Speaking from the dumpster fire of our times

The body politic and public discourse is ailing. So too is the earth itself, and, when one looks around for solid ground, one sees that it has melted into a toxic puddle. It is not surprising, then, to think we are in troubling times, which is why we should pay even greater attention to the details, which is surely where the devil lies. And yet, it is hard to do just that because we are often kept in the dark when it comes to information itself, including for journals like Overland, which editor Jacinda Woodhead has written about when it comes to being undermined in an era of ‘throwaway arts’.

If that is the context, what concerns me here comes from three separate stories, all of which broke this week. The first is the Liberal Party dinner hosted by Channel 9 in their studios. This was a $10,000 per head event on the Today set, where guests from property, banking and mining could pay to hear Scott Morrison speak. Not only does this seem like a poor use of that venerable space where so many talented people ply their trade, but it is also is a hefty price tag to pay to listen to someone carp on about giving it a go while poverty, incarceration and detention rates rise higher every day. It seems particularly problematic as a quid pro quo for the bros in charge. And it is a reprehensible activity given that Nine owns Fairfax, including its papers Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and the Australian Financial Review. So much for journalistic integrity and the freedom of the press. That event makes one truly aware just how concentrated the media market is here, how tight the network of power and privilege that governs the information we hear as ordinary citizens, and that continues to undermine the fourth estate.

The second issue is the Australian Federal Police raids on Cameron Gill’s home in the suburbs of Canberra. This connects to the earlier assault on journalistic freedom by the AFP at Peter Dutton’s direction in its intimidation of Annika Smethurst and the ABC. It seems as though Gill is being tested to see if he gave any information away, or if he is a whistleblower from inside the defence department. As old mate News Corp executive Campbell Reid said, the raids were ‘not intended to intimidate journalists but the people who have the courage to talk to journalists. Today we are seeing that process of intimidation continue.’ There has of course been pushback by journalists over the last few months, from people inside the Nine stable and from the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance, who are concerned about integrity and freedom of information. When taken together, these raids and investigations signal a worrying trend that is cause for concern if we are to access information in a way that supports our citizenship and our public right to know.

The third story worth mentioning here are the changes to provisions in hate speech. In response to the Israel Folau fallout, a backlash to a backlash occasioned by poisonous commentary, and under the guise of religious discrimination, Attorney General Christian Porter is redefining the relationship between church and state. Law Council President, Arthur Moses, said that Porter’s proposed bill ‘doesn’t carry the same type of protection as section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in relation to offensive behaviour’. As you probably know, 18C prohibits speech that ‘offends, insults or humiliates’ a person based on their race.

That provision, of course, has allowed minorities in this country to be free from outrageous attacks on their embodied sovereignty. Otherwise, we know ‘Aisha the Aussie Geisha’ and other forms of racism will happily make their way into an already hostile public sphere. Responsible freedom of expression is being undermined on false premises by the attorney general – and the suggestion is that this government is intent on legitimating hate speech when it suits ideological proclivities.

When taken together, the Nine event, the Gill raid and the hate speech bill all suggest a coordinated offensive on one of the most important aspects of democracy – responsible freedom of expression. That is a right that should be enshrined in law in Australia, in the form of legislative or constitutional recognition, and not as a good bestowed to a precious few in positions of privilege and power. That means supporting people who speak truth to power, who come from marginalised identities, who cannot afford a $10,000 dinner to rub shoulders with the PM.

When asked about the raids on journalists, the most outrageous attack on free speech of them all, Morrison has repeated what he said on 3AW on Wednesday morning:

Well I’m sorry. If people break the law in this country they should be same subject to the same laws as everybody else. Politicians and people can search my home if they want, if they think, if they suspect me of a crime Neil. I don’t place myself above the law, I don’t see why anyone else would.

That is empty rhetoric of an asinine kind; Morrison, always so smug and sly, is not truly sorry. More importantly, we also know that laws are not always just and do not guarantee morality. To say as much nowadays is to remind ourselves that simply speaking out is a right we can no longer take for granted in the dumpster fire of our times.


Image: Elijah O’Donnell / Unsplash

Robert Wood

Robert Wood is chair of PEN Perth. He has previously been an Overland intern.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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