The price of opinion

Gina Rinehart, for all that she inspires consternation, does not strike me as a particularly deep thinker.

The poetry is a giveaway. We laugh, but it does tell us something serious about the person who wrote it. For instance, consider this extract:

Is our future threatened with massive debts run up by political hacks
Who dig themselves out by unleashing rampant tax
The end result is sending Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore

It’s bad because it’s so shallow. The first line above is directly countered by the second, and the third is starkly at odds with another near the beginning that reads “And billions now are pleading to enjoy a better life”. (If concern for billions of poor people is paramount, maybe we should send Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore! Presumably, if one is poor, one needs investment, growth and jobs a lot more than one needs expensive minerals.) There’s more further on, but I dare not labour the point.

Being a poem, I feel it’s likely a genuine expression of Rinehart’s beliefs, and yet there’s clearly no real intellect behind it. It’s an inconsistent jumble of angriness, trying inanely to graft corporate libertarianism onto both nationalistic pride and compassion for the world’s poor. (It’s hard enough to put any two of those together in a sensible fashion, let alone all three.)

These are not the arguments of someone who cares about understanding the world; they are undisguised talking points generated by, well, political hacks — dumbed-down for public consumption and condensed so as to be interjected at every opportunity into political discourse. They are the sort of thing you expect to be regurgitated by the trolls that inhabit the comments sections of news websites (labouring under the illusion that they are the messengers rather merely the dupes).

So, let that set the stage for Rinehart’s seemingly imminent assimilation of Fairfax. Many are concerned that this will dramatically skew the ideological slant of news reporting in Australia. I rather suspect it will destroy Fairfax before it has the desired effect.

That you can buy media companies and hence editorial positions is a simple piece of logic, but perhaps too simplistic.

If you want to do it properly, you cannot simply issue edicts to staff that certain ideological arguments must be made and certain positions attacked or defended. Freedom of speech is the catch cry of journalists everywhere. You have to cultivate a team of people who, broadly speaking, believe as you do and will make your arguments for you without being asked.

Consider Rupert Murdoch and his News empire. Murdoch does not command his papers as a general commands an army. “Nothing so crude”, points out Jonathan Holmes. The Guardian’s Michael Wolff continues: “Murdoch has succeeded in this game as well as he has, and for as long as he has, because there is magic to it. Wielding power is his art.”

A large contingent of the current Fairfax staff probably wouldn’t want to be part of any Rinehart experiment in the art of power. So, she needs to find replacements from somewhere else. But where? You might get a few guest editorials from Andrew Bolt and like-minded people, but the successful Andrew Bolts already have jobs. News Ltd might have a broad ideological alliance with the like of Rinehart, but they’re still a commercial competitor, and they need to keep their own people.

Hence the cultivation. Unless you want to cannibalise the competition, you can only replace experienced journalists with less experienced ones, but that segues into the next problem.

While you’re implementing your ideological slant and training up your new staff, you also need to somehow maintain your current readership. You can’t abandon it, and you can’t just eat into News Ltd’s market share, because these would both defeat the purpose of the whole exercise. This is especially a problem because: (a) the reduction in experience is bound to impact the quality of your publications, at least initially, (b) at least some of your readership will rebel against changes in editorial policy, and (c) your readership is already on the point of reconsidering their news options in light of the Internet. In other words, a lot of your readers will be turned off and will instead go to the ABC, SBS, Crikey or international news outlets.

The changes already announced by Fairfax — the tabloidisation of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and the implementation of an online pay-wall — may only compound the problem for Rinehart. A format change is going to make readers notice that Something is Going On, and so they may be just a little more sceptical of their news even before any change in editorial policy.

The basic problem with (what we assume to be) Rinehart’s plan is that her opinions already have a voice in News Ltd papers. That market has already been taken, and expanding it is easier said than done. Andrew Bolt and Christopher Monckton, among others, see Fox News as the template to be emulated, in order to promote their brand of libertarianism, but if that was going to work in Australia it would probably have worked already. Melbourne Talk Radio (MTR), starring Mr Bolt, ran up $9 million in losses and closed just short of 2 years after starting. The Australian public evidentially has its own ideas about the sort of editorial positions it’s prepared to put up with. On issues that Rinehart cares about — the mining and carbon taxes, for instance — the public’s opinion has already hardened. What, then, is the business case for a Rinehart-ified Fairfax? What “value” would it offer, and why should it deserve to survive in the marketplace?

It would be nice to think that another independent news organisation might rise up from the ashes of Fairfax — one with a more sustainable business model.

It would be nice, while we’re on hypotheticals, to think that powerful interests might occasionally reflect on the factual basis of their own beliefs before buying news outlets to propagate them. I wonder, though, to what extent Rinehart’s own opinions have been shaped by what she reads and hears in the media. If we accept that opinions can be manipulated, why not the opinions of those ostensibly doing to manipulating?

Edit: I’ve just noticed that Nick Bryant, being an actual journalist, has written a much more comprehensive and enlightening article on Gina Rinehart than I ever could.

Unhinging the Bolt

I’m going to contradict myself on Andrew Bolt. In a previous post, I defended Bolt’s right to free speech, as have so many others, in the face of his court case. At the time, my esteemed nemesis, the Slightly Disgruntled Scientist, came to a different view. Since the judgement, I find myself changing my mind, and I feel I ought to say something.

David Marr eloquently describes just how low Bolt actually sank, and also gives this important context:

The nine [who took Bolt to court] chose not to sue. They did not want damages but a public correction and a promise not to print such stuff again. So they brought an action under the Racial Discrimination Act, which has embedded in it a strong freedom-of-speech defence: insulting or humiliating people because of their race or colour is not unlawful when it is done “reasonably and in good faith” in pursuit of a matter of public interest.

Jonathan Holmes maintains that this is nonetheless about free speech, and discusses the relevant sections from the Act: 18C and 18D. Section 18C describes the kinds of behaviours considered racially intolerant and thus unlawful. Section 18D overrides it, making allowances for (basically) anything done, as Marr quotes, “reasonably and in good faith”.

Holmes is concerned that Justice Bromberg has set the bar too high, making 18D essentially useless:

[Justice Bromberg] specifically mentions, not just the wrong facts, but “the derisive tone, the provocative and inflammatory language and the inclusion of gratuitous asides.”

In other words, if you want the protection of section 18D of the act when writing about race in a way that’s likely to offend, you need to be polite, not derisive, calm and moderate rather than provocative and inflammatory, and you must eschew ‘gratuitous asides’.

If you did all that, of course, you’d be unlikely to offend anyone in the first place. So there doesn’t seem much point in section 18D. And you’d also struggle to express your view in a way that would attract readers in a popular newspaper.

But consider Justice Bromberg’s whole sentence (in paragraph 425):

The lack of care and diligence is demonstrated by the inclusion in the Newspaper Articles of the untruthful facts and the distortion of the truth which I have identified, together with the derisive tone, the provocative and inflammatory language and the inclusion of gratuitous asides. For those reasons I am positively satisfied that Mr Bolt’s conduct lacked objective good faith.

I have underlined the parts quoted directly by Holmes, and made bold certain parts not quoted. To my untrained, unqualified eye, Holmes is misreading the judgement. From my reading, Justice Bromberg is not suggesting that offensive language in itself renders 18D inapplicable; he is talking about offensive language in the context of untruths and distortions. The combination of those two is damning in a way that neither can be by itself. To me, it seems entirely possible that the protections of 18D could apply to anyone who (a) is wrong but avoids derision, provocation, etc. or conversely (b) is right but in a derisive, provocative, etc. manner.

Thus, I have no problem imagining, hypothetically, that Sections 18C and 18D might both apply. That is, someone may be insulted, offended, humiliated or intimidated (18C) by material that is (a) wrong but politely worded, or (b) right but derisively worded (18D). (In fact, people can often be insulted and offended by things that are both correct and polite.)

I do have a great deal of respect for Holmes. Maybe I’m misreading the judgement and Holmes is correct. Even so — even if the Racial Discrimination Act is too broad and infringes genuine free speech — consider the consequences for those violating the act. As Malcolm Farnsworth points out, in an article delightfully named “Help, help, I’m being repressed“:

There is no penalty for Bolt.  Removal of two blog posts and an apology will satisfy Justice Bromberg. It’s slap on the wrist time, but the confected outrage has poured forth.

So what are we getting worked up over? Why should we fear this judgement, when the most onerous consequence of engaging in racially offensive speech is the requirement for an apology?

I think we’ve been programmed by contemporary political narratives to treat free speech as one of those places where, perversely, we stop thinking. We exhibit such conditioned deference to the term “free speech” that we consider it an absolute right. As a result, we have a tendency to focus on the most minute of infringements. It’s all-or-nothing, we assume. The pedants in all of us seek out the most trivial, technical, legalistic injustices. We then swing wildly into conspiracy theorist mode, and extrapolate this to the whole of human experience, imagining that tyrannical oppression is upon us.

Of course, free speech has never been an absolute right; not in the freest societies on Earth. We are constrained by myriad factors in what we can say, which makes worrying about technical infringements all the more ridiculous. Defamation law is the closest approximation to the Racial Discrimination Act, and we don’t blink when people are sanctioned for spreading malicious untruths to damage the reputations of others. As the Slightly Disgruntled Scientist puts it:

The difference is that defamation affects one person. Humiliation based specifically on sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or any other class of institutional marginalisation affects (a) the person targeted, and (b) any other member of such a group. Gay people still have to choose between publicly disclosing incredibly private information up front, or not running for any kind of publicly scrutinised office. Indigenous Australians now have to consider just whether their skin is dark enough to go for, say, an Aboriginal liason position, or risk being targeted by the likes of Bolt (who implicitly undermines the legitimacy of such positions, with the consequence of further marginalisation of a whole group of people).

Now, I do think that free speech is essentially about protecting our right to say things that others would prefer remained unsaid. Powerful political parties and interest groups do tend to find certain facts and opinions inconvenient, and have certain means of persuasion that need to be countered by legal protections. But it’s hard to find a justification for speech that is racially offensive and factually bogus and not in good faith. This sort of thing does not serve democracy at any level, and in fact causes real damage.

If Mr Bolt’s right to speak freely has been infringed, it is the most minor infringement imaginable. He has maliciously spread damaging untruths in publications read by millions of people, and been given a slap on the wrist.

Enforcing enlightenment

I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Holmes’ article (and his April 4 episode of Media Watch) on Andrew Bolt. There are probably a few essays now floating around expressing a similar sentiment on Bolt’s run-in with the Racial Discrimination Act.

Australia doesn’t have an institutionalised right to free speech (except political speech, as narrowly implied by the electoral provisions of our constitution). However, there is near universal agreement that free speech is a fundamental right. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, in part:

The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

Most of us do acknowledge that speech cannot be completely free. There are privacy rights to consider. There are libel and defamation laws that offer a defence against malicious untruths. There are also security, diplomatic and intellectual property issues that require a degree of secrecy.

Most of us also abhor racially-motivated hate speech. I can support laws against incitement to commit acts of violence or discrimination (e.g. Section 17 of the Racial Discrimination Act), because (though I’m not a lawyer) that offence seems fairly easy to define and has an immediate impact on the safety and opportunities of others. Not so the consequences of speech that is merely “offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating”, as outlawed in Section 18C. Those criteria are more than enough to publicly condemn the speaker, but not nearly enough to deserve legal proceedings.

The kinds of acts being outlawed in Section 18C might be vicious, cruel, and stupifyingly inane, but they are not defamation and not incitement, and nobody’s safety or opportunities are compromised by them. Most of us (I hope) would loosely agree that things should be legal unless there is a compelling case to make them otherwise, and I simply don’t believe that case has been made here. The law is not a scalpel we can use to extract cancerous thought – it is a blunt instrument to help prevent tangible wrongdoing.

Andrew Bolt is a true test of our commitment to free speech, because he says almost nothing of value. Any reasonable person would deride almost everything he stands for. His sneers at people of other races and cultures, at the scientific and academic establishment, at anyone else tenuously associated with “the Left”, are worthy of nothing but pity and derision. If he were to engage in defamation or incitement, throw the book at him by all means, but otherwise leave him to his deranged ramblings.

In the general case, Section 18C has clearly not been enforced with much conviction. Bolt and like-minded ideologues have so far gotten away with a great many acts that would seem to be prohibited. If enforcement ever did suddenly become an overwhelming priority, I expect the situation would rapidly descend into farce, with a million bigots mobilised and screeching obscenities into every possible medium. Their White Christmases would all come at once. It would, in other words, backfire spectacularly. The instinct to ban hate speech is motivated by a commendable desire to change minds (or at least to prevent them being perverted by hatred), but the law is exactly the wrong tool for the job.

Free speech is not about saying nice things. We have no need of laws to protect our right to talk about the weather, sports or cooking. Free speech is about protecting those who offend us, because it is precisely this group that is otherwise perpetually in danger of being shut down, or sent underground. Sometimes, the offending remark is itself more enlightened than those offended by it, and so does more good than harm, but not always. Even when the message has no redeeming value whatsoever – even when it demonises the most vulnerable – free speech is about protecting society from itself, while also providing the only useful way to fight back.

Bolt’s climate comedy

Any appearance of Andrew Bolt on the ABC’s Insiders programme is bound to result in at least one deranged pronouncement on the conspiracy that is climate change. (This is something of a shame, because on other issues discussed on Insiders he does often approach sanity.)

In the closing comments, Bolt had this contribution to make:

The latest results just in a couple of days ago: the world has… the planet has warm… cooled for the last 8 years to normal levels; the land surface measurements cooled for the last 8 years; and sea levels – good heavens, Penny Wong was wrong in that too – that too has cooled over 5 years.

To put this into some perspective, NASA offers the following global temperature data:

NASA global temperature graph

“Normal levels” indeed. Bolt gave no indication of where his particular data comes from, and a more comprehensive denial of climate reality (complete with what could be a Freudian slip) would be hard to pack into such a small window of time.

Note – Bolt says that sea “levels” have “cooled”. Either cooling or dropping would be a neat trick, since the data shows quite unambiguously that the sea levels are rising, with about half the rise due to thermal expansion. Bolt himself posted a graph on his blog showing the changes to sea levels just days ago, though with the reality-defying annotation “FLAT” (in comic sans, no less) plastered across the last three years (in much the same way you might expect a bright red sign to be cheerfully labelled “blue”). Bolt himself didn’t add the annotation; that honour goes to former meteorologist Anthony Watts. Now, because one must always strive for betterment, Bolt has apparently decided that “FLAT” = “cooling”, and that 3 years = 5 years. He was reading from notes, so if it was a slip-up it was a very well planned one.

Annotated sea level graph

As you can see, the above graph quite handily refutes its own annotation (which was not on the original, just in case you’re wondering). One despairs at the futility of debating people who not only fail to notice such an astoundingly obvious trend, but manage to perceive precisely the opposite of what is staring them in the face.

I was also struck by the time frames Bolt was using. The normal denialist claim is that there has been no warming since 1998. Though that one is easily refuted (in no small part because 1998 recorded a temperature spike due to El Niño), it’s still a stronger case than for the last 8 years. After all, 2001 looks to have recorded some of the coldest temperatures in the last decade (though it’s still in the top 10 warmest years on record).

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Bolt simply printed off some three-year old (because then 1998 would be 8 years ago) piece of denialist propaganda and regurgitated it on-air as “the latest results”. That’s mere speculation, of course.

Climate control

For someone who rails so vehemently against global warming “alarmism”*, Andrew Bolt sure seems to be alarmed about hypothetical fatalities attributed to air conditioning failure during blackouts. Bolt states: “Just how many died because power blackouts knocked out their airconditioning is not known.” It’s not known, of course, because nobody has reported it happening, not because there’s some sort of shadowy government conspiracy. By contrast, the World Heath Organisation estimates that about 150,000 excess deaths are already occurring annually in “low-income countries” as a result of climate change. But then that’s based on actual research, so we can safely ignore it.

Indeed, the scientific consensus on global warming has been ignored and disputed by any number of media and political hacks. There are lists of the scientific battalions that supposedly dispute anthropogenic global warming (AGW), but most of the people on them are (a) connected to the fossil-fuel industry or funded by some like-minded “think tank”, (b) not connected to climate science in any significant fashion, or (c) not actually in denial of AGW at all. For instance, Dr Olafur Ingolfsson (whose credentials I have no particular reason to doubt) merely reassures us that the polar bear may not be in danger of extinction. For that he made it into the US Republicans’ list of “Over 400 Prominent Scientists [who] Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007“. The Heartland Institute’s list of “500 Scientists Whose Research Contradicts Man-Made Global Warming Scares” doesn’t give any reasoning at all for the inclusion of any given name, and many of those listed have expressed their outrage.

Al Gore, who in the US now seems to be a piñata for the cynics (as though discrediting him is equivalent to discrediting the entire field), tried to point out that the consensus on AGW is real. In An Inconvenient Truth he cited a metastudy on the subject, which found that none of a sample of 928 climate-related papers had argued against AGW. A newer, more direct survey has since found that 96% of climatologists (actively publishing) agree that temperatures have risen, and 97% believe that human activity is a significant contributing factor. Moreover, the closer you are to the science, the more likely you are to agree with this view. Only 58% of the general public believes that human factors are influencing the climate. However, to argue that there is no scientific consensus is risible. Such claims seem to be based on the views of a few outspoken individuals, amplified by political and corporate interests and parroted by ideologues in the media (who, of course, complain loudly that it’s the other way around).

Needless to say, air conditioning failure is a lot more likely if more people are relying on air conditioning.

* Can one accept that anthropogenic global warming is occurring without being contemptibly tagged as an “alarmist”?

Conroy and Bolt on filtering

The ABC’s Q&A programme spent about 30 minutes last night pondering Senator Conroy’s mandatory Internet filtering plan… well, idea, because it’s increasingly clear that “plan” is too strong a word. Conroy was, frankly, an embarrassment. To be honest, most of the questions put to him were not especially articulate, but Conroy made a mockery of himself. What disturbs me is that he seems to be fully cognisant  of the reality of public opposition, the technical barriers and even the dangers of encroaching on political freedoms, and yet at the same time he has no inkling that it means anything. Sure, ACMA may have blacklisted a dentist’s website, among a number of other worrying examples, but somehow that’s perfectly alright and acceptable simply because Conroy is able to explain how it happened (something about the Russian mafia, apparently). Forgive me if the idea of a secret blacklist doesn’t fill me with confidence. If said blacklist hadn’t been leaked recently, such errors would never come to light, and so there would be no pressure to correct them.

Andrew Bolt’s remarks on the filter were mostly directed at the Internet libertarian strawman. The argument – not terribly innovative – lays down a few of the worst examples of criminal behaviour and suggests that you can’t allow free access to everything. Possibly true, and utterly beside the point. Mandatory Internet filtering is and should be opposed on the grounds that there just isn’t a workable mechanism, by which I mean one that is effective while being compatible with basic democratic principles. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what your filtering criteria are. Computers aren’t smart enough, humans aren’t honest enough and the Internet is just too damn big.

Blog politics

I used to think that left-vs-right was an ideological battle that consumed American thinking far more than Australian thinking. However, having indulged in glimpses of Andrew Bolt’s blog and his adversaries at Pure Poison, I’m not sure that we’re really any better. Theoretically, “left” and “right” define a spectrum of economic policy: left for socialism, right for capitalism. Somehow these have become nouns of the form “The Left” and “The Right”, which are about categorising people. If one is “from” The Left or The Right, one is expected to conform to particular stereotypes. Increasingly, these stereotypes have less to do with economic beliefs and more to do with dogmas that span the whole spectrum of political discourse, and even personality characteristics such as anger and dishonesty.

The terms are almost vacuous, and their use says more about the speaker than anything else. They’re born of the same mentality that produces xenophobia and racism. People are placed into groups so that the group can be criticised as one monolithic entity. In extreme cases, the group is made out to be a shadowy, hierarchical organisation, often an extension of a political party.

You are of course expected to take sides – to identify yourself as being a leftist/progressive or rightie/conservative. If you don’t want to label yourself, the choice will be made for you. If you’ve been called a “leftist” on occasion (as I have), you might tend to subconsciously include yourself in that group whenever someone else makes a nebulous stab at “The Left”. Thus, having taken such accusations personally, you recoil at them. You may never have deliberately chosen such a label for yourself, and the person making the criticism may not even know of your existence, and yet animosity arises. Such is the insidiousness of politics. Unlike race, there is at least the possibility of choice, but the choice between two simplistic labels brushes aside an enormous spectrum of complex issues.

Racism, however, gets us to the issue of the moment – Andrew Bolt’s apparent discovery that agents of the forces of darkness are seeking to discredit him, by attempting to post racist comments on his blog. The implicitly-accused suggest that Bolt is making the whole thing up. Bolt’s readership has almost unanimously condemned The Left for this apparent act of treachery, while over at Pure Poison the rebels were flinging it right back at The Right. Pure Poison accuses Bolt’s readership of a general tendancy towards racism, while Bolt cryptically refers to the “New Racism of the Left” (possibly trying to coin a new vacuous catchphrase).

It seems to be the height of wit and cunning to take a criticism directed at your group (e.g. racism) and send it back at the other group. There doesn’t need to be any supporting argument or evidence. It doesn’t even really matter what the criticism is. Your cohort will gleefully pat you on the back for having demonstrated the “hypocrisy” of your opponents. It’s all imaginary hypocrisy, but then truth is whatever is said by one of your own. Hypocrisy is the ultimate point-scoring system, which is why so much effort goes into inventing it. It’s really just a more sophisticated form of “I know you are, but what am I?”

I thought for a moment about making a tearful confession to Bolt, just to see what would happen, but I’d probably be drowned out in the torrent of pre-existing outrage. (Besides, Bolt seems to write a dozen or more blog entries every day, and probably doesn’t really care all that much.)

My approach to the whole thing is this: establish your own beliefs, ignore any attempts to label you, and let others express their beliefs freely without labelling them. It should be possible to debate issues related to economics, society, religion, environmentalism, etc. without resorting to vague and bizarre generalisations of The Left or The Right.