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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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