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QandA's virtues and vices, and the self-censoring of the left

By Tristan Ewins - posted Monday, 7 September 2015

Despite the continual carping on by the Conservatives in this country to the effect that the ABC harbours 'an 'obvious' left-wing bias' I have come to fear that rather the opposite is becoming true. Programs like The Drum seem increasingly slanted towards having conservative or right-libertarian viewpoints at the core of their programs. Pluralism is certainly no bad thing. But the impression I get is that radical-left viewpoints are often excluded. (Though I am relieved when I see figures like Australia Institute spokesperson Richard Denniss included on the ABC.)

The most recent example of the QandA broadcast from the "Festival of Dangerous Ideas" was perhaps an exception to the trend of silencing radical perspectives – and one that had host Tony Jones appearing very nervous and uncomfortable. Naomi Klein's confident and powerful presentation of genuinely radical viewpoints, including opposition to the detention of refugees, and her arguments for Western responsibility in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis, certainly would not have pleased Abbott. Nor would have her fluent, articulate and effective critique of capitalism. Jones' absence from recent QandA programs perhaps hammers home the point that 'the show might go on without him'. Though he is arguably still be most talented and competent candidate for the job.

QandA especially has been 'under siege' for years now; with the assault picking up substantially over recent months. QandA has a long history of supporting pluralism in the sense of including left-of-centre viewpoints neglected in much of the monopoly mass media. This is what Abbott cannot stand. We have a Government which doesn't really believe in democracy and pluralism at all. It wants to shut-down and silence opposition wherever possible. Not just the media, but for instance charities who dare to engage in political criticism as well. And of course there is the age-old aim of 'smashing' the trade union movement and leaving all working people vulnerable to the whims and agendas of employers. A country without an effective labour movement probably would not have identified the threat of 'WorkChoices' until it was too late. WorkChoices is not 'buried and cremated'. It has been locked away to be redeployed some day when peoples' memories have faded; and the labour movement has become too organisationally-weak to mobilise public opinion effectively.


At the same time decidedly left-wing participants have sometimes appeared quite uncomfortable.  And I would suggest that this is because such participants have been under pressure ‘not to come across as being overtly radical’ lest they ‘play into Abbott’s hands’.   For example I remember noticing how with Billy Bragg’s appearance there was very little in the way of discussing socialist politics.  I hold Billy Bragg in the highest regard and cannot understand why else he may have come to sidestep the question with his appearance at QandA.  Yet if we hold our tongues for fear of a Conservative fear-campaign we largely concede the field to our enemies.

Yes QandA should be 'balanced'. In the sense that it should include left, centre-left, centrist, conservative, liberal, and even libertarian viewpoints. Even if the ideal of a 'Perfect Speech Situation' (Habermas) is impossible to realise absolutely – that's not to say we shouldn't quest after that ideal. But once we understand that Abbott's agenda is not about 'balance' – but rather about SILENCING opposition – we should appreciate how futile it is to adopt a policy of appeasing him.

Furthermore on this theme: The 'Zaky Mallah' incident was blown grossly out of proportion. It was run with as a weapon with which to bludgeon the program into compliance. While his (Mallah's) sympathies may not be ours, nonetheless the observation that anti-Islamic rhetoric was contributing to 'radicalisation' was not far off the mark. The fear campaign - a 'moral panic' that was whipped up in the aftermath of his comments - was ridiculous.

We have a government that is basically pursuing the aim of transforming the ABC into a state propaganda mouthpiece. No longer about facilitating a diverse and participatory public sphere, the government wants an ABC which proclaims the position of 'Team Australia' so-called.

Here dissidents are considered 'traitors'. Pluralism is to be 'stamped out'. In reality the dissidents who defend rights and liberties against the reactionary push to stigmatise and delegitimise them could be seen as the real 'patriots'. We see it in the mass media all the time now: consistently unfavourable coverage of protests, strikes etc. And I don't mean that the dissidents are 'patriots in some jingoistic sense.' But in the sense of defending that which perhaps is most worth celebrating and defending in this country.

Finally, the recent tweet on QandA that subjected Abbott to vile innuendo did nothing for the cause of defending free and inclusive speech, as well as genuine pluralism – through the platform of the ABC. We cannot 'vacate the field' when it comes to values, legitimate interests and policy. But we must not allow blatant 'provocations' that will probably just 'blow up in our collective faces'.


Perhaps the left would be stronger, here, were we less ambiguous when it comes to free speech. The conservatives talk about liberty when it comes to Andrew Bolt's speech. But they want to delegitimise industrial liberties as well as free assembly and civil disobedience - with an eye to crushing the social forces they oppose themselves to. Yet when George Brandis talks about 'peoples' right to be bigots' – as anti-intuitive as this may be ; and as dangerous it is to 'let that genie out of the bottle' – there are real questions about the boundaries of free speech. The tighter we limit free speech the more likely it is that our enemies will apply those standards to us as well one day. The Americans turned free speech into an absolute by making it a foundational element in their very constitution ; and the associated 'foundational myths'. This can create a free-for all for bigots on the one hand. But it can provide a shield for civil liberties and free expression as well.

Perhaps we need to be more reserved when it comes to limiting speech. True hate speech and morally vile examples such as Holocaust denial – which one day could result in history repeating itself – are exceptions. Let Andrew Bolt have his rights. But remind him that we do not all have the platforms that he enjoys. Remind him that genuine pluralism demands a more diverse array of viewpoints in the mass media. Including the Murdoch Press. Remind him that progressive viewpoints are systematically excluded in so much of the monopoly mass media – and especially the Murdoch Press which dominates the highly-influential tabloid market.

For freedom of speech to be more meaningful it needs to be accompanied by OPPORTUNITY for speech. That must mean a participatory public sphere. But also it should mean reform of our educational curriculum with the aim of developing peoples' critical faculties – including political literacy. That is: not some one-sided indoctrination process; but rather encouraging people to be active and informed citizens . For people to be empowered to make informed choices in keeping with their interests – but also their values.

Let's defend a pluralist and critical agenda for QandA – serving as a platform for an inclusive participatory democracy. But let's not get in the habit of self-censoring ourselves in instances when there are important opinions of substance which deserve to be tested in the public sphere.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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