“The ‘most substantial threat’ to press freedom in his five decades”


I will start with this from the papers today: Bill Leak cartoon probe biggest threat to press freedom.

Media proprietor Kerry Stokes has launched a blistering attack on a controversial ­investigation by the Australian Human Rights Commission over a cartoon by The Australian’s Bill Leak portraying an Aboriginal father and son.

Mr Stokes, the Seven Group executive chairman, said the probe was the “most substantial threat” to press freedom in his five decades of owning and running media businesses.

And then there is John Spooner, himself a cartoonist, asking why should a satirist like Bill Leak be forced to explain himself?. His advice:

Rather than argue against the government’s right to interfere with our freedom (they can legitimately do so in cases of criminal conspiracy for example) Leak should defend himself if possible with satire.

He should force everyone to focus on the dangerous overreach of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. After all the right to offend and insult are, in part, necessary ingredients of serious argument. How else can we combat racism? And don’t tell me about exemptions in 18D. The overall intent of the act is intimidatory. You need an expensive lawyer to rid yourself of the stigma of prosecution. Look at history. Read Ben Wilson’s The Laughter of Triumph, a life of William Hone, friend of William Hazlitt, publisher of the great cartoonist George Cruikshank, and admired by Charles Dickens.

Hone should be famous. In 1817 he courageously defended himself against charges of blasphemy and seditious libel; over a satire that offended and insulted many people. He wrote a parody of the Book of Common Prayer and the Athanasian Creed. He also libelled the Prince Regent and his corrupt government for good measure. A jury acquitted him to great public acclaim.

And to add to the defence, Mark Steyn has also again weighed in on our Human (Last) Rites Commission: Punching Back Twice as Hard (Oz version).

I’m glad to see, following the latest attempt to use Australia’s disgraceful Section 18C to throttle freedom of speech Down Under, that The Australian’s Bill Leak is introducing the concept to the Antipodes. His latest cartoon (above) features Tim Soutphommasane, the totalitarian hack who trousers a third of a million a year as Oz’s “Racial Discrimination” Commissar. Mr Leak invites Commissar Tim Jong-Un to sue him for “facial discrimination”.

Free speech should mean you can say anything you want short of incitement to violence – or, if you like, shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre – without the full weight of the law falling on your head, in fact without even the most minimal weight of the law falling on your head. According to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, under the entry Freedom of Speech, there is a lengthy discussion of the Andrew Bolt case and human rights in Australia. And in spite of Spooner’s advice, I will mention this since it seems important. According to the entry, in Australia, apparently 18C is delimited by 18D, which states:

Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith: (a) in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or (b) in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or (c) in the making or publishing: (i) a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or (ii) a fair comment on any matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.

This attack on Bill Leak really does look like an underemployed HRC Commissioner trying to find some purpose in life, as discussed in August in The Oz: Tim Soutphommasane may be drumming up work as race hate cases fall.

When it comes to discrimination, context is everything. Words that might appear completely innocent can take on a very different character when the full context is understood.

Which brings me to the words of Tim Soutphommasane, the Race Discrimination Commissioner who encouraged people to complain about a cartoon by Bill Leak that appeared in this newspaper.

The commissioner advised the public that complaints should be directed to the organisation where he works, the Australian Human Rights Commission.

His attempt to drum up work for the commission was followed by a torrent of abuse against Leak, whose cartoon depicted an Aboriginal policeman returning a delinquent Aboriginal youth to his equally delinquent father. On Soutphommasane’s Facebook page, the commissioner reproduced Leak’s cartoon and invoked the heads of liability in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act: “If there are Aboriginal Australians who have been racially ­offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated, they can consider lodging a complaint under the ­Racial Discrimination Act with the commission.”

He had seemingly prejudged those complaints, which raises doubts about whether the commission itself can now deal fairly with this affair.

It appears to be his job to be offended on behalf of the community. If no one else will take offence, then he will just have to do it himself. But to be quite frank, when it comes to being offended by what other people write and say, I would rather do it myself. I don’t need or want some government agency to do it on my behalf.

WILLIAM HONE ADDITION: From areff in the comments who guides us to this book on Hone: The Triumph of Laughter. This is the description of the book at Amazon and perfectly parallel to our own situation, except that this is the supposedly more enlightened 2016 and that was back in the Dark Ages of 1817.

William Hone is the forgotten hero of the British Press. In 1817 he was compelled to defend himself against a government determined to enforce censorship. His fellow journalists, opposition MPs and the ministers believed that a verdict against Hone would silence all critical voices. It was a show trial, and Hone – a self-educated and obscure Fleet Street journalist who had to defend himself against the Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney General and in front of a jury hand-picked by the ministry – was the underdog, a supposedly easy victim for the state. Hone’s crime was ridiculing the government. He was a noted satirist, who used laughter as a weapon to destroy censorship. His humour captured the imagination of the public; his satires sold in the hundreds of thousands. They were symbols of resistance for an angry public and were genuinely feared by his enemies. The Laughter of Triumph looks at the history of the struggle for free expression against repressive laws through the life of William Hone. Could the state push the law so far that humour was a crime? Or was it the only way to subvert censorship? As Hone implored his jury on the second day of his trials, ‘Is a laugh treason? Surely not.’

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