But Gelber doesn’t show that this is the effect of ‘hate speech’. Hateful comments might intimidate, but they are also spurs to action – most of the ‘victim’ groups in Australian society are vocal in their own defence, and have plenty of other defenders. And as she acknowledges in her book, anti-vilification laws have the effect of giving cranks publicity. Continue reading “Free speech and hate speech”

What happens when censorship breaks down?

Stephen Conroy has partially backed down on his mandatory internet filtering proposal. This includes revisiting the issue of what should be in the ‘Refused Classification’ category that the filter would be designed to catch.

This is a good move, because as I have argued before this is the real issue here. Conroy wasn’t ever planning to censor anything new; he was trying to adapt the existing censorship rules to a new form of communication. Apart from the issue of false positives in assessing what material was RC and some probably minor issues with internet speed, it wasn’t clear why we should have one set of censorship rules online and another set applying to DVDs, magazines, cinemas etc.

As it happens, the 15 or so years in which the internet has been a big social phenomenon have been a case study in what happens when a censorship regime breaks down. Others are more expert in this than I am, but it is not obvious to me that we can draw many if any straight lines between a de facto absence of censorship and major new social problems.

A rare defeat for the political cartel

Yesterday almost everyone was condemning the South Australian government for requiring blog commenters to use their real names when offering their views on the South Australian election. Now the South Australian Attorney-General has backed down and says he will repeal the laws retrospectively.

I’m not convinced that the courts would have upheld any attempted blogger prosecutions as within the law. In what appears to be the relevant provision of the SA electoral legislation (s.116), the case would turn on the defintion of an internet ‘journal’. In the legislation, “journal means a newspaper, magazine or other periodical.” Is a blog a journal in that sense?

As with the similar kerfuffle over Stephen Conroy’s proposed internet filter, much of the criticism does not go far enough. In each case, the relevant ministers are trying to extend to the internet regulation that has long applied to other media. Is there something special about the internet that means different rules should apply? Continue reading “A rare defeat for the political cartel”

Should the whole censorship regime be relaxed?

There is plenty of negative reaction across the ideological spectrum to Stephen Conroy’s internet censorship plans. You can go to the Fairfax website to cast your vote on it.

I agree that Conroy’s plan should be rejected entirely. But though there are special concerns that the Conroy firewall will catch innocent material and slow the internet, what it is essentially trying to do is enforce the existing censorship regimes (state and federal). If these regimes are worth having, then trying to enforce them is not ridiculous in principle, and the debate is just about the technical issues.

I’m not going to mention in any detail the contents that lead films to get the RC (Refused Classification) rating that Conroy is targeting, as it will cause my blog to get caught by the voluntary filters some firms, homes and public computers use. But you can read them at this link. Some of the sexual material that is banned is gross, but I am not convinced it should be censored. Another more extreme classification could guide consumers of standard X-rated films away from practices they don’t want to see.

This is an opportunity for a broader debate about the role of government in deciding what Australians can and cannot see.

Should it be taboo to mention true things?

Australia’s decision-makers, meanwhile, continue to fawn over a small minority of electors … who see gay relationships as somehow inferior to their own and unworthy of legal or social recognition. Every so often, we hear them in the media calling homosexuals promiscuous or sick (empahsis added).

Tim Wright in The Age, 31 July 2009.

Some conservatives have odd ideas about gays, but they are right about promiscuity. This annual survey of gay men in Melbourne consistently finds more than half have casual partners.

Nor is this subject obviously irrelevant to the issue of gay relationships. Conservatives could argue that it suggests a weak commitment to the monogamy that goes with marriage.

Andrew Sullivan, by contrast, argues that the conservative position contains a contradiction. If you deny people the possibility of ‘normal’ stable, monogamous relationships, can it be that surprising if they go for promiscuity instead? This is what the evolutionary psychologists say men are hardwired to do, and it needs strong social institutions to stop them in the interests of something more profound and long-lasting.

I’m not sure what Wright is implying here. Maybe he is just listing resentments against conservatives. But it looks like a double standard, in which approved-victim groups are exempted from any form of negative comment, even if true, while deemed-oppressor groups can be subject to any kind of criticism, however personal or unfair.

There is a line between the virtues of tact and civility and the vices of spin and falsehood. If something is true and relevant to the case for or against an argument, then there should be no taboo on mentioning it.

Liberals still trying to get at NGOs

Newbie Liberal MP Jamie Briggs is off to a bad start to his parliamentary career, continuing the Howard government’s anti-democratic attempts to use electoral law to get at its political enemies.

Briggs told The Age that:

with the Government’s recent release of a green paper on all aspects of electoral funding, “we must not just look at donations to political parties — reform must also cover the influence of third parties on elections”.

“If not addressed, heavily financed third-party campaigns will be like a growing cancer in our democracy.”

Though it does not provide a direct quotation, the paper reports Briggs as saying expenditure by third parties should probably be capped.

But I fail to see how people getting involved in politics can be a cancer on our democracy, unless they are aiming to overthrow our democracy, which clearly the groups that seem to pre-occupy Briggs – GetUp! and the ACTU – are not. All they are doing is opposing the Liberal Party, which may be frustrating and annoying to a Liberal MP, but is of no systemic concern.
Continue reading “Liberals still trying to get at NGOs”

Could political expenditure disclosure laws be unconstitutional?

I am pleased that the NSW government has dumped its absurd and anti-democratic plan to ban political donations.

The apparent cause, however, was not a realisation that the original proposal was a bad idea. It was this advice on its constitutional and practical difficulties by the consistently impressive Anne Twomey.

Twomey’s report does not discuss the law in which I have the greatest personal interest, the federal laws on political expenditure disclosure. Under the current law, persons or organisations spending more than $10,300 on an election issue have to disclose both how they spent the money and, if it was based on donations of that amount or more, who the donors were.

The current federal government plans to reduce that threshold to $1,000, meaning that thousands of people and groups that may comment only incidentally on election issues will be caught up in tougher disclosure requirements than political parties (which have to disclose donations, but don’t have to itemise expenditure). Those individuals, or the office-holders of the groups, face a conviction and possible jail sentence for failure to comply.
Continue reading “Could political expenditure disclosure laws be unconstitutional?”

Do men have ‘moral standing’ in the abortion debate?

I expect the right-wing blogosphere will be all over this op-ed by feminist Leslie Cannold.

The problem – at least for me – isn’t the fact that she supports a bill currently before the Victorian Parliament to formally decriminalise abortions that occur in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Rather, the problem is that Cannold argues that

Men lack moral standing in the abortion debate — indeed are guilty of moral arrogance — when they push for control over a procedure they’ll never have to have because they can’t get pregnant.

Except that she’s serious, Cannold’s op-ed reads like a parody of self-centred feminism, with its characteristic refusal to accept that any of women’s interests can be put up for negotiation (if they complete the pregnancy, the rest of us must pay for their maternity leave, childcare, cover for their absences at work, and then pay and promote them as if nothing had happened).

Nowhere in her article does Cannold even contemplate the idea that killing an unborn child is morally problematic, even if (and here I agree with her) a convincing case can be made that, all things considered, this can be the better overall option in the earlier part of pregnancy. You don’t need to be a potential murder victim to stand up for the people others are proposing to kill.

The evidence of women in the abortion debate will usually be stronger than that of men, because as Cannold says they have a range of experiences that men don’t. But the moral standing of women to participate in the debate is the same as men’s.

Do students have ‘academic freedom’?

The Liberal students/Young Liberals Make Education Fair campaign now has a Senate inquiry behind it. The inquiry’s terms of reference include looking into:

The current level of academic freedom in school and higher education, with particular reference to:

1. the level of intellectual diversity and the impact of ideological, political and cultural prejudice in the teaching of senior secondary education and of courses at Australian universities, …
2. the need for the teaching of senior secondary and university courses to reflect a plurality of views, be accurate, fair, balanced and in context; and
3. ways in which intellectual diversity and contestability of ideas may be promoted and protected, including the concept of a charter of academic freedoms.

Though there is precedent for the idea of academic freedom for students, I don’t think this is a useful concept, especially not for school students or undergraduates. Their main task is to master a body of knowledge, the content of which is to be determined by those with expertise in the field.

In many disciplines, there will be disputes among experts on some issues. As part of learning their subject, students should be made aware of these disputes and able to take a point of view, within the constraints of scholarly argument. But it is reasonable that students be held within established debates rather than able to claim ‘academic freedom’ to take an idiosyncratic perspective.
Continue reading “Do students have ‘academic freedom’?”