The Australian is pressuring politicians to make public their positions on section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, according to an email sent to all federal MPs on Thursday and promptly sent on Crikey’s way.

In the email, Canberra bureau chief Phillip Hudson outlines the now-dismissed QUT computer room court case and asks whether that specific case shows the Human Rights Commission and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are working well. The email pre-empts even the first hearings in the new parliamentary inquiry into 18C established by the government last week, and warns the elected MPs and senators the newspaper will publish their response or non-response.

It reads:

“Dear Member/Senator,

In early May 2013, Queensland University of Technology engineering student Alex Wood wrote on Facebook: ‘Just got kicked out of the unsigned indigenous computer room. QUT stopping segregation with segregation?’ Fellow engineering student Kyran Find later wrote: ‘My Student and Amenity fees are going to furbish rooms in the university where inequality reigns supreme? I believe if we have to pay to support these sorts of places, there should at least be more created for general purpose use, but again, how do these sorts of facilities support interaction­ and community within QUT? All this does is ­encourage separation and ­inequality.’ These comments caused them to be accused of racial hatred under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act by the woman who ran the computer lab, Cindy Prior. The complaint went through the Australian Human Rights Commission and then to the Federal Circuit Court where it was dismissed this month, three and a half years after the Facebook posts. Do you believe this process shows that the Human Rights Commission and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are working well?

We are asking this question to all Members and Senators and would appreciate your response by return email by 12 noon tomorrow (Friday November 18).

Thank you for your time. We intend to publish in The Australian whether you respond and what that response is.

Kind regards.

Phillip Hudson”

Such emails canvassing the views of elected politicians are not unusual, but the paper’s ongoing culture war on 18C and the Australian Human Rights Commission, as well as the tone of the email did amuse at least some of those who received it.

The Australian has in recent days been gathering allies in its campaign. On Wednesday, media editor Darren Davidson asked ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie where she stood on 18C on stage at a conference — her comment in support of freedom of speech was somewhat non-committal on the legislation itself (she didn’t utter the words 18C at all in her sentence-long answer), but nonetheless led to a story in today’s Oz on her “grave concerns about press freedom”. And on Thursday it published an opinion piece by Peter Greste, who spent 400 days in an Egyptian jail for reporting with Al Jazeera, who said it was dangerous to chip away at freedom of speech.

As we reported on Thursday, our analysis of The Australian’s coverage of 18C since the publication of the now-infamous Bill Leak cartoon on indigenous parents in August shows that in three months the national broadsheet has published 178 articles and almost 135,000 words — more than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and a third of the way to the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We’ll need to update our word count soon, it seems.

Peter Fray

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