The Federal Court has condemned Andrew Bolt’s journalism as dishonest and racist, over a series of articles he wrote in the Murdoch tabloid The Herald Sun.
Bolt accused nine Aboriginal rights activists, including Larissa Behrendt and Pat Eatock, of “choosing” to identify as Aboriginal for financial, political or career reasons. His slanders dove-tail with efforts by other supporters of the NT Intervention to discredit activists like Larissa Behrendt, a vocal critic of the Intervention.
It is fantastic to see Bolt humiliated. He is a vicious right-wing ideologue, with more access to the media than almost any other public figure, with columns in the country’s highest selling tabloids, a Fox News-style TV show and a radio program. The decision is a clear win for the Aboriginal rights activists who took him to court. Bolt was found to have breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which prevents insulting or offending people on the basis of race.
Of course, using the courts is no strategy for fighting racism. Generally, the courts are used against the left.
In this case, the Federal Court has not actually silenced Andrew Bolt. The day after the court decision he was back on the front page of the country’s highest selling newspaper. The decision will not stop Bolt or the mainstream media from pushing racism, demanding further Interventions or slandering other Aboriginal leaders.
We celebrated the High Court’s Mabo decision, but it didn’t usher in new era of land rights. The Mabo decsion was first savaged by Keating’s native title legislation, and then gutted by Howard following the Wik judgement.
The right are outraged by the condemnation of Bolt and are running to Bolt’s rescue. Both the court’s decision and the Racial Discrimination Act are under attack. George Brandis, Liberal Party shadow attorney general, is demanding repeal of the section of the RDA under which Bolt was prosecuted. The Liberal Party think tank Menzies House has set up a website to collect donations to support Bolt.
Tragically some liberal left critics of the judgement are lining up with right-wingers, who say that the court’s decision threatens free speech. Independent journalist Anthony Loewenstein argues on his blog, “the left shouldn’t celebrate legal victory against Murdoch’s Andrew Bolt”, asking “should we not have the right to offend and be offended”?
Any concern that the decision against Bolt could affect “free speech” is misplaced. As long as the media is owned and controlled by the rich and powerful, there is no such thing as free speech. They have a whole series of radio shock jocks, TV programs and newspapers to spread their poisonous ideas.
Some on the left have even defended the right of fascists or organised racists to “free speech”. But this ignores the real consequences of hate speech in encouraging racist violence. When Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was on the rise, the number of attacks on Muslims and Aboriginal people increased.
Socialists and others organised protests to disrupt her meetings – protests that played a major part in killing off her racist party.
If the RDA is ever used against the left, we will have to fight that judgement just as we usually have to fight the courts. The full might of the state has been mobilised to break remote Aboriginal communities in the NT through the Intervention. A new oppressive legal framework enforces income management and the take-over of Aboriginal communities’ assets. NT Aboriginal leader Barbara Shaw opened her speech to an anti-Intervention forum at UTS recently by saying: “Government and media are trying to divide Aboriginal people in the bush and people in cities who stand up for rights. But we will not be divided—we stand together to fight the Intervention.”
Bolt’s attacks have been part of the ruthless campaign to impose the Intervention on the Aboriginal people of the NT. The judgement against Bolt was a small setback for that project.
The left must defend the judgement and the Racial Discrimination Act. For once the court got it right. But we can’t rely on that.
We need to fight racism and the system that breeds it – from the ground up. That’s why the protest by the Gurindji in the NT and the wider anti-Intervention struggle are so important.