Bolt’s humiliation is cause to celebrate

The Federal Court has condemned Andrew Bolt’s journalism as dishonest and racist, over a series of articles he wrote in the Murdoch tabloid The Herald Sun.

Bolt accused nine Aboriginal rights activists, including Larissa Behrendt and Pat Eatock, of “choosing” to identify as Aboriginal for financial, political or career reasons. His slanders dove-tail with efforts by other supporters of the NT Intervention to discredit activists like Larissa Behrendt, a vocal critic of the Intervention.

It is fantastic to see Bolt humiliated. He is a vicious right-wing ideologue, with more access to the media than almost any other public figure, with columns in the country’s highest selling tabloids, a Fox News-style TV show and a radio program. The decision is a clear win for the Aboriginal rights activists who took him to court. Bolt was found to have breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which prevents insulting or offending people on the basis of race.

Of course, using the courts is no strategy for fighting racism. Generally, the courts are used against the left.

In this case, the Federal Court has not actually silenced Andrew Bolt. The day after the court decision he was back on the front page of the country’s highest selling newspaper. The decision will not stop Bolt or the mainstream media from pushing racism, demanding further Interventions or slandering other Aboriginal leaders.

We celebrated the High Court’s Mabo decision, but it didn’t usher in new era of land rights. The Mabo decsion was first savaged by Keating’s native title legislation, and then gutted by Howard following the Wik judgement.

The right are outraged by the condemnation of Bolt and are running to Bolt’s rescue. Both the court’s decision and the Racial Discrimination Act are under attack. George Brandis, Liberal Party shadow attorney general, is demanding repeal of the section of the RDA under which Bolt was prosecuted. The Liberal Party think tank Menzies House has set up a website to collect donations to support Bolt.

Tragically some liberal left critics of the judgement are lining up with right-wingers, who say that the court’s decision threatens free speech. Independent journalist Anthony Loewenstein argues on his blog, “the left shouldn’t celebrate legal victory against Murdoch’s Andrew Bolt”, asking “should we not have the right to offend and be offended”?

Any concern that the decision against Bolt could affect “free speech” is misplaced. As long as the media is owned and controlled by the rich and powerful, there is no such thing as free speech. They have a whole series of radio shock jocks, TV programs and newspapers to spread their poisonous ideas.

Some on the left have even defended the right of fascists or organised racists to “free speech”. But this ignores the real consequences of hate speech in encouraging racist violence. When Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was on the rise, the number of attacks on Muslims and Aboriginal people increased.

Socialists and others organised protests to disrupt her meetings – protests that played a major part in killing off her racist party.

If the RDA is ever used against the left, we will have to fight that judgement just as we usually have to fight the courts. The full might of the state has been mobilised to break remote Aboriginal communities in the NT through the Intervention. A new oppressive legal framework enforces income management and the take-over of Aboriginal communities’ assets. NT Aboriginal leader Barbara Shaw opened her speech to an anti-Intervention forum at UTS recently by saying: “Government and media are trying to divide Aboriginal people in the bush and people in cities who stand up for rights. But we will not be divided—we stand together to fight the Intervention.”

Bolt’s attacks have been part of the ruthless campaign to impose the Intervention on the Aboriginal people of the NT. The judgement against Bolt was a small setback for that project.

The left must defend the judgement and the Racial Discrimination Act. For once the court got it right. But we can’t rely on that.

We need to fight racism and the system that breeds it – from the ground up. That’s why the protest by the Gurindji in the NT and the wider anti-Intervention struggle are so important.


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  1. “Lining up with right-wingers” is a cute debating tactic. But before your readers take your word about the seriousness with which Left critics of the RDA centred court strategy take the issue they should perhaps read what those people have to say rather than your distorted version of it.

  2. Tad,

    The article refers to liberal left critics, because the main debate that has erupted as a result of the court ruling is about free speech. Many on the liberal left have taken a position that Bolt’s prosecution is a bad thing because it is a blow to free speech

    For instance
    This Sunday Age editorial
    Jonathan Holmes, of Media Watch
    and Liberty Victoria (audio file)

    These liberal left critics have lined up with the right—as the following Age article “Judge’s discrimination creates unusual bedfellows” notes

    The fact that some on the far left such as the Left Flank blog have come unstuck by trying to push an abstractly correct position, that we can’t rely on the courts or the law to fight racism, without any concern for the political context of the right-wing attack on the racial vilification laws, is a secondary issue. Sadly the far left doesn’t set the terms of the national political debate. As you can see from our article above, refusing to line up with the right in defending “free speech” doesn’t mean being uncritical of a strategy of relying on the courts to fight racism.

  3. That’s funny because as far as I can see the only person named in the article is Loewenstein, who you call him a “left liberal”, and you quote from a blog post of his that is mostly a quote from Left Flank.

  4. Antony Loewenstein is an admirably principled journalist and a courageous supporter of Palestinian rights, but I would doubt that he considers himself a Marxist. Fair enough, the bulk of his post on the issue is a re-post from Left Flank, but the quotes we’ve used are from his commentary on the issue, not yours.

  5. I think you’ve misunderstood my point, so I’ll rephrase it. Your comment above has links to a whole bunch of “left liberals”, but the original article refers to only one such person: Loewenstein. How was anyone reading it able to think anything other than AL was the archetypal problem “left liberal”.

    Ironically, you don’t seriously engage with the arguments put forward by the “left liberals” in the linked articles (which raise a number of quite distinct concerns) either, even if you have left them unnamed.

    Nor do you actually respond to the substance of Loewenstein’s argument as quoted, “should we not have the right to offend and be offended?” — which goes to the heart of the unusual nature of the RDA, which is about “offence”.

    I can understand wanting to line up with the complainants in the case… they had every right to want to give Bolt a kicking. But in my view you have mixed that up with the more worrying idea that, “The left must defend the judgement and the Racial Discrimination Act”.

    To then claim that sections of the Left are “lining up with right-wingers” is just silly, and clearly a distraction from the substance. There have been many times when sections of the Right and Left have converged on a position independently, for diametrically opposed reasons.

    Finally, you grossly mischaracterise Left Flank’s position by claiming we are arguing “an abstractly correct position, that we can’t rely on the courts or the law to fight racism, without any concern for the political context of the right-wing attack on the racial vilification laws”. As we have made repeatedly we are concerned about using this specific aspect of the state to fight racism because it opens a whole host of dangers for the Left, in terms of legitimating coercive state powers in a way that can easily be turned on the oppressed and activists. Your dismissal of this concern in the article demonstrates a naivete about state power that is hard to fathom.

    Your argument also has scant regard for the facts of the judgement and the RDA, the relevant parts of which are not about “vilification”. I wonder if you have even properly read the Act or the critiques of it (by “left liberals” or Marxists).

  6. Loewenstein’s comment, and it seems your position, is essentially a demand for free speech and the abolition, or at least rewording of, the racial vilification section of the RDA (s18C). I think that is the wrong position to take.

    Worse, you and Antony find yourselves on the same side as Bolt and his rabid media backers. Far from our stance being “silly”, sections of the left are indeed lining up with right-wingers, as anyone who reads your blog can see for themselves.

    There is almost always a danger in using the courts of “legitimating coercive state powers”. Saying that the left is “legitimating” the state by lining up with the complainants in the case ignores that, as I say, you can defend the Act against the right but still be critical of the idea of relying on the courts.

    Of course, Anthony argues “should we not have the right to offend and be offended?” But to pose it that way suggests there are equal powers to offend and be offended and has nothing to do with the Racial Discrimination Act. The owners of the media daily exercise their power to offend, vilify, stereotype and worse.

    In any case, your specific concern about the use of the word “offend” in the act is vastly overplayed. The Act states that “to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” on a racial basis is a breach.

    But as has been widely noted, the Act already has substantial “exemptions” which mean that racial “offence” will not be in breach of the Act. Under Section 18D one of these is, “a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.”

    Bolt only failed to satisfy this exemption because what he wrote constituted “a significant distortion of the facts”, according to the judge. Furthermore he added, “The intrusion into freedom of expression is of no greater magnitude than that which would have been imposed by the law of defamation.”

    That is why even a left liberal journalist like David Marr has no problem with the judgement.

    Suggesting that there a whole host of dangers in this particular section of the Act only serves to cover up the fact that on the essential issues—for or against Bolt—you are on the wrong side.

  7. But James, I’m arguing “for or against Bolt” is precisely the wrong way for the Left to look at really existing Australian society. Especially the Marxist Left.

    It leads you to line up with a terrible section of legislation that juridically enshrines racial identity rather than acting as a defence against racism. One that also broadens the scope of court-imposed censorship of the press, which Bolt & News Ltd. can flaunt but the Left will find much harder to defend itself from. All for a moment of schadenfreude against a hated Bete Noire, without any real change to the depressing balance of forces that sees the state merrily oppress Aboriginal people, or the MSM shovel dirt on all manner of ordinary people.

    It is only by making up things about what I have written that you can make the silly claims you do. In Solidarity’s case, it’s there in black & white to be quoted: “The left must defend the judgement and the Racial Discrimination Act.” That is, line up with the state. I rest my case.

  8. Actually Marr did have a problem with the judgment. He wrote an article a couple of days after the one cited here stating that while the judgement was correct, the relevant section of the Act needed to be rewritten to reduce its scope. So, to reverse the argument being put here, “even left liberals” feel that the act is overly restrictive on free speech – why does Solidarity feel the need to defend it?

  9. Marr’s new article on the Bolt decision was actually published three days ago, two weeks after the article above was posted. If you read the article he does not have a problem with the judgement, saying “surely not even in this awkward jam is Bolt’s paper arguing that columnists are free to get it so comprehensively wrong”. He does argue that the broader provisions of the RDA should be rewritten.

    But you obviously haven’t read our article closely enough because our whole point was that a number of “left liberals” have already come out against the judgement precisely because they claim it is an attack on “free speech”, whereas we don’t believe the left should defend Bolt’s “free speech”.


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