Statue of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, blindfolded by protesting students in Athens. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Statue of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, blindfolded by protesting students in Athens. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

By Thomas Connelly

May 11,  2013

Margo: I read with incredulity Andrew Bolt’s begging letter to citizens to donate to the IPA’s fund to defend free speech IPA donors Murdoch and Gina could finance a free speech fund with their spare change. This appeal is about something else, changing the very meaning of free speech to suit the very big, very rich, very powerful end of town.

Shocks come in threes, and this surreal threesome kicked off with Abbott’s ode to Murdoch and his IPA as freedom’s discerning friends and his yes, Sir nod to the IPA’s policy wish list.

The Brandis free speech fantasy kicked off this week with a speech called The Freedom Wars and an @albericie interview.  Brandis, describing Bolt as one of only two Australian journalists prepared to fight for free speech, set the scene for Bolt, Murdoch poster boy, to launch the IPA appeal. It is so cynical, and so arrogant, that it gives donors the chance to win a copy of the Daily Telegraph’s obscene propaganda page one splash during the media reform debate signed by its puppet master.

Free speech is not what Murdoch/Bolt/IPA are about, as the head of the Press Council Julian Disney explained in evidence to the Senate media reform inquiry (to my knowledge no newspaper reported his highly critical comments about their free speech failures).

Or maybe free speech is now what Murdoch, Bolt, the IPA, Brandis and Abbott say it is. Who is strong enough to seriously take them on in the public sphere?

I published my response to Brandis, then I tweeted a plea for writers to respond, and late last night got this tweet from @metaboleus 2.01 am.

Onya, mate. Anyone else care to join him?

Free Speech is obviously a very important (if only implied) right, and no one can seriously argue it. There are limits on free speech; obviously you don’t have the right to shout fire in a crowded theatre when there’s no fire.

A recent limit to free speech, a sensible and timely one in my opinion, is restrictions on using ethnophaulisms in the public arena. I may out of touch, for never in my 50 years have I felt the need to publicly besmirch and mock our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. I have never felt the need to use the N-word in discourse, or to deny the existence of the holocaust.

Alleged political correctness allegedly gone mad barely registers as a threat to free speech compared to the almost complete full spectrum dominance of the major mainstream media companies, a dominance of interlocking companies and subsidiaries that seeps into the pores of society, and once established is as difficult to remove as the acres of lantana covering the Queensland country side.

In these free speech debates I am always amused to hear the bootless cries to heaven raised when people who hold powerful, privileged positions in society feel they are being restrained in their campaign of peddling misinformation. One these crying groups which make me chuckle is the IPA. I am equally amused to hear old white men such as Andrew Bolt, or Alan Jones, who work for influential media outlets, crying like aggrieved anarchists at the Stalinist regulations the government attempts to use to counteract the more egregious examples of rhetorical abuse.

Bolt is seen as a common sense hero in this one sided windmill tilting. He is romanticised to such an extent that he is seen by some as a martyr to free speech (a martyr who has not spent years in prison, who has not been blacklisted in his profession or denied work, who is free to travel around the country speaking at any time he wants). Thus the IPA’s Chris Berg compares Bolt with Socrates, the ugly, shoeless, poverty stricken, despiser of money and fame stone mason of Ancient Athens.

Socrates was famous for his humility and for his firm belief that he did not have wisdom. He can not be in any honest way be compared to Andrew Bolt. Andrew Bolt mixes with the richest, dresses in the height of fashion, seeks out new ways to make even more money, writes a regular column for the Murdoch press empire and has a weekly television show to broadcast his views.

In any comparison of Bolt and Socrates, Bolt would be one of the rhetors * that Socrates spent much of his time mocking and tangling in his dialectic web, exposing their ignorance and lack of knowledge.

To be fair to Andrew, he usually claims to have more common sense than wisdom, but one can easily counter that the closer one is to common sense the further one is from the truth. As a simple example we can safely say that common sense tells us the the sun revolves around the Earth. Common sense may be nice, and it may play to Bolt’s pseudo home spun deception, but in our modern knowledge based economy common sense is not enough, and the utterances of a journalist or commentator should be backed up with the most up to date and rigorous knowledge.

Many of the issues we face in our society concerning free speech and its meaning were current in the Athens of Socrates, and many of the same debates were argued and counter argued and mulled over. Socrates says in the Phaedrus:

An art of speaking then, composed by one, who, without a knowledge of the truth, has entrapped men’s opinions, will present, I conceive, but a sorry and inartistic appearance. (262c)

If one looks at the judges opinion in the case Herald & Weekly Times Ltd & Bolt v Popovic [2003] VSCA 161 (21 November 2003) one will see this statement:

Mr Bolt’s conduct in the circumstances was at worst dishonest and misleading and at best, grossly careless. It reflects upon him as a journalist.

The judgement took Bolt to task, seeing him not, as Chris Berg suggests, a descendent of Socrates, but as a master of rhetoric, ‘a method of winning men’s souls by way of words…’ that Socrates was criticising (Phaedrus 261). The Popovic judgement is hardly a ringing Socratic endorsement of one who seeks knowledge of the truth.

Indeed if one is to voice ones opinion it would be best to check and double check all facts. It is important to be tentative, as truth is tentative and each new answer only leads to more questions. To have such a pulpit as Bolt one must be humble, as it is important to understand that no one person, or organisation has any sort of monopoly on truth and wisdom.

Conditions change, and sometimes conditions change quite rapidly often leaving the most confident commentator high, dry and embarrassed, although we are seeing the rise of journalists who seem to suffer embarrassment bypass.

One should never publish in the white heat of anger, emotion and indignation. In the same way that the harshly written letter to the bank manager should be viewed again in the cold light of morning before posting, so too should the commentator journalist sleep on their articles and their righteous anger. With the hierarchy of editor and sub editors and managing editors and all that goes with modern press reposting there should be this cooling off period and there should be no reason why a court should have to criticise a journalist as ‘at best, grossly careless.’

For free speech, if it is to be more than one sided rants or subjective opinion, needs to take a stance of scrupulously striving after truth. Free speech means being able and flexible and agile enough to see the error of ones own thoughts in the face of new evidence. One needs to be more than grossly careless. We have a ‘right’ to drive a car,  but if we are grossly careless in using this right we run the risk of losing our licence.

Pericles, in his famous funeral oration, said ‘to be happy is to be free, and to be free is to be brave’. You are not and have no need to be brave if you have the power of multinational corporations behind you when you ‘dishonestly and misleadingly’ defame a magistrate.

Being brave is not lining up behind one of the main political parties to run a Protean campaign of shifting arguments against the opposing parties. Being brave is not wining and dining with some of the richest people in the country. As a thinker and former of opinion, being brave is daring to ‘speak truth to power.’  Being brave surely must mean standing side by side with the most marginalised and vulnerable in our society, and it must mean looking dispassionately at the evidence and being able to change your mind.

I see an attack on freedoms in this country. I see this attack as being an attack from both sides of parliament in ignoring and trivialising the cries of the heart in our heartless world.

I see very little of this attack manifesting itself in the stifling of the mainstream media and their near monopoly power in shaping public opinion.

I do see a series of yes men lining up to spew out clichés by the dozen to attack not only the government, but more importantly anything or anyone who stands in the way of their masters gaining even more power and wealth.

*  ‘The rhetors and politicians merely flatter the demos, gratifying the citizens with pleasing words, as a cook gratifies the palate with pleasing food, in order to gain their favour and then their votes. Unlike the true politician or the doctor, the rhetor does not need to know anything, he only needs to seem to know, and just enough to be persuasive. Socratic dialectic, on the other hand, forces its participants to reflect on the nature and patterns of what they believe and do in order, not to persuade a mob, but to choose the good. Whereas rhetoric is given over to displays of verbal pyrotechnics as a means of concealing its ignorance, dialectic argues for the most important matters of justice in a singularly mundane fashion, which begins with familiar examples from everyday life—shoemakers, pastry cooks, and doctors.’

Read more:

On Socrates and Bolt

Shanahan and Bolt doctor a quote to accuse Conroy of doctoring a quote: Welcome to Murdoch news.