AUSTRALIA: Freedom of Speech versus Cultural Sensitivity

In Australia, journalist Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun, the highest-circulating daily newspaper in the country, has been found guilty of contravening the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 by publishing articles that were deemed offensive to light-skinned Aborigines. These articles were intended to bring to light the exploitative practices of some light-skinned Australians who were “taking advantage of the system” by claiming Aboriginal heritage. While defenders of Bolt claim the ruling is a step backward for freedom of speech, proponents of Judge Bromberg’s verdict celebrate a victory over racial insensitivity.

In his ruling Judge Bromberg emphasized the need for responsible journalism. He contends that while Bolt’s assertions might have been of public interest, and similarly were more than likely an expression of genuine belief, his research was executed in a blatantly irresponsible manner, said Bromberg, adding that such research does not fall under the realm of “fair” or “accurate” reporting, the prerequisites for exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act.

Despite the guidelines laid forth in the Racial Discrimination Act, many remain wary of government intervention in matters of public media, no matter how well intentioned. However, according to Margret Simons, an Australian Media Analyst, “the law [of Australia] sees itself as having a role in protecting the public from journalism which is inaccurate. Even if you are expressing an opinion, you still have to get the facts straight.” So while supporters of the verdict are toasting to a victory for racial equality, and adversaries shake their heads at such restrictions on free speech, it is important to bring to light the overarching caveat of the ruling: it was not necessarily Bolt’s critique of light-skinned Aborigines that was offensive, but rather his alleged failure to adhere to accepted standards of responsible journalism. Or so the judge ruled.

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