01 October 2012

Toxic tonsils

In a liberal democratic state voters get the politicians that they ask for. On occasion those leaders are the ones that they deserve, rather than the ones that they need. They are deserved because voters have failed to exercise responsibility in condemning, shunning or otherwise indicating their disquiet about statements that are false, simplistic or foster hatred. As a society we cannot credibly condemn online trolling - speech that aims to hurt, vilify, offend - while remaining silent about expressions that denigrate groups of Australians on the basis of ethno-religious affiliation, that endorse ongoing civil disability for gay Australians or that signal the vilification of politicians is quite acceptable.

Australian media figure Alan Jones  - unsuccessful political candidate, owner of a set of 'golden tonsils', strident critic of media regulation - has now clumsily resiled from his claim that the Prime Minister’s father died of shame, a shame attributable to what Mr Jones appears to regard as repeated and egregious lies by Ms Gillard. His reported defence is that his claim was “black parody”, that it was made at "a private function" and that he had simply been repeating what he had heard at a lunch.

That claim was made at a dinner of the University of Sydney student Liberal Club, where Mr Jones was an honoured guest. Many of the listeners at that dinner will go on to become members of Australia’s elite: barristers, company directors, judges, academics, corporate analysts, members of parliament. It is disappointing that the Club has not disavowed the statement by Mr Jones, rather than tweeting approval with the words "Brilliant speech by Alan Jones last night. Its no wonder he's the nation's most influential broadcaster!". It is disappointing that its members - and the politicians in attendance - did not signal their contempt by politely walking out of the event or turning their backs on the speaker. (We presumably cannot expect the decorous young ladies and gentlemen to voice their disquiet by throwing their bread rolls at the podium or dousing the speaker in chocolate mousse.)

The Jones claim is disquieting because it is outside acceptable public discourse. The families of politicians – and of judges, senior officials and magnates – have traditionally been out of bounds. Those people haven’t chosen positions of power and may lack much scope to respond. They should be left alone. If we allow vilifiers to paint a target on their foreheads some aspiring politicians will choose not to expose themselves or their families in a shooting gallery. We will all be worse off from that.

The claim – and the implicit endorsement by members of the Club – is disquieting because it signals to trolls that anything goes. It signals that causing pain will be greeted with applause rather than a cold shower of condemnation. It also signals that making an outrageous statement to encourage attention (even notoriety and fear) is acceptable.

We could of course declare open season on anyone, even high profile journalists such as Mr Jones whose life has been marked by controversy and on occasion scarred by innuendo, highlighted in for example Jonestown: The Power and The Myth of Alan Jones by Chris Masters (Sydney: Allen & Unwin 2006) and Cash For Comment: The Seduction of Journo Culture (Sydney: Pluto Press Australia 2000) by Rob Johnson.

We do not need to declare open season. We should resist what appears to be the message from Mr Jones that anything is acceptable if you have a microphone and few inhibitions about being hateful. A feature of populist discourse over at least fifty years is the claim that Australian judges are unelected and unrepresentative legislators. The willingness of politicians and voters to embrace shockjocks such as Mr Jones [PDF] means that those figures serve as unelected legislators. They should behave responsibly if they wish to be regarded as more than entertainers. They should thus not expect to justify expressions of hatred by claiming that they are the victims of "widespread efforts by the Julia Gillard Government and Julia Gillard herself to silence or punish anyone who dares to articulate one political certainty - that this may be the worst and least trustworthy government in Australian history". They similarly should not disregard the law.

We should be wary of members of a fourth estate who channel hatred and whose view of ethics is illustrated by involvement in the ‘cash for comments’ affair (ie money secretly paid to influence editorial opinion) or in condemnation by Australian courts for disregard of court orders. We should be wary of echoes of Jones' misogyny - claims that "women are wrecking the joint" - evident in for example Larry Pickering's gibe that "Alan Jones’ suggestion of taking this excuse for a woman out to sea in a boat, putting her in a sack with a few Besser blocks and dumping her overboard, is starting to look an appealing solution".

Other than morbid curiosity there is no reason for the Australian public to know whether Mr Gillard died happily or otherwise, immensely proud of being the father of the first female prime minister or not. The Gillards’ privacy should be respected. We do not need to know whether the Jones family is proud of their boy or saddened by his venom. In a civil society we do not need to know and need not speculate. We should however condemn Mr Jones for his claim. It should not be laughed off as ‘just Alan being Alan’, because that implies a double standard for people who have ready access to a microphone and insufficient inhibitions about causing pain.

If you are silent about Mr Jones, and unfussed about his reception by elite students, you cannot conscientiously condemn the nasty teenagers who gain pleasure from lighting flamewars in online fora or the disturbed misogynists and homophobes who recurrently appear in TheConversation and Whirlpool (aka Whingepool).

The ‘I heard it at lunch’ excuse offered by Mr Jones is not one that is recognized in Australian law and has not, for example, been used successfully in defamation law. ‘Black parody’ may well be permissible under the implied freedom of political communication recognized by the High Court as a foundation of liberal democracy. It is unlikely however that the Court is going to be enthusiastic about an ‘anything goes and anyone is a target’ philosophy. It is also unlikely to encourage egregiously offensive letters, such as those sent by Sheik Haron to families mourning the death of members of the Australian Defence Forces. (Private hatespeech cannot persuasively claim the protection of political communication that is voiced to the world at large.)

The law welcomes the robust criticism and difference that is both inevitable and desirable in a liberal democratic state. As an indication of social values it should not, however, dignify hatred. We do not need to hear that Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull, Ms Gillard, Mr Brown, Mr Rudd or even Mr Jones should be placed in a sack for dumping in the ocean like an unwanted cat. We do not need the denigration of gay people - and of their families - implicit in recent statements by Jim Wallace and Cory Bernardi.

Malicious claims by Mr Jones about family life are not needed for a vibrant democracy. What is needed is a loud condemnation by society of expressions of hatred, misogyny and hurt. If we are silent we’ll get what we deserve.