In an e-mail to ABC’s Media Watch, Daily Telegraph editor David Penberthy justifies his newspaper’s failure to properly moderate racist and xenophobic comments left on blogs. He claims such opinions “are held by many Australians, especially in Sydney”.

I’m not sure which Sydney-siders Penberthy refers to. Is it those who, egged on by the anti-Middle Eastern racism of shock jocks and some Tele scribes, violently bashed an Afghan student on a train and smashed the windows of a car with two Bangladeshi students on Cronulla in December 2005?

The e-mail says more about Penberthy and some of his colleagues at the Tele than it does about Australians. But before I go any further on this, allow me to make a disclosure.

Prior to Tim Blair’s appointment as Opinion Editor in December, I had around 9 or 10 op-eds published in the Tele. From memory, I was paid for 3 or 4 of them.

In September 2006, I took part in (what was described to me by the Tele’s online editors as) an experimental blog on the general topic of multiculturalism. The Tele paid for my travel expenses for the trip between Sydney and Canberra.

Apart from myself, the Tele had at least one employee working almost full time assisting with moderating comments. At least two employees were involved in the entire project.

In short, the Tele clearly had the resources to properly moderate comments and weed out those deemed offensive. Indeed, I saw one Tele staffer delete a comment that cast a racial slur against Asians.

Penberthy’s justification of his newspaper’s preparedness to moderate and publish posts calling on indigenous “niggers” to “eat Coon cheese” is astounding.

Why moderate comments at all if you allow grossly offensive ones to be posted? And what is the purpose of having Publication Guidelines in which posters warrant that their post “does not breach any law (including laws relating to privacy, intellectual property and defamation) or the rights of any person”?

Penberthy also suggests that “censoring” such ugly posts only makes sense to “the bourgeois sensibilities of the Media Watch set”. What’s so bourgeois about complying with anti-discrimination and other laws that have been in statute books for decades? Is Penberthy giving a one-finger salute to HREOC? Does he believe that his position enables him to be above the law?

Penberthy’s hubris doesn’t quite match that of Alan Jones in response to the ACMA ruling. However, it is a bit rich when the law punishes Jones for reading on air racist e-mails while the Tele think they can get off scot-free for allowing racist readers’ posts on its blogs.

There’s nothing bourgeois about a tabloid newspaper obeying the same laws that bind the rest of us. There’s plenty bourgeois about tabloid editors who insist on being above the law.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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