There is no real freedom of speech in our society, argues James Supple
The mainstream media has overwhelming control of the views and opinions that we read. Australia is one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited alone controls about 70 per cent of newspaper circulation and there are just three commercial TV stations in each city.
This gives a tiny number of companies enormous control over what appears in the media.
While they are not all as ideological as Murdoch, the media owners are all part of the corporate elite and share a desire to defend the profits and power of big business.
Even the range of alternative views that the ABC will air is strictly limited, following government efforts forcing them to maintain “balance” by weeding out left-wing views.
That is why socialists reject the idea of universal freedom of speech under capitalism.
We defend the freedom to discuss and organise for the working class, not free speech for the corporations and the ruling class.
The Bolt case
Andrew Bolt’s commentary is a particularly shocking example of the way limited opinions dominate the media. Bolt has a practically unequalled level of access to the media, with newspaper columns in the country’s highest selling tabloids, a Fox News-style TV show and a radio program.
Bolt’s media access is not due to his popularity, but to the fact that he spews out the kind of right wing, pro-corporate views that the media barons want. There are no comparable figures on the left that get anything like his media air time.
That’s why it was great to see him momentarily humiliated after a court ruling in October found him in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), for publishing a column claiming fair-skinned Aboriginal people claimed to be Aboriginal to receive varied benefits.
The conservative media is foaming at the mouth about the claimed threat to Andrew Bolt’s freedom of speech.
But Bolt’s claim to have been “silenced” by the judgement was ridiculous. He appeared on the front page of the Herald Sun, the country’s highest selling newspaper, responding to the judgement the next day.
Nevertheless, some bought into the claim that the court judgement set a bad precedent for freedom of speech.
In fact, as has been widely noted, Bolt only lost the case because what he wrote constituted “a significant distortion of the facts”, according to the judge.
Furthermore the judge added that, “The intrusion into freedom of expression is of no greater magnitude than that which would have been imposed by the law of defamation.”
This is why even liberal journalist David Marr had no issues with the court ruling.
Many have a desire to defend free speech for everyone, no matter what they say. Often, this is because they want to defend the comments of left wing and marginalised groups.
It’s certainly true that the left often has to fight to defend our free speech and the right to demonstrate. Our limited means of political expression are constantly under attack, such as the ability to hand out leaflets on university campuses or in public areas. In the 1970s Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson banned street marches. In 2007 police tried to intimidate people out of marching against the APEC summit.
Companies such as Gunns have used defamation laws in an effort to silence criticism. In 2004 it claimed $6.9 million from 20 activists for protesting and criticising its pulp mill plan.
The left often has to fight for freedom of speech and a voice for the voiceless. But this shouldn’t bind us to defending it as some sort of absolute value.
For example, there is another important instance where socialists oppose free speech—for those attempting to incite racial hatred and bigotry, or build political movements aimed at destroying democracy and free speech itself.
When Pauline Hanson started to build a political party based on racism against Aboriginal people and Asians, the result was a rise in violent racist attacks. Organised racist parties give confidence to racists to act on their repulsive ideas.
In recent years the far right in Europe has become a real threat, winning parliamentary seats from Britain to Hungary. Worse, groupings like the English Defence League have organised street marches against Muslim immigration and mosques. Where these are allowed to happen, blacks and Asians face physical attacks from the racists.
At the core of many of these far right groups are fascists who aim to build a movement of street thugs capable of attacking not just Muslims and blacks but trade unionists and the left as well.
Allowing them to abuse “freedom of speech” in this fashion puts the physical safety of others at threat and allows the poison of racist ideas to spread.
This is why it’s extremely dangerous for the left to accept that the idea of universal freedom of speech.