Hold it now and watch the hoodwink… Margaret Simons on Freedom of Speech

The more I contemplate the media’s articles about the Andrew Bolt court case, the more I realise that it’s a case of the foxes running the chicken coop.  I’m rather shocked that I found myself surprised that so many media personalities would uncritically trumpet the right of the media to publish whatever it wants without regard for its social impact or its affect on individuals.  Other blogs seem unwilling to curtail speech unless violence is incited.

In Crikey, Margaret Simons writes why we have to hope that Andrew Bolt wins his case.  A careful analysis of her article shows that the first pronoun in the title refers to her and her media chums.  It’s certainly not an inclusive ‘we’.

This case is not about whether or not Andrew Bolt is a nice person or a good columnist. It is about the limits of freedom of speech. [Source: Margaret Simons, ‘Why we have to hope Andrew Bolt wins his case’, Crikey]

Is the case about the freedom of speech?  On the face of it, it’s not.  The case is about whether people are entitled to live in a society which does not attack them on grounds of race.  A secondary question to this is whether media personalities have a right to publish material attacking members of society on the grounds of their race.  Media commentators seem unwilling to shift away from the question of free speech.  Free speech first, everything else second because publishing offensive material sells advertising space.  The inability to create inflammatory and controversial content strikes at the heart of their business model.

But that’s as nothing compared to the strangest sentence of her article:

If that precedent is to the effect that we must not offend people when talking about race, then all those involve [sic] in publishing and reading will rue the day [Ibid.]

Rue the day!  Verily, if they are unable to make your ethnicity a topic of conversation, there will be gnashing of teeth in the publishing houses.  Editors will wear sackcloth and rub ashes into their hair.

Then she twists herself in knots trying to show how the racial discrimination law is somehow different to legitimate infringements of the most basic human right: the right to publish objectionable nonsense:

Of course, freedom of speech is not absolute, and there are limits. For example, we have the laws of defamation,and censorship, and there are other laws that deal with things such as incitement to violence.

But the law of defamation does not prevent publication. It allows those who have been defamed to seek compensation. [Ibid.]

This is nothing short of pencils-up-nostrils-shouting-‘Wibble’-crazy.  In an extremely simplified nutshell, defamation law works as a deterrent against damaging reputations.  It’s supposed to prevent publication under penalty of getting sued by the people you would otherwise defame.  Does Simons think that the law was developed like a royalties system?  Oh, you can print these outrageous lies but you’ll have to pay the person you defamed for the right to do so.

Further, you can seek an injunction to prevent defamatory material from being published.  So, yeah.  She’s flat out incorrect.

Simons argues for something like a ‘pub’ test.  While Bolt might be obnoxious, ‘[y]ou’ll find the same things said in most pubs.’

We should worry if we are going to start prohibiting people from publishing views that, while we strongly disagree with them, are common in the wider society.  [Ibid.]

I’m not sure when Simons was last in a pub.  The last time I was in a pub,  I was treated to such excellent opinions as:

  • Why we ought to shoot ‘Abbos’.
  • Why we ought to shoot asylum seekers.
  • Why Jews are conspiring against the rest of the world.

These sorts of opinions do not have a place in civilised society.  Simons seems to think that these ignorant, beer-fuelled slurs should be permitted in our mainstream media just because they’re not uncommon in our drinking dens.  It’s not difficult to take the evidence Simons cites and make an entirely different argument: ‘You’ll find the same things said in most pubs.  We should worry if we are going to start publishing views which are also repugnant in our nation’s pubs.’  While they might be uttered in pubs, they shouldn’t be.  There’s no place for those views anywhere, not even in pubs.

Then there’s some gibberish about how if we hold News Ltd to a ‘higher standard’ then the government might come after you, dear bloggers.  And you don’t want the King of England coming in here and pushing you around, do you?

If you use defamation law as a vague measure, you’d know that if you’re an influential, substantial somebody, you’re more likely to have people sue you for racial vilification.  Defamation law applies to everybody at the moment, but I can slag off lots of people and nobody’d give a toss because I’m not worth suing.  Similarly, if I publish terrible things about how the Swedish Ambassador to Australia isn’t really Swedish (but just claiming it for political gain), I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to get their lawyers on to me.  Technically, they could but we live in Reality Land where the effort isn’t worth the gain.  The racial vilification law scares the media because people will sue it more than they sue other kinds of people.  The same is true of defamation, weirdly enough.

So if they can beef up this ‘OMG, racial vilification law is ridiculous and a threat to your freedom of speech’, they get the benefit.  It’s another example of the media wanting unfettered rights without having to accept responsibility.

My heart feels dead inside… but my prostate feels fine

Behind the Crikey pay wall, Melissa Sweet writes about prostate cancer.

The argument, as far as I can tell, runs like this:

  1. Peter Beattie has spoken out in favour of getting screened for prostate cancer.
  2. A doctor disagrees with him and has written a book.
  3. Wayne Swan disagrees with the doctor even though the doctor has written a book.
  4. People should make up their own minds about whether to get screened because Beattie’s message is too simplistic.

The article reads like the point of the article was edited out in a prior version.  Surely the story isn’t ‘Three people disagree, so make up your own mind about prostate screening’.  Why does the doctor disagree with prostate screening?  Why has he written a book?  Why are ‘many GPs’ changing their practices?  Given that — apparently — many GPs recommend the Atkins diet, perhaps we need a bit more of the ‘Why’ and less of the ‘He said, she said, they said’.

Perhaps she could have asked the Cancer Council for their argument.  It’s freely available here and makes for some interesting reading.

Despite the above, I’m more interested in the thrust of her article: ‘Make up your own minds about prostate screening’.

A favourite essay topic in medical ethics is the question of consent.  Given that patients don’t have degrees in medicine, to what extent can they make informed choices about their health?  In Australia, there’s a hairy bunch of case law about what constitutes consent in the medical field but it doesn’t really get to the ethical meat of the question: how can I, as a patient, consent if I don’t have the skills needed to decide? Continue reading “My heart feels dead inside… but my prostate feels fine”