As far as publicity is concerned, left-wing think-tank the Australia Institute seems to have hit the jackpot this week with its discussion paper “Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of children in Australia”, by Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze.

Readers can make up their own minds on the merits of the paper. To me it seems to raise some valid concerns, heavily overladen with moral panic about the twin evils of sex and capitalism. But that probably makes it no worse, and at least more interesting, than most social science research.

Companies named in the report, however, were not happy. According to this morning’s Australian, “David Jones threatened that unless its name was removed from the report on the institute’s website within two hours, it would instruct its lawyers to take action.”

David Jones chief executive Mark McInnes confirmed the threat: “They have accused us of something that we regard as abhorrent. We will not be used by them to further their agenda.”

A Sydney clothing designer, Louise Greig, chimed in, saying she felt “defamed and vilified”, and that her nine-year-old model (also her daughter) “has been exploited” – not of course by her, but by the paper’s authors.

The controversy is yet another reminder of the precarious nature of free speech. Our defamation laws, the scandal of the western world, allow not just individuals but corporations to sue anyone they think is damaging their commercial interests – putting the onus on the defendant to prove that the claims are true or fair comment.

We’ve already seen that academic research is not immune from the reach of either the terrorism laws or the censorship regime. Now academics have to worry about defamation as well.

I don’t often agree with Clive Hamilton, director of the Australia Institute, but he was quite right to describe DJ’s threat as “pure corporate bullying”.

Peter Fray

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