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Government judge and jury on censorship?

By Morry Schwartz - posted Friday, 22 July 2005


I have now been a book publisher for over 30 years. In all that time my love of books has not diminished, nor my respect for the role that books play in a free and open society.

Having said that, I question the value of books that do not reflect the truth because of some form of censorship. By “censorship” I mean something wider than that term ordinarily implies. I mean any externally imposed sanction on speech, backed by the force of the state - including the law. Whether that sanction comes before or after publication.

I am not saying that there should be no limitation to what can be published without fear of legal sanction. Rather I propose the importance of asking the question - "Is the censorship justified?" - in each and every case where the law, or its enforcers, attempt to curtail free speech.

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One recent case, in which I was personally involved, was last year’s attempt by the Federal Government to censor a book I was intending to publish. The book was Axis of Deceit by whistleblower Andrew Wilkie. A book of this nature was bound to be controversial, so we at Black Inc. sought the advice of a Canberra lawyer with military and intelligence experience. A week later, we received a fax from the Attorney General’s Department informing us that the manuscript was in their possession - our lawyer had given it to them without telling us! In our view, this was extraordinary and unprofessional behaviour.

The manuscript was circulated to the various intelligence agencies for vetting. A small delegation of senior personnel from the Attorney General’s office and the Office of National Assessments came to Melbourne to negotiate cuts and edits.

A small team of computer experts was then sent to the Black Inc. office to cleanse the offending material from our computers. They transferred the data to a hard disk then gave us the option of having it taken away or destroyed in front of us. We chose the second option, then watched them do it with a special little disk-breaking hammer. They graciously followed up this service with a customer satisfaction form.

There is no doubt that Wilkie’s manuscript was political dynamite in an election year. Our concern was that the intense interest in it by the Government was likely to be politically motivated.

This did not turn out to be the case. I can absolutely state that we weren’t asked to make any changes of a political nature. The minor deletions were all bona fide and logical. They clearly related to legitimate security issues and we agreed to them willingly.

If that was the result, why even bother asking this question - "Is the censorship justified?" Should we not simply trust those our society has empowered to sort out these matters - trust them to make these decisions for us? Namely, the politicians we have elected to represent us, and the law enforcement officers and bureaucrats they instruct?

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The answer to that question is an emphatic no. That’s not because we are necessarily suspicious of those who wield the power of the state - although that can come into it. Even where we do have basic faith in the judgment and probity of those in power, there must be checks and limits imposed on that power.

As citizens, we need to be involved in questions of freedom and democracy. Citizenship, like democracy, is as much about process as it is about status. Citizenship and democracy bring rights, but also responsibilities. Citizenship and democracy are like muscles. Without activity, without use, they turn flabby and eventually atrophy.

The political philosopher Karl Popper explored similar notions in his classic work Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper criticised what he termed “unmitigated authoritarianism”. He proposed an open society which confronts its members with personal and political decisions, and the opportunity to reflect rationally on them. He denounced “the moulding of minds and of souls” which “become, by long habit, utterly incapable of doing anything at all independently”.

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From A Balancing Act: the rightful place of defamation law in open society, the 2005 Redmond Barry Lecture, State Library of Victoria delivered by Morry Schwartz.



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About the Author

Morry Schwartz is a Melbourne-based publisher and property developer. He founded Outback Press in the 1970s and is now owner of Black Inc. In 2001 he launched the influential journal Quarterly Essay and this year he launched the new national magazine of arts, society and politics THE MONTHLY.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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