LINDA BRISKMAN. Let’s disentangle free speech and hate speech in the media.

Mar 21, 2019


We are all seeking answers to the heartbreaking mass murder of Muslims in Christchurch. It assuages consciences if we can attribute blame that absolves us as a collective of non-Muslim Australians. There are many nonetheless who cannot be let off the hook. The media is one.

Right-wing outlets that profit from anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiment did not pull the trigger but they have some responsibility, along with politicians and others, for stoking Islamophobia. This is not the case only in Australia but I will focus attention on my country.

The role of social media is currently under scrutiny by the right and the left. Social media is largely unregulated and seemingly impossible to control and shut down. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that he will be calling in tech giants to discuss measures to remove harmful content from social media platforms. What is missing in this rush to prevent hate speech is recognition of the unmediated interaction between social media and mainstream media, most evident in those we refer to as shock jocks. But culpability doesn’t stop there. As Monday’s Media Watch showed, commercial television outlets used footage from the standpoint of the Christchurch murderer, literally looking down the barrel of his rifle.

NewsCorp is a major culprit. John Menadue (18th March) pointed out that the Murdoch tabloids in Australia have consistently encouraged bigotry and hostility toward Australian Muslims. But it goes beyond tabloids. I draw particular attention to The Australian, aimed at an educated audience. It has been unrelenting in denigration of Islam and Muslims, thinly disguised as intellectual analysis. Bunkum. In November 2015, this NewsCorp outlet campaigned on what it described as ‘an open-minded but unflinching series of articles analysing Muslim Australia’. Unflinching and Islamophobic it was, day after day, presenting opinion pieces hostile to Islam and Muslims. Such a pursuit would surely be condemned if applied to any other minority in Australia, but none was forthcoming.

A 2017 Charles Sturt University Islamophobia Report pointed out that reporting about Islam and Muslims in the mainstream Australian media increased significantly in response to terror-related incidents both locally and overseas. Barely publicised research by One Path Network revealed that the Murdoch press is quantifiably a major culprit in anti-Muslim stories – 3.000 negative stories about Islam in just the year of 2017.

What is truly remarkable is that before Christchurch mourners could bury their loved ones – men, women and children – The Australian pursued its political refrain. On Monday, commentator Janet Albrechtsen took aim at those who ‘exploited’ the event to advance their agendas. She eloquently but hypocritically argued that ‘we must stand up to those who seek to exploit terrorism as an excuse to censor views and shut down people they disagree with’. Even more audacious was her statement that the ‘blame-gamers must not succeed in shutting down my views, or others in The Australian or on Sky News.’ Of course not. This would diminish her role and popularity. And maybe even sell less newspapers. Albrechsten is not alone. As the One Path Network research revealed, opinion writers at the Murdoch press have an obsession with Islam, some penning almost one-third of their articles to the topic of Islam and Muslims.

Implicit in Albrechsten’s commentary (and she’s not the only one to hold such views) is that hate speech is a component of the privilege of free speech, even if it causes harms to Muslims and contributes to Islamophobia. As a human rights social worker and academic activist, I can’t stand by and see Muslims continually vilified by media. Social workers are well attuned to social harms caused by institutional bigotry and racism. We don’t have a lot of power or influence except to name the structural and institutional barriers in society and to work toward remedy. Academics have the freedom to pursue topics where others fear to tread. We should exercise that particular freedom as a good that comes from the right to speak freely. And we should be prepared to relinquish some of our rights so others may have theirs. We can debate this right but we need to avoid getting caught up in the polarisation about questions of free speech and media that arose from the 2015 Paris slaughter of journalists. Let’s resolve this once and for all, at least in Australia.

I am cautiously optimistic that there seem to be some cracks in the view that free speech is absolute and it should not have taken a tragedy for this to occur. There is plenty of evidence that Islamophobia is on the rise in Australia and elsewhere. If something positive can come from such a terrible tragedy, we should be loudly calling for limitations on free speech and for media regulation. And in the words of activist Saul Alinsky in his Rules for Radicals: Keep the pressure on. Never let up.

Linda Briskman

Margaret Whitlam Chair of Social Work ,Western Sydney University, Co-founder of Voices Against Bigotry

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