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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

QandA's Virtues and Vices - and the self-censoring of the Left

Above:  Tony Jones  is the most talented candidate for hosting QandA ; But he has appeared obviously uncomfortable in the wake of Conservative pressures to exclude Left-wing and other critical opinions

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 such have sometimes appeared quite uncomfortable.  (well, that is my strong impression)  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 who are 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 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 ; 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.


  1. Thanks Tristan. Interesting points. I am not sure why you think Jones is the ebst person for this. But I do agree that the means of free speech and broadcast of ideas are concentrated in the hands of capital. I seem to remember a study of the ABC in the run up to the last (?) election showed it favoured the L-NP over Labor. I am pretty sure, like most media around the globe, the ABC has moved to the right, not just in response to the Abbott government but because of the lack of major and sustained class and social struggles here.

    1. Yes, I think you're right. I remember that study, too. Sometimes, I think the ABC must wonder how it can make room for Australian left-of-centre views in view of the Coalition's deeply felt animus towards 'Maoism' (I'm not sure that this strand of Australian politics is still around), any point-of-view that indicates criticism of Israel, and anything that smacks of criticising contemporary capitalism, even though they think they can manage trade deals with people they wouldn't give the time of day in other circumstances?

  2. Under Howard, rightwing activists were placed in production teams on ABC current Affairs programs The same has now occurred on ABC News, that's why Abbott wants Q&A transferred to ABC News. Social media is holding the for unbiased reporting.

  3. I think that there is a problem on the left concerning the exercise of free expression. This problem has roots in the suppression of debate within leftist organisations, sometimes under the rubric of 'democratic centralism' and sometimes under the command for 'unity' or even in embracing bourgeois notions of law concerning the use of 'offensive language'. Defamation of character is such a big topic these days and it is embraced on both the left and right thus, legitimising censorship and the hegemony of some over others.

    Dialogue is a form of living dialectic. We need it in order to advance. It's suppression can only help those who wish to throw humankind backwards in history, toward absolutism, dogmatism and the Dark Ages. A democracy is only possible with an informed citizenry, a citizenry allowed to absorb what is happening around it and express is various and sundry individual and social views.

  4. Somehow it doesn't surprise me, Struth. John; re: Jones its just my subjective judgement - I think he's a very competent facilitator and that he has charm and presence. But he appears to be 'looking over his shoulder' because of the Conservative scare campaign. As I said - I think they want him to know he's replaceable. I don't think he's always been fair, though. I don't think he's tolerant of genuine Left ( not just Centre-Left) perspectives.

  5. Mike I tend to agree with you - hence my sympathy for Habermas. Struth - it would be great if someone what you're claiming could be confirmed. It would be a PR disaster for Abbott. And it just lends further weight to what I'm trying to argue re: Conservative intolerance for genuine pluralism.