Mark Latham, censorship and free speech - Women's Agenda

Mark Latham, censorship and free speech

Does Mark Latham’s parting of ways with the Australian Financial Review amount to censorship? Has political correctness gone mad? Are commentators not allowed to be provocative? Should we not tolerate a wide array of views – popular or not? Do ‘frightbat’ feminists on Twitter have too much power?

These are a few of the questions that have been posed following Mark Latham’s resignation from Fairfax on Monday.  I have had cause to consider the contents of Latham’s columns far too much over the past nine months and these are a few of my thoughts on the issues commonly raised.

But what about free speech?!?

Free speech is the obvious starting point when considering a person’s speech being limited in any way.

Popular though the perception might be, in Australia there is no explicit right to freedom of speech. There never has been.

Gillian Triggs, writing on this issue when Scott Mctyre was fired, said:

“Unlike all other common law countries, Australia has no bill of rights and few laws to protect the right to freedom of speech. In the absence of express protection under the Australian Constitution, the High Court has recognised an implied right to freedom of political communication as a necessary element of representative democracy. So far so good. But, the right of political communication is not a personal right for citizens. Rather it is a constitutional limit on the legislative powers of Parliament. In short, a right of political communication constrains governments, but it is not the right of an individual citizen.”

So here in Australia individuals do not have an unfettered right to free speech. And in any case, the implied right to freedom of speech we do have is subject to several exceptions, including speech that is defamatory, libellous or slanderous, speech that is in contempt of court, a breach of copyright, obscene or seditious.

The list of exceptions to free speech in Australia is not insignificant. Whether that ought to be the case or not, is an entirely different matter and warrants discussion

But, whether you agree or disagree, the status of free speech in Australia is that it’s not absolute.

Free speech is not the same as equal speech

Columns are prestigious, particularly in national newspapers, and there is no universal “right” to such a platform. There are plenty of Australians who aren’t afforded a regular spot in a large publication and that doesn’t amount to censorship. It amounts to a newspaper making a decision about whom it engages for editorial content.

Similarly columns are regularly discontinued. Again, in these instances is the person whose column is cancelled being censored? No. An editor is making a judgement call about what editorial content they wish to publish. That process is at the heart of traditional media.    

No columnist (or journalist) has carte blanche

Aside from the limitations on freedom of expression, it is not true that a newspaper or publication is bound to publish every contribution it receives from a columnist or journalist, verbatim.  Columns and opinion pieces are frequently edited – sometimes heavily, sometimes lightly – even in the world of digital publication. Very occasionally, columns are knocked back, rewrites are sometimes requested and corrections are made as a matter of course.

Different publications have different cultural practices but, as a matter of course, the editorial process for content in a newspaper – including opinion pieces – extends to subbing for factual errors, being alert to any risk of defamation, ensuring compliance with relevant laws and press standards.

That is what is required of media organisations to stay within the bounds of the law. No newspaper or columnist is above that.

Standards demand accuracy and clarity as a starting point

Aside from the other legal parameters media organisations are required to consider, there are also industry standards that influence what newspapers publish.

The Australian Press Council sets out various standards for print and online publications that are within the press council’s jurisdiction. Principles including accuracy and clarity, fairness and balance, integrity and transparency and avoiding conflicts of interest are paramount. There are also specific requirements that relate to how issues including suicide and mental illness, the identification of children, race, asylum seekers, for example, are reported.

There is an obligation on publishers to “avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”

It is difficult to determine how some of Mark Latham’s assertions around mental illness, post-natal depression, transgender individuals and family violence, in particular, comply with that standard.   

As with any set of industry regulations, there is plenty of ambiguity in exactly what these standards mean and require, but they exist and they apply to columnists in the AFR. Mark Latham is no exception.  

He’s smart and brave and can offer insights no one else does

It is true that Mark Latham is an astute political commentator. Some call him highly readable, some call him sharp, others say he writes like no other and treads where others dare not go. All of that may well be true.

And had he been willing – or edited – to keep his insights within the reasonable bounds columnists are reasonable expected to adhere to, it may well be still true.

Can’t we talk about hard topics?

Is there no scope to discuss the way depression is treated by the medical profession? To examine the root causes of domestic violence?  To scrutinise the arrangements of modern families? To say unpopular and provocative things? Of course there is. But there are parameters to navigate.

And that’s not a personal conspiracy against Mark Latham; it’s the reality of the legal framework that surrounds media in Australia. 

Accuracy, for example, is paramount in all reporting but it’s particularly important in health and medical reporting.  Deriding medical treatment for depression without evidence is inaccurate and potentially harmful: what’s the public interest case? 

Mark Latham’s most controversial columns didn’t merely upset the sensibilities of latte-sipping lefty feminists who hate their kids. He mocked and mistreated issues of public importance like family violence and mental illness. He gratuitously ridiculed women including Rosie Batty, Catherine McGregor, Sarah McDonald and Lisa Pryor.

In these columns he didn’t argue with accuracy or insight: in most cases he resorted to hurling personal insults in the direction of those he dislikes. The question that many readers, myself included, grappled with is why, week after week, the AFR continued to lend its credibility to him for that purpose. Inside Fairfax, many journalists and editors asked the same question and were dismayed with the response.

Leadership: A judgement call

Leadership in any form rarely resembles diving for the lowest common denominator. There are social issues, like smoking and vaccination, where media organisations take a clear leadership stance, usually where the issue carries a steep cost to society. Does that mean never dealing with an alternative view? No. But it means recognising these issues demand information be presented with accuracy and sensitivity.

Family violence and mental illness ought to fall in that camp. Both of these issues are plagued by misleading and mistaken assumptions that entrench unhelpful stigmas.

The media has the power to correct the record and shift these views.

When it comes to family violence, we are dangerously wedded to asking why women don’t leave instead of asking why men hit. 

Alcohol exacerbates family violence but it doesn’t cause it. There is a much higher rate of physical abuse in the Indigenous community but it is not true to say being Indigenous is a causal factor in violence. Inequality and power are causal factors.

The media has the power to shape a better understanding in our community of these issues.  

This year because of Rosie Batty family violence is firmly on the public agenda. Does that mean Rosie Batty is the single expert on the causes and solutions to family violence? No. Does that mean her views are above criticism? Of course not.

But can we not recognise the context? That this is an individual who has suffered an extraordinary personal loss and is somehow channelling that grief into helping Australia overcome this scourge. That she doesn’t, under any circumstances, deserve to have her “choice in men” mocked by a man whose credibility and voice is amplified by a national newspaper?

She is articulate, passionate and has the courage to speak up, and as a result she’s making hundreds and thousands of Australians more aware of this issue.

It is possible to disagree with someone while also being respectful. Had Latham’s columns managed to provide even a modicum of respect for the individuals he wrote about, in my estimation, their publication have been easier to fathom.  

It was the uniform lack of respect that garnered a pretty uniform response: why is the AFR offering its platform to a person to use to this end?

Free speech is a vital, but complex part of a democratic society. Precisely because it is so important, it should not be devalued by using it as get-out-of-gaol free card for irresponsible behaviour by the privileged few who have access to a national media platform. Latham’s issues were not about free speech, they were about irresponsible, inaccurate and possibly defamatory speech. And none of those things are free.  

*A previous version of this article said Mark Latham has stated that depression is made up, doesn’t affect women in Western Sydney and doesn’t require medical treatment. It also said that Mark Latham has stated that domestic violence only occurs in lower socio-economic areas. Each of these statements was incorrect. Women’s Agenda apologises for the error.


Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox