Every so often it’s worth remembering that the right to free speech – enshrined in US law, implied but not actually enshrined in Australian law at all – relates to the government, not to private citizens.
It’s a promise that you won’t be bundled up into a van for saying something politically provocative, basically, which happens in many other countries. Just ask Australian journalist Peter Greste how he found press freedom while working for al-Jazeera in Egypt. (Spoiler: turns out they’re pretty into jailing people.)
And even as far as the government goes there are plenty of occasions under which you can be arrested for saying stuff.
Revealing national security secrets, for example. Making threats against people. Telling people a thing you’re selling is healthy when it’s not. There are loads of ways that free speech literally fails to be a get out of jail free card.
You can try it for yourself: go to a shopping centre and start aggressively swearing at the top of your lungs. Will authorities applaud your exciting and robust exploration of controversial views, or will you be arrested under public nuisance laws? One way to find out!
Also, having your right to free speech respected does not mean you have the right to a platform.
And that brings us to the issue of what the actual hell the Australian media are doing in giving Blair Cottrell airtime. At all. Under any circumstances.
Cottrell is the leader of the United Patriots Front, an organisation of racist crybabies which split from another group of racist crybabies, Reclaim Australia – because not even neo-Nazis can hang out with neo-Nazis without wanting to get the hell away.
Cottrell also has a criminal past – he stalked his ex-girlfriend and then attempted to burn down her new boyfriend’s house. He was also convicted under Victoria’s racial vilification laws last year, and keeps saying silly things about how all classrooms should have a portrait of Hitler because some people never learn the difference between good attention and bad attention.
This most recently came to light with Sky News’ rapidly-regretted decision to have him on Adam Giles’ programme on Sunday night – an interesting choice of guest given that Giles is of Kamilaroi ancestry and Cottrell has been pretty clear on what he reckons about Indigenous culture generally (it may not shock you to hear he’s not a fan).
Sky, to their credit, have apologised and removed the interview from their online archive – which is more than, say, Channel 7 did when they had Cottrell on – like Sky, as an “activist” – in January, speaking about Melbourne’s supposed race crime epidemic without making clear that he might happen to have something of an agenda.
Hey @SkyNewsAust – I have enough national pride to remember that my grandfather fought Nazis in the desert in Tobruk. You invite them on and give them air time. Maybe call a staff meeting and talk about national pride. @David_Speers @ljayes https://t.co/9FThMC7yHA
— Charlie Pickering (@charliepick) August 5, 2018
And, as Crikey have pointed out, Australia’s security agencies have identified right-wing extremist violence as a clear and present danger in Australia, with ASIO head Duncan Lewis confirming last year that “It is a real problem and it is something that we’re very, very acutely aware of and I have people working that particular issue.”
So it’s not just a matter of having a difference of opinion: our prime intelligence agency considers violent right-wing groups to be a security risk. There are real stakes here.
The fall out of the interview is still, ahem, falling out. Former Labor politician Craig Emerson has quit the network over Sky’s decision to feature Blairsy, tweeting that “The decision to allow Neo-Nazi Blair Cotterell [sic] onto the channel was another step in a journey to normalising racism & bigotry in our country.”
It was wrong to have Blair Cottrell on Sky News Australia. His views do not reflect ours. The interview has been removed from repeat timeslots and online platforms.
– Greg Byrnes, News Director
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) August 5, 2018
And you know what? He’s right. So here’s a cool idea for Australian media: stop interviewing Nazis.
We know what they think. We know what their solutions look like. We can, on the basis of the last 90-odd years, guess that they’re not going to have useful or intelligent comments to make. Also, they represent the views of literally dozens of Australians.
We can probably stop inviting them on our television shows, surely? It feels like the public discourse would be the richer for their silence.