You know something’s up when Herald Sun supremo Phil Gardner decides to leave the plush Herald and Weekly Times building to attend a court case for one of his top scribes, and so it was this morning when the pinstriped head honcho popped up to hear Andrew Bolt get assailed over his views on Aboriginality.
Bolt is being sued under the federal Racial Discrimination Act by nine applicants in a class action over four columns he wrote in 2009 that suggested they had been lavished with favours and benefits due their status as self-identifying Aboriginals, despite their apparently white skin.
The columns included “White is the new black“, “White Fellas in the black“, which questioned the origins of academics Danie Mellor and Mark McMillan and “One of these Woman is Aboriginal“, which counterposed a photo of Coomera ALP candidate Leeanne Enoch with Anna Bligh taken during the 2009 Queensland election campaign.
Veteran activist Pat Eatock is the main applicant, but the case is also joined by Enoch, artist Bindi Cole, NSW Australian of the Year Larissa Behrendt, author Anita Heiss, Melbourne University favourite Wayne Atkinson, Graham Atkinson, lawyer turned academic Mark McMillan and former ATSIC commissioner Geoff Clark.
The case is threatening to become a cause celebre among the Aboriginal community and media watchers, with Gardner joining a who’s who of hacks in the lift up to level 8 this morning to watch the country’s most popular polemicist in court.
Former Federal Court judge Ron Merkel, for the applicants in his opening address, attacked Bolt over his alleged views that genetic descent was the sole determinant of a person’s race, when, ever since the Holocaust, self-identification and community are considered equally relevant.
Merkel said that by extension, “Bolt had taken us back to the eugenics approach,” through his focus on biological descent.
A purely genetic definition of race, was “exactly the kind of thing that led to the Nuremberg race laws,” Merkel told the court, adding that Bolt was “in a timewarp.”
Merkel told the court Bolt’s argument that the white-skinned litigants had chosen to become Aboriginal in order to access academic prizes and other benefits, was countered by the 73-year-old Eatock’s experience in the Queensland schoolyard in which she was mocked by whites and blacks alike.
The Racial Discrimination Act contains a free-speech provision. But the secion in the Act prohibiting conduct likely to offend was an attempt, according to Merkel, to stop arguments such as Bolt’s which, left unchecked, would lead to genocide.
Bolt’s “frame of reference” was the debates of the 1930s, Merkel said, describing him as a “man lying in a mindset frozen in history.”
The columnist’s idea of Aboriginality was a “dark spear carrying person on top of a rock,” Merkel told the court.
Merkel quoted from Senator Neville Bonner who famously remarked in 1971 that the degree of one’s emotional scars didn’t necessarily match the darkness of their skin.
“It’s unfortunate that 40 years later, he [Bolt] has not understood any of the items that Senator Bonner was talking about.”
Questioned by Justice Bromberg over whether Bolt was simply expressing his view on the nature of Aboriginality, Merkel said that while he was entitled to his view, “To express his view is one thing, to gratuitously denigrate and…take down a group of people is another.”
“It’s not a view, it’s an insult that’s inconsistent with his admission that these people are Aboriginal.”
Merkel said Bolt was wrong to argue that the applicants had “become successful because of their Aboriginality … Freedom of speech does not give you the right to stand up in a crowded theatre and shout fire.”
The court also heard of several factual errors in Bolt’s pieces, including his assertion that Larissa Behrendt’s father was “German”. In fact, her father is Aboriginal. (the phrase “German father” has been changed to “German name”, via a strikethrough, on Bolt’s Herald Sun blog, but remains uncorrected here on News’ AdelaideNow site).
Bolt had also wrote that Geoff Clark had an English father, when in fact Clark’s father was Australian (he also misspelled “Clark” as “Clarke”).
In an amusing moment, Eatock and Bolt’s gazes met as the one-time Parliamentary candidate moved to the front of the court, taking her seat just inches away from Bolt and Gardner.
Exactly what crack Herald Sun court reporter Norrie Ross produces tomorrow will be of interest given his copy during last year’s Bruce Guthrie unfair dismissal case that resulted in verbatim headlines like “he hurt the business”.
Merkel has promised that “an extensive range of evidence” will be sought from multiple witnesses this week, with Bindi Cole and Larissa Behrendt to be cross-examined in addition to Eatock.
The case continues.