Andrew Bolt and the Australian Christian Lobby.

So obviously I’ve been on something of a hiatus with blogging recently. I’m hard at work on my Moore College 4th year project (thesis) on Christian generosity with special reference to Peter Singer. My hope is that during November I’ll be able to make a few summary posts that explain where I’ve headed with it, for the sake of those who are interested in my findings but not interested enough to sit through 15 000 words.

 

Last night I received the Australian Christian Lobby’s e-newsletter. It included an extended message from the ACL Chief of Staff Lyle Shelton. I’ve included it in full below. In the letter, in something of a stream-of-consciousness Shelton gives us his thoughts on what he calls ‘the Bolt judgement’, then seamlessly transitions into a  Greens drive-by.

Shelton, in my view, does Christianity no favours by siding with Andrew Bolt in this matter.

While I understand Shelton’s uneasiness about curtailment of free speech we need to remember exactly what Bolt was been accused of – without a scrap of evidence offered he went on to malign a group of people, implying that they are welfare cheats. We might well say, “that’s his opinion and he is free to express it” but is that good enough? If his opinion is unsubstantiated with facts or data, does he really have the ‘right’ to voice them?

Moreover, Shelton chastises the courts for being the ones to decide on this matter. He argues that the ‘court of public opinion’ should be the court that decides on free speech issues. This bothers me. One of the common features of the court of public opinion is that it tends towards the majority. It also not an impartial court, with control held by those privileged enough to have their voices heard above the rest of us. In short, in the court of public opinion guys like Bolt have a megaphone.

I can’t think of a single theological justification for the defence of Bolt in this matter. It saddens me but this seems to be another example of the ACL siding with the conservative side of the political spectrum when it can’t think of anything “Goddish” to say.

 

Dear Steve,

The Federal Court’s ‘Bolt Judgement’, as it has quickly become known, raises serious concerns about free speech in this country.

Nine people of Aboriginal descent complained that they were maligned and insulted by News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt and the Court agreed the Racial Discrimination Act had been breached.

Bolt is sometimes strident and less than gracious in his criticism of others.

But being “offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated” by a newspaper article is hardly reason for a court case.

Surely this should be thrashed on in the court of public opinion through vigorous debate, not litigation.

Anti-defamation laws are well established and this is the course through which any grievance should have been pursued, not anti-discrimination law.

The Greens often raise the issue of ‘hate speech’ but employ a double standard as we have seen within the Tasmanian Parliament recently.

With the benefit of the Hansard record we show in today’s E-news just how aggressive last week’s Greens’ attack on Tasmanian Liberal leader Will Hodgman was. His crime was to give a moderate and balanced defence of marriage between a man and a woman.

Surely the Greens don’t suggest defending a child’s right to its biological mother and father is hate speech?

Racial and religious vilification legislation, which exists in most States, is very much a farce as was seen in the two Dannies case in the early 2000s.

Yesterday’s Bolt Judgement further highlights the problem of these laws which allow court cases based on feelings of hurt or insult but which will probably never apply to supporters of marriage who it seems can be pilloried as bigots with impunity.

Correction: A supporter has picked me up on my historical accuracy following last week’s E-news. “Thank you so much for the use of this Falklands War analogy from 1982- however, I believe a slight amendment is needed, as the 23 Royal Marine Commandos involved in the engagement described were defending the island of South Georgia, at Gryviken, while another 80 of their comrades, under their CO, Major Mike Norman, on the main island of the Falklands defended against the Argentine invasion at Port Stanley, in no less a heroic manner against overwhelming odds.”

Kind regards,

Lyle Shelton
Chief of Staff

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Andrew Bolt and the Australian Christian Lobby.

  1. Hi Steve,

    I think there’s a bit of complexity in this topic and the case itself. The big criticisms of Bolt (from the judge) were around the tone of what he said, rather than the content (although the judge did point out a factual error in his opinion piece).

    My biggest concern is the idea of causing offence (which is the basis on which the court action originated). Do we want to have free speech curtailed on the basis of it offending others? What are the implications for this?

    For example, “offensive” views Christians might share on homosexuality (http://www.christianpost.com/news/christian-gets-pay-cut-for-posting-gay-marriage-stance-on-facebook-59206/).

    Still thinking this through, but thought I’d throw these thoughts into the mix…

    • steveboxwell

      Thanks for your thoughts Steve.

      What gives you the impression that the judge was mainly concerned with the tone of the piece? I didn’t pick that up from the case notes:

      http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/FCA/2011/1103.html

      It’s hard to see how the content can be separated from the tone. Bolt claimed that fair-skinned Aboriginal people use their race to claim benefits and insinuated they only identify as indigenous for career advancement. It was demonstrated that these claims were false and that ‘fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles.’ The judge interpreted the Act not just to be about preventing racial hatred but more profoundly, to be about promoting racial harmony.

      I completely understand your concerns about causing offense curtailing freedom of speech (and I’m a little surprised no one picked me up on it earlier). A few points:

      a) This case was decided in the area of racial discrimination and how it applied to the Racial Discrimination Act. The carry over to other areas of offense would need to be discussed against their own associated acts.

      b) Christians must be willing to offend, the Gospel is an offensive message. But in the moments where we critique our culture our perspectives have to align with the truth. The case in the story you linked to is deeply sad, and I hope and am now praying the UK court finds in his favour. But had he said “and all gay people pick their nose and eat it” I’m not sure I would have been as sympathetic.

  2. I think this is a helpful summary from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/assault-on-free-speech-should-be-offensive-to-all/story-e6frg71x-1226149983139:

    “If anyone has doubts about the subjectivity of yesterday’s decision, they should read Justice Bromberg’s findings about how often a “reasonable reader” might have read the articles, and whether or not they would have done so with “analytical care”. He discussed how the “style and structure” of the articles “invite supposition” and, remarkably, said: “Language of that kind has a heightened capacity to convey implications beyond the literal meaning of the words utilised.”

    Let The Australian be clear, in language that should be assessed according to its literal meaning—words, to the extent that they should be judged, should only be judged according to what they actually mean, not according to what a judge decides they invite us to suppose.”

    I think the rationale for the decision can lead to some pretty worrying consequences, if these principles extend beyond the issue of racial discrimination.

    Offense is a very subjective term. Andrew Bolt offends some people. Bob Brown offends some people. The gospel offends sinners.

    Should anyone who says something that is considered offensive by another be silenced?

    If Australian society one day reaches a point where the gospel is offensive and we are legislated against preaching it, I’ll keep preaching it. But I feel it’s important to speak out against the principles that will make this kind of legislation possible.

    • steveboxwell

      I’ve had a look over the findings again Steve, and without wanting to use ad hominem against the author of the Australian piece, could this not just be News Limited defending one of their own? I’ve since read other comment on the story from the ABC and Fairfax which come to different conclusions to the Australian. Though, of course, these two news sources would have every reason to gloat at Bolt’s wing-clipping, they also understand that rulings like this are a warning to their own writers.

      Again, I completely agree with you that the gospel is offensive and people will take issue with our message – we’re speaking with one voice on that. But I would also contend that if we are actually being wise as snakes and gentle as doves we won’t make the same errors as Bolt. This ruling should strike fear into preachers who are loose with facts, are bigoted, etc. Thus I’m not ready to wave the free speech placard just yet. Bolts words were offensive precisely because they were misinformed. If he were able to provide a shred of evidence (say, a person who actually did use their race as a vehicle for career advancement) to anchor his premises then it would have been far less so. In making the claims he did he strayed from opinion to journalism. When a journalist makes a claim she or he needs to substantiate their claims with evidence. Bolt did not do this and the findings from the case demonstrate this.

      I get also get that there is something profoundly undemocratic about our judiciary interpreting law to impinge on liberty. I’m as suspicious of this as the next guy. But Bolt’s case just isn’t a test-case for freedom of speech discussions.

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