Media Sauce: Double standards to doubling down at The Oz on 18C

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Dr Martin Hirst ponders the on-going puzzle of why The Australian is so fixated on defending Bill Leak in 18C case.

The Australian newspaper is going full-tilt bully mode in its efforts to defend Bill Leak and undermine legislative measures designed to protect vulnerable communities against racist hate speech.

This week, it has begun publishing disturbing details about complainants in the 18C case against Leak that is now sitting with the Human Rights Commission. This is not only a breach of the informants’ privacy, it is a thinly-veiled threat against them. It is also likely to encourage dangerous right-wing activists to carry out revenge attacks. This is the very definition of hate speech.

However, none of that seems to worry The Australian’s bully-in-chief, Paul ‘Boris’ Whittaker. 

Last weekend, he issued a declaration of intent: he intends to pursue critics of his cartoonist Bill Leak by any means necessary, as I reported a few days ago:

'The Weekend Australian refuses to play this insidious game [keeping details of the complainant confidential] when vital matters of freedom of speech and informed debate are involved … this newspaper will put into the public domain everything we can ascertain about the complainants and the process.'

Boris has doubled down on the Leak issue in recent weeks and the cartoonist himself has become more feral, obnoxious, offensive, insulting and humiliating in his crude cartoons on the topic of 18C and the Human Rights Commission.

We’ll deal with the double down in a moment, but first let’s examine another good example of the double standards being exhibited by the free speech fundamentalists.

As you read through this example, I’d like you to bear in mind this quote from Environment and Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg:

I think the threshold with "offend and insult" is too low.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to bring cases against cartoonists, even though some of their cartoons may be uncomfortable.

I don’t remember the minister making any such comment in defence of another cartoon that many found "uncomfortable", when it was published at the height of Israel’s illegal bombardment of Gaza in which more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed and 17,000 wounded.

Double standards

Any IA reader who is half-awake (I expect full alertness at all times) will remember a cartoon published in the Fairfax press in July 2014 that created an absolute uproar.

Rightly or wrongly, Glen Le Lievre’s confronting cartoon of an Israeli man watching the bombing of Gaza was condemned. Fairfax Media issued an apology for publishing the cartoon. The Press Council pontificated and handed down a decision arguing that the cartoon had breached its standards.

The man in Le Lievre’s cartoon was identifiably Jewish, with a large nose and sitting in a chair on which the Star of David (the national flag of Israel) is drawn.

Le Lievre was roundly condemned by many for this cartoon; critics said it was anti-Semitic. What was not so commonly mentioned is that the cartoon was actually based on a news photograph of Israelis doing exactly what is depicted in the cartoon.

The destruction of Gaza from the air and from the ground was a spectacle that many Israelis seemed to enjoy. The story was reported in The New York Times and other newspapers along with many such images.

You can see clearly there is an Israeli flag in one of the images. Le Lievre’s cartoon was confronting; it was uncomfortable and it was accurate. Was it anti-Semitic? Many people think so, it was certainly a crude caricature.

Nobody thought to condemn the hundreds of blood-thirsty onlookers who cheered as Israeli bombs rained down on the Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza. What’s more ghoulish and offensive to most people: a cartoon, or the reality of mass murder in the name of a State that defines itself by its religious affiliation?

Now consider this cartoon.

In my view, this recent drawing by Bill Leak contains the same racial stereotyping of a Jewish man that was criticised in the Le Lievre cartoon.

So, what’s the difference?

The Bob Dylan cartoon was published only a few weeks ago in The Australian. I have not seen, heard, nor read one word of criticism about it. 

I have attempted to get a comment from both the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission and the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (A/I&JAC). Both have complained vocally in the past about anti-Semitic cartoons. However, despite several phone calls and emails to both organisations, they have declined to make a statement in relation to the Leak cartoon above.

The A/I&JAC referred me to a media release welcoming the government inquiry into Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. In the statement, Executive Director of the Council, Colin Rubenstein, called for calm and for a balance to be struck between the need to prevent hate speech and the right to freedom of expression, but his concluding remark is interesting.

Said Colin Rubenstein, Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council:

"We trust that the inquiry will focus on ways to refine and improve this important legislation, and will not be dominated by the misguided ideologues who are determined to have it repealed."

While no one is talking about the Leak “Dylan” cartoon, it is worth taking a look at the Press Council adjudication in the Le Lievre case, it may well be relevant to this situation, should anyone complain.

When the Press Council reacts and when it doesn’t

The Press Council found Le Lievre’s drawing had breached its standards in relation to depictions of race, religion, ethnicity and nationality.

The Council asked the publication to comment on "whether the cartoon placed gratuitous emphasis on race or religion". It also asked the publication whether the cartoon could "reasonably have been expected to cause offence and showed insufficient concern for balancing the sensibilities of some readers with the broader public interest".

In response, the publication agreed that the cartoon had placed gratuitous emphasis on the Jewishness of its subject and in doing so had inappropriately emphasised religious persuasion rather than Israeli nationality, thereby causing offence. It pointed out that a 650-word apology had been published about a week later.

Press Council conclusion

In this instance, the cartoon’s linkage between the Jewish faith and the Israeli rocket attacks on Gaza was reasonably likely to cause great offence to many readers. A linkage with Israeli nationality might have been justifiable in the public interest, despite being likely to cause offence. But the same cannot be said of the implied linkage with the Jewish faith that arose from inclusion of the kippah and the Star of David. Accordingly, the Council’s Standards of Practice were breached on the ground of causing greater offence to readers’ sensibilities than was justifiable in the public interest.

Press Council Standards

This adjudication applies the following General Principles as at the date of publication of the article:

General Principle 7:

'Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence';

General Principle 8:

'Publications should not place any gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. Where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report and express opinions in these areas.'

This is really just a bunch of weasel words from the Press Council. How is it possible to separate the State of Israel from the Jewish faith? The two are almost inseparable.

However, how is Bob Dylan’s Jewishness, brought to the fore by Leak’s drawing of a highly racialized and exaggerated nose (the trademark anti-Semitic element of anti-Jew cartoons). How does this not breach the general principles set out in the Le Lievre case?

It might be "reasonably expected to cause offence". In fact, I would argue it is deliberate on Leak’s part — the offence was meant to be taken. And how is it not a "gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, [or] nationality" of Bob Dylan. How does this drawing not recall the 'Nazi-era caricatures of Jews' as the right-wing Spectator magazine opined about the Le Lievre cartoon?

In a side note, it is worth recording that earlier this week The Australian had another "victory" over a complainant who took another Leak cartoon to the Press Council. In this situation, the complaint referred to depictions of a group of Indians eating solar panels with the caption ‘Aid a la Mode’, published in December 2015. It’s not surprising that the Press Council did not consider this cartoon to be offensive.

'The Council considers that the cartoon is an example of drawing on exaggeration and absurdity to make its point. While some readers may have found the cartoon offensive, the Council does not consider that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice. Accordingly the Council concludes that its Standards of Practice were not breached.'

There is one Press Council standard for cartoons offensive to Israelis or Jewish people, but not if they’re only offensive to people from the sub-continent. Diversity is obviously only a one-way street, it seems.

What’s the diversity policy at News Corp

News Corp mastheads have an editorial code of conduct, which theoretically governs how News journalists cover their rounds; one must presume that it is also meant to apply to editorial cartoonists. It is an interesting and lengthy document. Versions at particular newspapers may vary slightly, but on my recent reading they are pretty much the same.

For example, the News Limited Professional Conduct Policy of 2012, contains a Diversity clause (No.8) and The Australian’s Editorial Code of Conduct contains the same clause, but it is numbered differently.

19.0 Discrimination

19.1 Do not make pejorative reference to a person’s race, nationality, colour, religion, marital status, sex, sexual preferences, or physical or mental illness or disability. No details of a person’s race, nationality, colour, religion, marital status, sex, sexual preferences, or physical or mental illness or disability should be included in a report unless they are relevant.

With this in mind, how is Dylan’s over-emphasised Jewishness relevant to the Leak cartoon mentioned above? It is marginal, in my view.

Then what about this one, featuring Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane? In case you weren’t sure, he is of Thai background.

In fact, over the last couple of weeks, Leak has drawn Dr Soutphommasane in at least eight cartoons; each caricature emphasises his "Asian" appearance.

I believe that these are deliberately "pejorative" references as described in Clause 19 above; How is this "detail" about the Race Discrimination Commissioner "relevant"? Why is this overtly racial characteristic over-emphasised in Leak’s cartoons?

The only answer I can come up with, based on my reading of the cartoons and of The Australian’s editorial position on the Leak case now before the Human Rights Commission, is that the paper has taken a decision to attempt to bully the HRC and Dr Soutphommasane into submission.

I am sure that this is a policy position at NewsCorpse; the Herald Sun columnist, Rita Panahi regularly refers to Dr Soutphommasane in derogatory terms as "Dr Soupy". This may not be vilification under the clause on discrimination, but like much of Rita’s social media posts it could constitute harassment, or an attempt at intimidation, which is addressed in Clause 7 of the News Limited code of conduct.

7. Harassment

7.1 Do not harass or try to intimidate people when seeking information or photographs

Of course, Rita’s out here is that this clause applies to journalistic activity and she is not a journalist. She might also argue that her Twittter feed is not a journalistic activity.

However, the following clauses from the Code of Conduct might be applicable:

24. Other Obligations

24.1 Do not bring the reputation of the company, your colleagues or your masthead into disrepute.

24.3 Familiarise yourself with the company policies regarding employees such as bullying and harassment

I’ve been trying to find a copy of the News Corporation Social Media Policy and I even rang the News Corp Australia media contact, Liz Deegan.

Ms Deegan knew immediately who I was and, to be honest, she wasn’t very friendly on the phone. In fact, she sounded annoyed and she’s obviously aware of my regular writings on News Corp. However, I don’t let a bit of negativity put me off. I asked Ms Deegan if she could share the News social media rules with me and I emailed her a copy of the Fairfax Media Group Social Media Policy as an example of what I have been looking for. Curiously, the URL for this document began with Maybe the document had been used in a report filed on the site in sometime in 2011.

I called Ms Deegan again on Thursday to see if she had been able to process my request and a couple of questions I emailed her. Unfortunately, she had more pressing matters to attend to and agreed I should call her again on Monday. We’ll see how that goes.

The Fairfax Media Code of Conduct takes a slightly different approach to the one adopted at The Australian and other News Corp mastheads.

However, it does ask a series of questions that might be pertinent for both Bill Leak and Rita Panahi:


Then again, News Corp people are special and the rules and norms of general civility are not meant to apply in their case.

Read more by Dr Martin Hirst on his blog Ethical Martini and follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini. IA members and supporters can also listen to political editor Dr Hirst discuss the shock U.S. election result with managing editor Dave Donovan in the latest IA podcast HERE.

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