Opinion

Richard Cooke
Free speech, censorship and media raids

One of the first political books I bought was a faded copy of Australia’s Censorship Crisis, edited by Geoffrey Dutton and Max Harris. I picked it up more for its cover than its contents, and this turned out to be serendipitous. Though it was then already out of print, the volume retains an almost enchanted quality: it ages but it never dates. If you have read it, or any of the many books like it, you will have an induction into Australian society, culture and politics that is unfortunately eternally relevant.

Harris’s own essay in the book, titled “A Terror of Words”, described how it is “depressing enough to be confronted with cracks about Australia’s comic puritanism where ever one goes in the world … But when the puritanism is capriciously and inconsistently manifest, we move from the comic to the idiotic. We may have to endure the world’s severest moral censorship, but why the most incompetent as well?”

This was written in 1970, and 50 years later Australia is again an international laughing stock over our blundering brand of intimidation and censorship. The motive differs although security and puritanism have a shared imperative: they are supposed to be for our own good. The Australian Federal Police raids on the offices of the ABC and the home of a News Corp journalist keep being described as “unprecedented”. They are certainly a degeneration, though these goonish interventions have always been there. Only their targets and locations have changed.

In 2015, it was an Adelaide bookshop selling unwrapped copies of American Psycho; in 2013, a St Kilda art gallery, with the seized works celebrating the artist Mike Brown, who was convicted of obscenity in the 1960s. An unbroken chain of raids, prosecutions, bannings, destructions, libel suits, intimidation and blacklistings drags its way through our history, all the way to the early colony.

Internationally, enterprising journalists would fish for pithy quotes from famous authors who had their books seized by customs. “Where is Australia, anyway?” Brendan Behan asked after Borstal Boy was impounded. In an Orwellian touch, the list of banned books was itself banned, lest perverts seek them out. Orwell himself made an appearance, thanks to the mysterious inclusion of Down and Out in London and Paris. He was in good company on a blacklist that could furnish a course at the Ramsay Centre all by itself: Aldous Huxley and Rabelais, Nabokov and The Decameron, not just James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, but Mary McCarthy too. When the United States ambassador donated a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, it had to be hastily uncensored to avoid embarrassment.

This is partly why recent appeals to a local tradition of free speech are so perplexing, especially when they come from Australian conservatives. There is no Australian tradition of free speech, at least not one deserving of the name. We are reputed to be the only democracy in the world with no right to free speech guaranteed by charter, bill or decree. We have long been the English-speaking country that is most censorious, secretive and illiberal to unfettered expression, and look set to remain that way. By necessity, we at least developed a strain of pragmatic anti-censorship, that must extract feeble reforms from a hostile polity, in the face of indifferent or sceptical public opinion. It seldom does so passionately.

“Your intelligent minority is invertebrate,” says a character in Norman Lindsay’s Miracles by Arrangement, “it lets the lowest type of official moron wipe his boots on it.” Lindsay’s spite was partly produced by personal circumstances – Art in Australia had been criminally prosecuted for reproducing some of his nudes – but it captures a spineless quality of local liberalism that is very familiar today. After their recent brush with official moron-dom, the government’s adversaries fought back with reasonableness – another inquiry, a meeting with the minister. Nothing so vulgar as a protest. This sprang partly from pragmatism – this will be a long tussle – but also from an uneasiness about how many allies will join the cause.

It’s quite a motley crew – News Corp and the ABC, the Institute of Public Affairs and the Australian Labor Party – so motley it must be serious for these people to make common cause. But this Dirty Half-Dozen must also battle the limitless complacency of the Australian public, and protections for journalists are a hard sell when the profession is so unpopular. Many groundlings in the comments sections seem to regard the raids with something akin to glee. They are savoured as revenge for getting the result of the election wrong. The media are partisan enough that they seldom apply principle consistently, and there are many who have been looking to return the favour.

The feeling of just deserts isn’t wholly misapplied, either. The media themselves, especially News Corp, have argued against media intrusion but often praised the security services in public, egging them on to further intrusions. Senior News Corp executive Campbell Reid bit back hardest against the raids, arguing they were part of a “creeping criminalisation” of journalism. That’s welcome but too late. The company’s editorials constantly attempt to wedge the ALP on these issues, and some of their employees, fellow travellers who could not really be called journalists, have been given special treatment by successive Coalition governments, furnished with leaks and drops to further their political aims. This is why Chris Kenny was able to crop up on Nauru, and why Graham Lloyd saw the national carbon emission figures before the Australian public. This is not a relationship that can create accountability.

The path was cleared for the seeking tentacles of this security state by the media, but also by a bipartisan political effort. Australia has no official motto on its coat of arms but “sweeping new powers” would fit perfectly. While the sweeping powers used in these most recent raids were enshrined in the Crimes Act of 1914, there are now so many available to authorities that some experts admit they have lost track of the total number. By one count there are more than 50. The physical arrival of police at media organisations and journalists’ homes might be bad optics, but the powers had already been applied to try to sift out leakers. In 2014, Guardian Australia, news.com.au and The West Australian were all referred at the AFP, and all over immigration stories.

The ALP has spoken out on these issues, but always with one eye on the polls and tabloids. Labor’s Home Affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally has become a forceful advocate, and would be a more persuasive one had she not begun her shadow portfolio by trying to outflank Peter Dutton to the right on immigration “security”. There is not much room. Since the Beazley era, the ALP has worked in lockstep with the security state everywhere, from the US alliance to offshore detention, and this unwinning strategy has wound up as the policy equivalent of softcore pornography, for which there is no market – anyone with a piqued interest prefers the hard stuff. It has continued too enthusiastically and unsuccessfully to be merely cynical. We should dare to admit they really believe it.

Australia’s immigration architecture rests on the idea that the violence, intimidation and secrecy required to run it can be offshored and contained. But “sweeping new powers” don’t work that way, and once rights as foundational as the right to trial, habeas corpus, the right to medical treatment while detained and freedom of speech are curtailed, that curtailment can only spread. So, those accused of terrorism begin to fall into the same category. Nauru slides into dictatorship without much protest. Parts of the media become more like part of the government, and the opposition doesn’t oppose any of it, except in the most token way.

Elsewhere in the developed world, the WikiLeaks saga, the intelligence failures of the Iraq war and the revelations of the former National Security Agency agent Edward Snowden resulted in sustained and unresolved national debates about security, secrecy in surveillance, and the law. Here there were tumbleweeds, what Professor George Williams of the University of New South Wales described as a “permissive culture” with regard to the security services, perhaps the only kind of genuinely permissive culture Australia has. All of the warnings of civil libertarians and others have come to pass – the Department of Home Affairs has become exactly the threat to the separation of powers it was intended to be, and all the while gallery journalists insisted that the government did not direct the police on who to raid. The point is that they don’t need to.

While all this has been going on, Australia’s free-speech debate has centred almost entirely on what the then attorney-general, George Brandis, termed “the right to be a bigot”. That is a nuanced question, and not even a secondary concern at the moment. At its most abused, the rarely used and much spoken of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act might spike a few potentially bigoted columns. Meanwhile, this apparatus is working as designed: to hide the abuses of the government, by intimidating journalists, prospective whistleblowers and anyone else who gets in the way. That’s the real chilling effect, but one that is part of an Australian free-expression ice age that threatens to become a permafrost.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "One long-running gag". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.