Andrew Bolt, racial vilification and ‘freedom of speech’

Magna est veritas et praevalet
Great is truth, and mighty above all things

I welcome the decision of Justice Bromberg in Eatock v Bolt, delivered in the Federal Court in Melbourne on Thursday. It is, to my mind, a just decision, and not just in law.

Predictably, of course, the decision has not been welcomed by many (and in this context it is very much worth reading the statement of one of the plaintiffs, Dr Anita Heiss). The noise machine has veritably exploded in angry fury, with absurd and risible claims being made that ‘it is now illegal to discuss racial identification’, to pick just one of the stupidities being touted in the lamentable revival of the hoary and false notion of ‘political correctness’.

Such claims do violence to the judgement, the text of which can be found here.

On Twitter, @Robcorr responded:

Nonsense. The case was lost because Andrew Bolt imputed that some people are too fair-skinned to be genuine Aboriginal people, that those people choose to falsely identify as Aboriginal for personal gain, and that fair-skinned Aboriginal people were likely to be ‘offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated’.

The entirety of his note should be read, but the conclusion demands citation:

So, what does this mean for free speech? Will it, as Chicken Little Dodd suggests, ‘silence debate on irksome and uncomfortable topics’?


What it will do is require journalists to conduct proper research, to present their arguments based on facts, and to tell the truth.

Andrew Bolt, also predictably, is presenting himself in the guise of some sort of martyr of free speech.
He can be nothing of the kind, because free speech is not at issue here, and nor are martyrs normally found among the privileged.

And that precise privilege, which Bolt precisely seeks to exercise almost as of right, is precisely the actual issue here.

Free speech, as the judgement in fact indicates, must be speech that is accountable to truth. That is to say, it is not the same concept as ‘freedom of expression’ (one that more properly belongs to artistic domains) or indeed ‘freedom of opinion’. Free speech ought to be both in service to the truth, and oriented to its discovery. That requires, as a very minimum condition of possibility of exercising such a right, a willingness to ground one’s views in ascertainable and verifiable fact.

Michel Foucault, in his short book Fearless Speech, points out that one of the concept’s earliest instantiations, the Greek idea of parrhesia, had its correlate in a proper noun: Parrhesiastes. ‘Free speech’ is a practice engaged in by ‘one who speaks the truth’.

I do not intend to canvass the whole gamut of reactions which gesture to the liberal or bourgeois notion of free speech, a notion people have indeed struggled and even died for (but not the sort of people who write columns in the Herald Sun). No doubt the names of Voltaire and J. S. Mill are going to be tossed around in coming days by people who have probably never read them.

I want to make three very specific points, before moving back to some general ones:

1. The Federal Court found that Andrew Bolt vilified specific named individuals on the basis of untruths, which he ought to have known or through his ‘research’, have been able to discover were untruths. It’s argued that they should more properly have taken action against him for defamation, in that he damaged their reputations on the basis of falsehoods.

2. But, very correctly, they chose rather not to personalise the issues, but to highlight the fact that Bolt’s discourse vilified them insofar as they are Indigenous Australians and identify as such, and had a broader effect of harm on Indigenous people.

3. That is true, and that effect is real. Bolt’s position of privilege derives not just from the fact that there is no attempt on the part of his monopolistic megaphone mouthpieces to counter any of his claims by the remotest vestige of ‘balance’ or accountability to fact. It also derives from the fact that his claims have the effect of offering permission to hold the views he espouses, and indeed empowering others to persist in them and reproduce them. These ‘opinions’ are not just abstract ones, but have actual effects in producing and reproducing social and racial inequality, and in fostering vilification of a whole host of unnamed and unprominent Australians, which not incidentally, silences them.
That, folks, is privilege, and it’s racial privilege, and it’s precisely how racial privilege works in a post-colonial society. It’s a daily, nay, a minute by minute re-enactment of the original Dispossession.

And it is vile.

Vile too was the way in which at least one of the plaintiffs, Larissa Behrendt, it could be reasonably inferred, was subjected to a vicious campaign in the press because she joined in taking this action.
Let me just make two other general points, which go to the risible idea of ’political correctness’, and its correlate, which is the claim that people’s opinions are being silenced or prohibited:

1. This is related to another furphy, that Andrew Bolt ‘has been found to be a racist’. I, myself, care very little what his private views are, because they simply don’t matter. Nor do I see it as being remotely useful to try to discover or speculate on what they are. Andrew Bolt is very far from being an original thinker, and his opinions are very far from being interesting. The only point here is that he has massive access to public speech, to a point where the vilification the Court found he had been engaged in can be excused, argued away, or made the subject of ridiculous defences in the name of ‘freedom of speech’.

It is in the public effects of this discourse, and in particular the effects such discourses have in reproducing and in fact increasing the force and pervasiveness of racial tropes which do immense harm, for which he – and those who defend him – must be accountable.

2. Opinion is worthless unless it is groundable in fact, oriented towards a search for truth, and accountable to reason. Hence, there is no surprise, either, that Andrew Bolt is one of Australia’s most prominent ‘climate change skeptics’. In truth, none of these opinions, which it is Andrew Bolt’s business to shore up, are worth a penny.

I refrain from discussing Bolt’s opinions themselves, because their real effects are to be found in the way they reinforce received opinion.

The only point of holding such opinions is to shore up the threatened and endlessly collapsing boundaries of discourses such as that of race thus to re-enact Dispossession, precisely because such discourses can only function in opposition to truth, and always run the risk of collapsing because of their untruth.

Australian racism is one such truthless discourse. Those who articulate it, and those who contribute to its daily reproduction and its woefully pernicious effects, are far from fearless truth speakers. They are the opposite of the figure of the Parrhesiastes. They are, in fact, fearful cowards who persist in the realm of lies, and will do almost anything to avoid accountability to reason.

[I haven’t commented here on the substance of the controversy, in part because I refuse to engage in debate with Andrew Bolt’s ‘opinion’. But I think it is salient to note that his mode of opinionating (I will not say: argument) suggests that the question of identification is somehow an easy one, one that is subject purely to personal choice, and one where it is surprising, transgressive and terrible that anyone should ‘choose’ not to identify as hegemonically white. Both the claim that choice is key, and the implicit but necessarily related claim that to be white is desirable above all things, are absolutely central to the way racism is constituted, and the way it works, in this country. Bolt appears to want a situation where not-to-be-white is invisible and to simultaneously blind himself to the visibility of not-being-white. And he cannot understand why anyone, offered his false choice (which he himself instantly disables) would want to be visible, or would be rendered visible by others.]

Andrew Bolt can hold whatever opinion he chooses. On the basis of his writing in the two columns which were the subject of the judgement in Eatock, however, he seems to be blind to truth. And to excuse himself from an accountability to truth and to the ethical and legal claims of racial civility negates any right he might otherwise enjoy to defend that opinion on grounds of its relation to truth.

Cross-posted at Sed probate spiritus.

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  1. david marr’s piece in the age/SMH is good analysis of the decision. rightly points out that bolt factually wrong in many of the aspertions he made. hope the appeal that will likely happen doesn’t overturn the decision. interesting to see the rhetoric bolt will come up with in his next columns re: decision.

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  3. [I’ve posted this comment at Mark’s blog too]

    I’m less sanguine about this result.

    Simply put, while the court found in favour of the “facts” we on the Left accept, this remains a case of the state acting as the arbiter of the truth. This is a rare state decision in our favour, but it will not (and cannot) portend a shift from the state’s general pattern of finding for the oppressors against the oppressed.

    The very understandable recourse to the courts and legislation by this brave and honest group of Indigenous people is nevertheless a reflection of the weakness of our side, and the result may well have gone the other way had the plaintiffs been less prominent or Bolt less obvious in his mendacity.

    There is a difference between demanding recognition and justice from the state through self-activity, and relying on the state to deliver it from above. What does this result teach us in terms of building a Left that can challenge the vast bulk of anti-Aboriginal discrimination, which is deeply ensconced in state practices to this very day (see the NT intervention for racism-in-practice, as opposed to Bolt’s racism-in-theory)? It is here that racism is grounded in “truth” — the reality of division, discrimination and oppression as social practices.

    I also worry that such legislation could be used against, for example, “anti-semitic” pro-BDS authors in the future. There are clear signs that this is the direction the Canadian government wants to go.

    The one small bright aspect to the decision is that we can say that Bolt was so dishonest and misleading that even the Federal Court found against him.

  4. Yes, I agree.
    I totally support the right of the people slimed by Bolt to seek redress. I just wish we actually had a political movement such that the redress didn’t have to be sought in the court room.
    That is, there’s been too much focus on the legal and journalistic implications of the case and not enough on the political ramifications.
    Has Bolt’s political clout been weakened? I doubt it. While he’s been exposed as a bad journalist in the courts, that’s not exactly a surprise — if you read Tim Lambert’s blog, there’s a constant stream of exposes of Bolt’s errors and misrepresentations.
    So I doubt many of Bolt’s followers will think any less of him after this verdict.
    On the contrary, he’ll probably do quite well out of all out of it — expect weeks of boo-hooing about how he’s been silenced (in his newspaper column, TV show, radio spot, etc).
    Perhaps more importantly, the problem with fighting anti-racist battles in the court is that such struggles don’t involve many people. Most of us aren’t lawyers and so all we can do is watch while the experts battle out before a judge.
    It seems to me that there’s a reason why both on the refugee issue and on this, the big moments have depended on court victories, which is simply that the movement on the ground is actually quite weak and underconfident.
    But without popular support for anti-racist or pro-refugee campaigns, well, the problem is that the law can just be changed. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s now a push from the Right to abolish this kind of anti-racist legislation.

  5. I’ve replied to Tad on my thread, so people can read it there if they like.

    I’m cognisant of the points you and Jeff make, but I’m not so sure the outcome is so clear cut.

    I wonder whether the Herald Sun portraying Bolt on its front page as a martyr really is an excessive gesture. On one level it is, but I’m not sure that this gesture will be read in quite the way it’s anticipated to be.

    I also think that the effect of the decision is to establish an important test for journalists – accountability to fact. The raising of the tattered banner of ‘freedom of speech’ in such an extraordinary and disproportionate manner indicates immense resistance to that, and to any real form of accountability and review.

    I don’t know, too, whether that might provoke a response that is not predictable. There are reasons why journalists and the media are held in low regard. I wouldn’t want to foreclose how that debate might evolve.

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  7. Yay, Vale Mark …
    A beautifully thought out anti-polemic. Well done
    ‘Political correctness’ could well be reinvented as plain ol’ Good Manners one day. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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