Calum Thwaites (screen shot via YouTube).

In response to Alan Austin's article (30 August) on the matter of Cindy Prior's Section 18C case, one of the QUT students in the case, Calum Thwaites, submitted an article to IA, which we declined to publish due to a number of falsehoods.

Thwaites was published in On Line Opinion (OLO), where standards are apparently considerably lower. Alan Austin then submitted a follow-up piece to OLO pointing out the errors of fact, with 18 links to corroborating data, but OLO refused to run Alan's rebuttal.

Here is the text as submitted, with footnotes for IA readers.

THE MURDOCH MEDIA campaign to undermine Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) and denigrate the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) grinds on, it seems.

Articles published in the course of this malicious crusade – spearheaded by The Australian – have been riddled with distortions, omissions, smears and blatant falsehoods.

Unfortunately, these are also apparent in the article by Calum Thwaites published in On Line Opinion last week (5 September).

At stake are at least five pretty important issues:

  1. free speech;
  2. public confidence in the RDA;
  3. the validity of court decisions on racial vilification; 
  4. the reputation of the AHRC; and
  5. truth in reporting.

Under the guise of seeking to protect free speech, the Murdoch media, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and others have concocted and spread serious falsehoods. These have undermined confidence in the RDA, distorted court decisions on racial vilification and undermined the AHRC.

The genesis of this campaign is the 2011 Federal Court judgment in Eatock v Bolt that found Murdoch employee Andrew Bolt had violated the RDA. Two articles were found to have contained more than 19 demonstrably false allegations against a group of prominent Aboriginal people. These included accusations that they had committed deliberate financial fraud.

It is apparent from Thwaites’ attempted rebuttal that he has swallowed most, if not all, the falsehoods concocted subsequently by the Murdoch press.

The five fundamental untruths are:

  1. section 18C makes it an offence to offend someone on racial grounds;
  2. anyone racially offended can go to court and receive compensation — or, better still, gain financially just by threatening legal action;
  3. Andrew Bolt was found guilty of racial vilification for simply expressing his opinions about light-skinned Indigenous Australians;
  4. the AHRC acted inappropriately in the Cindy Prior matter in using Section 18C to suppress free speech; and
  5. the AHRC did not advise the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) students in a timely manner of Prior’s complaint against them.

This spiteful campaign has been largely successful. These five untruths are widely believed in the community, including by Cindy Prior, who tried on the doomed Section 18C court case; by Geoff Kelly, the subject of the Independent Australia article to which Calum Thwaites objects; and, of course, Thwaites himself.

Those five basic falsehoods have all been knocked over many times (including here, here, here, here, here, here and here). Yet they persist in the minds of deluded consumers of Murdoch’s “news”.

Thwaites’ understanding is deeply flawed. His OLO article lists four assertions.

He claims:

'Each of these assertions is either a falsification or a distortion of the facts — or is simply wrong.'

This is nonsense. Let’s consider them.

1. ‘The AHRC has no power to start or stop litigation.’

That is true. Thwaites’ comments show he agrees.

2. ‘The evidence [refutes] Kelly's assertion that Cindy Prior was actively encouraged and groomed to make and proceed with that complaint under Section 18C by the AHRC’.

Entirely true. The AHRC tried for months to get Prior to drop the case. So did her first legal team. She eventually abandoned both and went to court with new lawyers. (There is abundant evidence here, here and here.)

3. ‘It was never the role or responsibility of the AHRC to inform or involve the students in the legal action. QUT insisted, correctly, this was its role.’

That is also true. There is a sound argument that the students should never have had their lives disturbed by the antics of a misguided complainant. They should not have been told anything or involved in any way. They had done nothing wrong.

Only when a conciliation conference was unavoidable was it necessary to contact them. The AHRC convened this with appropriate speed. The university insisted on contacting the students — not the AHRC.

The university stated:

‘QUT wanted to facilitate the notification process to avoid the need for the students' personal information including contact details being provided to the complainant or to the AHRC without their knowledge or consent.’

Absolutely fair enough. (There is compelling evidence here and here.)

4. ‘In none of the three judgments by two judges was any criticism made of the AHRC in any way, shape or form.’

That is also true. Yes, Judge Dowsett expressed surprise at some delay [paragraph 59]. That was entirely due to the intransigence of Prior and her lawyers, not the university or the AHRC.

Finally, Thwaites makes an intriguing observation about the media, thus:

‘Having consistently ignored the story for a full six months, the ABC and Fairfax entered the fray only when the case was nearing its conclusion.’

On the facts of the matter, as they emerged, the reputable media were obliged to limit their coverage lest the students – entirely innocent of any wrongdoing – were to find themselves tarred with the brush of racism.

The Murdoch media, however, in violation of items 5 and 6 of the Australian Press Council’s standards, named the students at the outset.

A tawdry report in The Australian on 3 February 2016 named Cindy Prior as the woman bringing a complaint under the RDA. It also named two QUT professors, one administrator and five students.

Thus the privacy of those individuals was compromised, despite none having committed any offence and despite no public interest justification in revealing their names.

Six months later, on 24 August 2016, The Australian ran a pathetic sob story featuring one of the students wailing that his dreams of becoming a schoolteacher had been dashed after being identified as one of the students accused of racism.

The process, he said:

' ... can take years, tens of thousands of dollars and cause untold reputational damage and stress to get to a point where you’re found to have done nothing wrong. And while that’s going on, people who know nothing of the case call you a racist.’

Who was that? Calum Thwaites. Fairfax and the ABC acted responsibly. The Murdoch media didn’t. Hypocrisy much?

This entire sorry saga has cost many people dearly — in money, time, anxiety, reputation and opportunities lost. None of this would have happened had Cindy Prior, her lawyers, Calum Thwaites, his lawyers and countless others not been deceived into believing the first three fundamental untruths: A, B and C, near the top of this article. They all originated with the mendacious Murdoch media.

Footnote for Independent Australia

It is disappointing On Line Opinion declined to run this response for two reasons.

First, OLO has run three articles misrepresenting the Cindy Prior matter — none of which were factually correct. It has also run ten recent articles highly critical of the Australian Human Rights Commission and none in support.

Secondly, it is clear that Thwaites’ “article” is riddled with factual errors. It is a fundamental principle – enshrined in all media codes of ethics – that errors must be corrected and people misrepresented given the right of reply.

Footnote for Calum Thwaites

It is a requirement of ethical journalists that they check all facts for accuracy, and contact anyone referred to adversely to get their comments in advance. The original article here at IA on this topic followed extensive dialogue with the subject of that analysis, Geoff Kelly.

In writing this piece, I sought your responses via three courteous emails but received no reply.

It is good that your first ambition to be a schoolteacher has been thwarted. If you fail at being a lawyer, you will have a great future as a Murdoch employee.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

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