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Sep 29, 2011

Bolt divides over court ruling

An attack on free speech or a win against racial offence in the media? The Federal Court ruling that Andrew Bolt breached the Racial Discrimination Act has the commentariat in two distinct camps.

Amber Jamieson — Freelance journalist in New York

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

An attack on free speech or a win against racial offence in the media? The Federal Court ruling yesterday that Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt breached the Racial Discrimination Act divided the commentariat into two distinct camps.

The ruling related to two Herald Sun columns that questioned the “Aboriginality” of several well-known light-skinned Aboriginals, arguing that they’d use their indigenous identity to gain financially and career-wise.

When reading out his judgment yesterday, Federal Court Judge Mordy Bromberg noted that the mistakes and language of Bolt’s columns meant they weren’t exempt from the parts of the Act that accept “fair comment”.

“The reasons for that conclusion have to do with the manner in which the articles were written, including that they contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language,” said Bromberg.

Crikey‘s Andrew Crook was in the courtroom yesterday. As he wrote in Crikey:

“Before a public gallery packed with supporters of Pat Eatock, who brought the case on behalf of nine fair-skinned members of the Aboriginal community and top Herald Sun brass Phil Gardner and Simon Pristel, Bromberg delivered a blunt assessment of both the racial offence called by Bolt and his professionalism as a journalist.”

After the ruling, Bolt stood on the court steps and read out a statement. “This is a terrible day for free speech in this country,” said Bolt. “It is particularly a restriction on the freedom of all Australians to discuss multiculturalism and how people identify themselves. I argue then and I argue now that we should not insist on the differences between us but focus instead on what unites us as human beings.”

In March, when the case first came to court, Crikey‘s Bernard Keane argued that regardless of your opinion of Bolt and the columns in question, this was an attack on free speech:

“It’s easy to defend free speech when you agree with what’s been said. The only real test is when you disagree, and disagree strongly. Bolt deserves the support of free speech advocates, regardless of how much they may disagree with his bilious outpourings.”

Is this really about free speech? “A terrible day for free speech in Australia, or just a terrible day for Andrew Bolt and bad journalism?” asked Karl Quinn in The Age.

Bolt was unrepentant in his latest Herald Sun column this morning:

“For expressing such views, in such language, I have lost my freedom to put my argument as I did.

And be warned: use such phrases as those yourself, and you too may lose your right to speak.

But as I say, Justice Bromberg insists he hasn’t stopped debate on racial identification, unless, apparently, your adjectives are too sharp, your wit too pointed, your views too blunt, your observations not quite to the point, your teasing too ticklish and your facts not in every case exactly correct.

And even then, having jumped every hurdle and written with the forensic dullness of a Reserve Bank governor, you will run the risk of a judge deciding that whatever you’ve written is, after all, the very opposite of what you really meant.”

But this isn’t an attack on free speech. Bolt’s columns were wrong and the judge confirmed it, writes David Marr in The Sydney Morning Herald:

“Freedom of speech is not at stake here. Judge Mordecai Bromberg is not telling the media what we can say or where we can poke our noses. He’s attacking lousy journalism. He’s saying that if Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun wants to accuse people of appalling motives, he should start by getting his facts right.”

As the Crikey editorial said yesterday:

“If today’s judgment turns Bolt into some kind of martyr – as it surely will among his coterie of like-minded supporters, including many in the populist media who will rally to him like moths to a flame – he may turn out to be the courtroom loser who wins the propaganda war.”

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19 thoughts on “Bolt divides over court ruling

  1. gapot

    This judge needs to take a look at the US free speech laws and tell the nanny state government we have in Australia that they need to scrap the current undemocratic laws. We have too many public servants coming up with stupid laws just to justify their jobs. Strange country!

  2. Jimmy

    This quote from the judgement summarises Bolts to a tee;

    In my view, Mr Bolt was intent on arguing a case,” said the judge. “He sought to do so persuasively. It would have been highly inconvenient to the case for which Mr Bolt was arguing for him to have set out facts demonstrating that the individuals whom he wrote about had been raised with an Aboriginal identity and enculturated as Aboriginal people.

    “Those facts would have substantially undermined both the assertion that the individuals had made a choice to identify as Aboriginal and that they were not sufficiently Aboriginal to be genuinely so identifying. The way in which the newspaper articles emphasised the non-Aboriginal ancestry of each person serves to confirm my view. That view is further confirmed by factual errors made which served to belittle the Aboriginal connection of a number of the individuals dealt with, in circumstances where Mr Bolt failed to provide a satisfactory explanation for the error in question.”

    Read more:

  3. botswana bob

    I totally disagree with CRIKEY’s editorial that suggests people ” will rally to him like moths to a flame.” The phrasing should have been: rally to him in the way garbage attracts flies. To call his work journalism really tests the limit of the definition of journalist. He is one of a number of polemicists employed by the sheltered workshops of the phone hacking Murdoch organization. The columns at issue were vituperative–totally unsurprising–and factually inaccurate as flagged by the judge. To bleat about free speech–as is, unsurprisingly the Murdoch press and its fellow travelers–does strain credulity to the breaking point.   

  4. Son of foro

    It’s a shame that the debate has shifted from the fact that Bolt writes garbage – and has been proven to do so time and time again – to a debate on free speech.

    It shows just how much Australia needs a strong press complaints body, where cases like this should be taken. It should be made clear, first and foremost, that Bolt has written nonsense and is wrong. His employers should then be called upon to correct the mistakes and remind their employees of their responsibilities as professionals.

    Love the ‘facts not in every case exactly correct’. No, Andrew, you were wildly wide of the mark, incredibly out of order, and you need to admit it and apologise. Oh, and stop doing it.

  5. Cynthia Crabapple

    To BOLT 1. To utter impulsively; to blurt. Says it al really …

  6. Elan

    Moths/flame-Flies/garbage!! Them thar’s fightin’ words!

    It doesn’t account for the fact that one doesn’t need to like the fella to agree with what he said.

    I’m Coloured/White. He made very valid point.

    (And I’ll bet he dare not now say: “nice to see Geoff Clark resplendent in his feathers and cape and not his usual grey suit”).

    Will that get through my moderated poster status?

    How about this?: (and I have said it before). Before ‘dirty Paki’ became all the vogue in the UK, my two darker skinned brothers were called…er, I can’t write it can I?

    They were called That was meant as a derogatory race based term. THAT is racism.

  7. Jimmy

    Elan – No one doesn’t have to like him to agree with what he said, but he does have an obligation to make sure what he said is accurate.

    In this case it is clear Bo-lt ignored or made up facts to suit his case (as is his want in many topics). To denigrate someone who identifys as aborignal because their father is German may be a legitimate argument but when in fact their father is Aboriginal that is a different kettle of fish!!

  8. Jimmy

    Why does Crikey bother writing articles on Bolt when the mere mention of his name atuomatically triggers the moderator?

    Ed: I reckon you can answer your own question there.

  9. Elan

    Read the article again Jimmy…if you can!!

    What this man was saying needed to be said.

    I suspect the outrage (specifically on Crikey where I came looking for it,-because I knew The Crik would have a field day!!)-is because this is……drum roll pleassssseee……——Andrew Bolt.

    Btw: I am a Socialist. (Oh the horror of it!!)

    And Jimmy? I’m ever so, ever ever, so grateful to you for letting me know that everyone is being moderated on this topic. I don’t feel so alone.

    It is so terribly awfully sweet that Crikey is so careful about not causing any offence to the Bolter.

  10. Jimmy

    Elan – Whether what he said needed to be sid or notis largely irrelevant, he could of made his point in a similar manner to the article he wrote yesterday where he spoke in general terms and discussed his own struggles with identity, but instead he made false accusations and errors in fact to sensationalise his point, just like he has with climate change etc.

    That is why the section of the ruling I posted above is so relevant.