Freedom of speech in Australia in 2015

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Where is the limit of free speech in a Western democracy? A recent example.

Since the Liberal-National took over government with Tony Abbott as Prime Minister in 2013, worrying trends have emerged to make media reporting even more one-sided than it already had been. Two thirds of printed media are controlled by Rupert Murdoch (of Fox News in the USA fame), whose reporting is ridiculously one-sided, supporting right-wing economics and politics, but this was to a certain degree balanced by the two public broadcasters, ABC and SBS, which followed a more or less “neutral” line. The Liberal/National government, soon after taking office, reduced funding for the two public broadcasters, leading to the dismissal of many staff, changed the rules with the intention of making government appointed members of he boards more directly responsible for broadcasting policy, and forced the broadcasters to rely more on private advertising. Most recently, the Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, “drew attention” of the Chairman of SBS to some tweets by Scott McIntyre, a prominent sports-commentator employed by SBS. He claimed not to have asked for the firing of McIntyre, but the result was that he was immediately fired, without discussion, without warning. What were these “offensive” tweets?

ANZAC day commemorations throughout Australia, which commemorate the landings at Gallipoli, Turkey,  in 1915, by morning services in (more or less) all towns, even small ones, by marches, flights of airforce jets etc.  were particularly elaborate this year, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the failed campaign which led to 10000’s of deaths of British, Australian, New Zealand, French, Indian, Canadian soldiers, as well as over 90000 deaths on the Turkish side. They were the culmination of months of almost daily reporting on the first world war, with stories of heroism etc. on t.v. and in the printed media. Scott McIntyre did not like this reporting and published some tweets objecting to it.

According to The Australian, a Murdoch-run newspaper, 27.4.2015:

“An SBS presenter has been sacked over a vicious public attack on Australian Diggers in which he implied that Anzacs were rapists and terrorists. SBS managing director Michael Ebeid labelled the remarks inappropriate and disrespectful, saying they breached the broadcaster’s code of conduct and social media policy. “It’s not tenable to remain on air if your audience doesn’t respect or trust you,” he said. Soccer reporter Scott McIntyre, who has a Twitter following of 30,000 people, shocked followers with a post which implied that Australians commemorating Anzac Day were “poorly-read … drinkers and gamblers”.
He began his tirade about 5pm, calling Australia’s involvement in the World Wars an “imperialist invasion of a foreign nation”.
Later tweets read: “Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered.” “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan,” said another post.”

Here are his tweets as reported by some newspapers:

“The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society.”

“Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered.”

“Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan.”

“Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki”

“Innocent children, on the way to school, murdered. Their shadows seared into the concrete of Hiroshima”

According to The Australian, “The tweets sparked outrage from Australian leaders, including Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull who labelled his comments “despicable”. “Difficult to think of more offensive or inappropriate comments,” Mr Turnbull tweeted. “Despicable remarks which deserve to be condemned.””

“SBS issued a statement today from its managing director Mr Ebeid and its sport director Ken Shipp that McIntyre had been sacked: “Late on Anzac Day, sports presenter Scott McIntyre made highly inappropriate and disrespectful comments via his twitter account which have caused his on-air position at SBS to become untenable,” the statement read.
“Mr McIntyre’s actions have breached the SBS Code of Conduct and social media policy and as a result, SBS has taken decisive action to terminate Mr McIntyre’s position at SBS, with immediate effect.”

According to The Guardian, 27.4. 2015, “However, some criticised SBS for firing McIntyre, including journalist Hugh Riminton, who is also a board member of Soldier On, an organisation that supports injured soldiers. Riminton said the tweets were untimely, immature and in one case offensively wrong. “But lest we forget, our diggers also died for free speech,” he said.
The human rights commissioner, Tim Wilson, said McIntyre’s freedom of speech was not being curtailed.
“We’re talking about political interpretations of history and that is open for debate,” he said. “And he will be judged very harshly.”

Most comments in various newspapers strongly condemned McIntyre and did not object to his dismissal. For example, the comedian Merrick Watts wrote: “Today’s comments by @mcintinhos are as sad as they are ill informed. Gutless. Stupid. Disgraceful. I am truly furious.”
According to The Guardian, McIntyre had not deleted his tweets by Sunday morning and had favourited several which supported his views including one that said: “Good on you @mcintinhos for posting this. Usual twitter shit storm, as one would expect, from white Aussie bogans.”

Interestingly, a professor of journalism said that McIntyre had the right to free speech but not to keep his job for it.

John Pilger, the well known Australian writer living in Britain, strongly defended McIntyre’s remarks and agreed with the essence of them. Here are some excerpts of an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald 29.4.2015, in which he “saluted not only Scott McIntyre but also the aboriginal freedom fighter Ray Jackson:

“He exposed cynical drivel by offending in the best tradition of freedom of speech.” “Aboriginal campaigner shone a light on deaths in custody for 30 years. Following a week in which the words “heroes” and “heroism” bobbed on a tsunami of raw propaganda, a tribute is due to two unrecognised Australian heroes. The first is Ray Jackson, who died on April 23.
Ray spoke and fought for a truth…… He said this was a land not of brave Anzac “legacies”, but of dirty secrets and enduring injustices that only a national cowardice could sustain. “Conformity is widely understood and obeyed in Australia,” he wrote to me, “freedom is not……… Australia incarcerates black Australians at a higher rate than that of apartheid South Africa……Ray loathed warmongering and would approve of my second hero. This is Scott McIntyre, the young SBS soccer journalist who, in four now famous tweets, set out to counter the authoritarian sludge that demands we celebrate the criminal waste of life in the British imperial invasion of Turkey a century ago, rather than recognise unpalatable truths about our past and present……..Why? Australia, a nation without enemies, is spending $28billion a year on the military and war and armaments in order to fulfil a tragic, entirely colonial and obsequious role, as Washington’s “deputy sheriff”……..
Scott McIntyre drove the Twitter equivalent of a five-ton truck through such maudlin, cynical drivel. He tweeted the unsayable, much of it the truth; and all decent journalists – or dare I say, freedom-loving Australians – should be standing up for him. That Malcolm Turnbull, who made his name unctuously shouting about freedom of speech, should have been involved in the saga with McIntyre’s employer, SBS, in whatever form, is a measure of the state of public and media life in Australia.
That a journalism professor of long standing, John Henningham, can tweet that “freedom of speech meant that journalists had the right to speak without breaking the law but did not have the right to keep their job when offending others” is a glimpse of the obstacles faced by aspiring young journalists as they navigate the university mills.
Many young people reject this, of course, and maintain their sense of the bogus, and McIntyre is one of them. He offended in the highest tradition of freedom of thought and speech. Knowing the personal consequences would be serious, he displayed moral courage. When his union – the MEAA – locates its spine and its responsibility, it must demand he is given his job back. I salute him.”

Professor Gillian Triggs, the Human Rights Commissioner, who a number of weeks ago was asked by the Attorney General to resign from her post because she had criticized the government’s policy concerning children in detention, but refused to do so, is a very distinguished academic lawyer. Her opinion on freedom of speech in Australia, arising from the sacking of a sports reporter by the SBS for tweets he had published on his personal twitter account, was published in Fairfax newspapers including The Age (Melbourne) and The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney).

http://www.theage.com.au/comment/right-to-freedom-of-speech-cannot-breach-employment-contract-20150430-1mwn9f.html

Some excerpts:

“The disciplining or sacking of employees whose emails breach industry codes of conduct – most recently of Scott McIntyre, who alleged crimes by the Anzacs – raise the vexed question of the proper constraints on freedom of speech. Does an employer have the right to sack, demote or otherwise sanction an employee for speech that both breaches its code of conduct and may be substantially inaccurate, in bad faith and deeply hurtful to most Australians?”

“Ask any citizen if they have a right to freedom of speech and they will robustly assert “yes, of course” . However, under Australian law, there is no such formal legal right. While, in practice, everyone is free to say and write whatever they like, this freedom is significantly qualified by exceptions. Prohibitions abound in respect of statements that are libellous or slanderous, in contempt of court, a breach of copyright, obscene or seditious, or that incite mutiny, commission a crime or disclose official secrets.”

“It is probable that …….. decision reflects Australian law in the absence of any legislation confirming the common law right to freedom of speech. While we may say what we please, subject to defined prohibitions, a practical, chilling outcome of freedom of speech is that we must suffer the consequences if that speech is also a breach of an employment contract.”

“……. Public officials, government agencies and contracted service providers will be guaranteed anonymity and immunity if they disclose an abuse of public trust, corruption, acts that endanger the environment, or unjust, oppressive or negligent conduct, among other wrongs. However, the act is significantly limited and does not cover judicial conduct, ASIO or ASIS, politicians or the private sector.
Scott McIntyre may not have the benefit of the “whistleblower’s” law, but it is at least arguable that to be peremptorily sacked is disproportionate to the reasonable interests of his employer. These are matters of judgment in light of all the circumstances.”

Concerning the truth of what Scott McIntyre wrote, see here:
https://theconversation.com/anzacs-behaving-badly-scott-mcintyre-and-contested-history-40955?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The+Weekend+Conversation+-+2707&utm_content=The+Weekend+Conversation+-+2707+{0}CID_3c5b7c063d17861725846adb514b29fe&utm_source=campaign_monitor&utm_term=Anzacs%20behaving%20badly%20Scott%20McIntyre%20and%20contested%20history

Returning to our question at the beginning of this post “Where is the limit to free speech in a Western democracy?”, the example discussed seems to suggest that for journalists there is such a limit, at least if they do not want to lose their job. Is this acceptable? Should an academic, for example, fear for his job because he/she publishes posts with which the university does not agree? I know of a case in which an Australian academic was asked by his university to remove a post in which he had criticized the teaching of homeopathy (for which there is no scientific evidence) at his university, which had plans to introduce such a course.

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