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Andrew Bolt, lover of censorship

Andrew Bolt certainly likes to talk about freedom of speech, but when it comes down to it, he only wants that freedom for those who agree with him.

On the question of free speech, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt walks both sides of the street. Among Australia’s hard-Right ideologues picking the wings off butterflies down at the IPA, Bolt is a martyr, having been found guilty of racial vilification in the Federal Court in 2011. Yet the evidence suggests a different reality. In his daily work, Bolt believes in censorship.

Earlier this month, after I described the Liberal finance spokesperson Andrew Robb as a “troubled character” in the Australian Financial Review, Bolt wrote: “Whoever edits the opinion page should have edited out that word”. This is no different to the Federal Court ruling a newspaper column should be censored to meet the need for political correctness. Bolt went on to argue that the AFR should not feel “comfortable with using Latham as a commentator”.

Why the dramatic turnaround? Writing in The Spectator in December 2011, Bolt described me as “one of the nation’s finest columnists”. Now he wants me kicked off the paper. This says a lot about Bolt’s core values. His attitude to free speech is not grounded in principle but rather, political convenience. When I agreed with him on some issues, I was one of the nation’s finest. Now that I am exercising my freedom to disagree, I need to be censored.

I’m not the only commentator to suffer from this double standard. Every weeknight in Sydney, Bolt co-hosts a radio program on 2GB with shock-jock Steve Price. The program is notorious for its censorship, having taken News Ltd commentator David Penberthy off-air. On October 10 last year, a stunned Penberthy described how:

Just over an hour ago I got a call from 2GB saying that I am no longer welcome on the network. The reason: [my] column from last Tuesday which was critical of Alan Jones.”

This was in the aftermath of Jones’ comment that Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father, who had recently passed away, had “died of shame”. Penberthy, who had been a regular contributor to the Price/Bolt program, was shut out. When asked how he could tolerate this kind of censorship and remain on 2GB’s payroll, Bolt replied, “But Penberthy has other outlets for his opinions, he hasn’t really lost his freedom of speech”.

This was a remarkable cop-out. For Bolt, freedom of speech is not an absolute principle but a part-time concept, based on whether or not he agrees with someone. The equivalent would have been for Bolt to have walked out of the Federal Court in 2011 and declared, “My columns have been censored, but that’s OK, I still have radio programs in which I can have my say. I’m unaffected by the ruling.”

The third strike against Bolt concerns his obsession with climate change denialism and last year’s Press Council ruling against him. In a strange sequence of events, Bolt is now restricting freedom of expression on his Herald Sun blog.  The full details are set out in my Quarterly Essay, “Not Dead Yet”. Here’s a summary of the scandal.

In his Herald Sun column on February 1, 2012, Bolt recycled (without attribution) material published three days earlier by David Rose in the UK newspaper Mail on Sunday. Bolt wrote:

The planet hasn’t warmed for a decade, or even 15 years, according to new temperature data from Britain’s Met Office. Hmm. That’s not what global warming scientists predicted.”

Nor was it what the Met Office had said about its research findings. On the same day as Rose’s article (January 29), the Met Office issued a statement correcting the errors in Rose’s propaganda. It concluded:

What is absolutely clear is that we have continued to see a trend of warming, with the decade of 2000-2009 being clearly the warmest in the instrumental record going back to 1850.”

Bolt failed to research and publish extracts from this statement. This is despite, on January 30 (that is, two days prior to the 1 February column), a reader posting a note to Bolt on his blog advising him of the Met Office’s comments. In publicising Bolt’s blog, the Herald Sun describes it as a chance for readers to “talk to [our] journalists.” Yet Bolt claims not to have seen the January 30 posting.

Not surprisingly, several complaints were lodged with the Press Council. On December 13, the Council found against Bolt as he “needed to avoid conveying a misleading interpretation of the Met Offic’’s own views on its data”.  It also noted, following the reader’s post, “The Met Office [statement] should have been mentioned in Mr Bolt’s print article and blog of February 1”.

At this point, Bolt faced a logistical problem: if he continued to personally moderate and publish reader comments correcting his misrepresentations, organisations like the Press Council could use these posts to hold him to account — knowing for certain he had seen the corrective statements. So on Australia Day 2013, Bolt announced his solution:

After campaigns against me — exploiting restrictions on free speech — it has been deemed safer that I not moderate [blog comments] myself.  So I shall do my best to read your comments, but they will not be published.”

That is, to avoid accountability on climate change and other subjects, Bolt decided to only publish comments moderated by paid Herald Sun staff. When these staffers are not available (such as on weekends and public holidays), Bolt will not get involved. This way, ignorance is bliss, ensuring that no one can ever know which comments he has actually read. This tactic, however, restricts the free speech of his readers — the chance for their views to be published on weekends and holidays.

Bolt’s blog is a living monument to his censorial beliefs.  This is what happens when the right wing pushes out to the authoritarian extremes of politics. Liberties are curtailed. Instead of ranting about government censorship, Kim Williams, the head of News Ltd, should act immediately to restore full freedom of speech on Bolt’s blog.

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  • 1
    Steven Haby
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mark
    I think you could draw the same conclusions for many right wing commentators who get very snippy (not to mention shrill) indeed if someone has the temerity to disagree with them (think Piers on Insiders or Janet A) and anyone from that (in)famous institution the IPA and of course our good friend Gerard Henderson. Never get the facts in the way of an argument.
    Steven

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    But you don’t have to be very Sharpe to see this “Blot on the political landscape” - limited to “Caw! values”.
    “Murdoch’s is the Right sort of censorship.”

    Imagine what would happen if we all had the same access to the print and other outlets through which they get to spout their lop-sided, unbalanced opinions, that they do - to the greater electorate? If more of us had their control of the medium? We voters would get all these conflicting accounts and probably wouldn’t vote “the Right’s way”?
    “Media apartheid”? “You’re too black to be allowed in here!”

  • 3
    The Pav
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Klewso

    I think you meant “Crawl values’

    I have long been of the opinion that the right’s idea of balanced reporting is unquestioning support and that balance, logic & reason are clear signs of left wing bias

  • 4
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Caw” as in the sound a crow makes to the rest of the murder.

  • 5
    cairns50
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    i wonder how the great man gough whitlam is, for sure i hope he is well and that he mind is still sharp and alert

    for if it is, then he must surely be ashamed and dismayed that his son in law Kim Williams has become a Murdoch lackey and apologist and is at his beck and call in expressing his views

  • 6
    Bo Gainsbourg
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I think Bolt and News Ltd can easily dispel these rumours with a typically drawn out, baying series of front page huge headline attacks on the current legal actions involving journalist Adele Ferguson by a certain newspaper/mining proprietor. Replete of course with ‘provocative’ and ‘humorous’ pictures of Stalin, Castro et al…I’m sure Kim Williams would love to give a feisty speech or two on that one wouldn’t he?

  • 7
    SusieQ
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    If only News Ltd and their cronies would get so excited about something REALLY important, like poverty, hunger, or war.
    Oh, what a combo - Price and the Blot on air - does anyone listen?

  • 8
    Warren Joffe
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    A pity that a clever chap like Mark Latham has never been schooled to serious intellectual discipline. If he had he wouldn’t have conflated the actual and potential impact of legislation and expensive litigation with the forcing of well publicised commentators to shuffle along the corridor to another outlet, of which there are plenty.

    Interesting by the way that Bold was a Labor staff man in the 80s and has moved away from Labor and the left with experience, like Gary Johns, the former Hawke (or Keating) government minister, and, on the subject of anthropogenic global warming at least, Peter Walsh, Hawke’s finance minister.

  • 9
    Warren Joffe
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    A pity that a clever chap like Mark Latham has never been schooled to serious intellectual discipline. If he had he wouldn’t have conflated the actual and potential impact of legislation and expensive litigation with the forcing of well publicised commentators to shuffle along the corridor to another outlet, of which there are plenty.

    Interesting by the way that Bolt was a Labor staff man in the 80s and has moved away from Labor and the left with experience, like Gary Johns, the former Hawke (or Keating) government minister, and, on the subject of anthropogenic global warming at least, Peter Walsh, Hawke’s finance minister.

  • 10
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Anyone who visits Blot’s blog thoroughly deserves it.

  • 11
    Achmed
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    http://www.independentaustralia.net/2013/politics/news-limiteds-hysterical-campaign-confirms-need-for-media-regulation/

    Truth and fact are the enemy of some media outlets

  • 12
    Achmed
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t all this start when journalists at a media outlet in the UK get found to be accessing peoples mobile phones and computers? The idea was to ensure that the same wasn’t happening in Aust. And that self regulation wasn’t working
    Note that journalists at another media outlet have been found to be doing the same

  • 13
    Frank Birchall
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Excellent piece Mark!

  • 14
    Andybob
    Posted Tuesday, 19 March 2013 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    Obviously Mr.B doesn’t like Britain’s Met Office as much as he likes, oh, say Gina Rinehardt ?

  • 15
    Posted Tuesday, 19 March 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    profound

  • 16
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Wednesday, 20 March 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Exercising the Rinehardt principle perhaps.

    Hypocrisy has no greater home than the ranting right.

  • 17
    heavylambs
    Posted Saturday, 6 April 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Well observed,Mark. I have personally experienced Bolt’s real attitude to free speech on his blog by being censored or edited without that being noted. He is an enemy of reasonable discussion and a hypocrite of the first order.

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