The Murdoch media just could never shup up about s18C (Image via @egirrrlie)

Has one of the most sustained and malicious campaigns by the Murdoch media group come to a humiliating end?

Since the celebrated 2011 Eatock v Bolt judgment, The Australian has led a relentless campaign to have the racial discrimination act (RDA) changed by amending or deleting section 18C. That publication, with other powerful right wing forces, has destroyed countless trees to purvey its hostile and error-laden attacks.

This week a critical parliamentary committee kyboshed changes to the RDA any time soon. And on Friday, a judge finally closed the sorry saga of Cindy Prior when he rejected her forlorn attempt at an appeal.

The campaign by The Australian, the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) and several right wing politicians to shut down the RDA has contained two fundamental falsehoods. Having been repeated so often, they are now almost universally accepted. The first is that s18C makes it an offence to offend someone on racial grounds. The second is that anyone racially offended can go to court and receive compensation. Or, better still, win a lot of money just by threatening legal action.

These falsehoods have led to significant hurt and loss by many people sucked in by them.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull now has to deal with a bitter split in Coalition ranks:

  • former PM Tony Abbott will forever have on his CV his multiple promises to amend the act, which he spectacularly failed to fulfil;
  • Attorney-General George Brandis is regarded as supporting racism following his comment "People have the right to be bigots";
  • Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs has suffered bitter media attacks; cartoonist Bill Leak has been labelled a racist after a complaint against a cartoon in The Australian last year;
  • Complainant Cindy Prior must pay $200,000 in costs having lost her frivolous court case;
  • a bunch of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) students are claiming reputational damage as well as hefty costs incurred,
  • and several writers at The Australian, notably Hedley Thomas, have been exposed as purveyors of multiple falsehoods.

The latest and most damaging episode in this tawdry saga was the case brought by QUT Aboriginal worker Cindy Prior, who did exactly what The Australian has said repeatedly she could do — complain that she was racially offended and get a lot of money in compensation. This followed jocular Facebook comments after Prior ejected students from an Indigenous study area.

The matter should never have proceeded. Those familiar with the RDA and the Eatock v Bolt judgment know the act was not violated by any of the students’ actions.

Independent Australia declared in February 2016, long before the case went to court, that the complaint by a Queensland woman ... seems unlikely to succeed if it even gets to trial’ and ‘On the face of it, the complaint seems doomed’.

The Australian, in contrast, insisted that Prior’s complaint

‘... demonstrated the ongoing danger of section 18C .... The case is an example of section 18C making day-to-day conversation unlawful .... The case is a sad indictment on the state of free and open debate in Australia.’

That was in an article by director of the IPA’s legal rights project Simon Breheny, which IA showed contained at least seven falsehoods. It was not the first and certainly not the last.

IA was right and The Australian and the IPA wrong, as Justice Michael Jarrett showed comprehensively on November 4th when he summarily dismissed Ms Prior’s complaint.

The reality – as proven abundantly by earlier cases and now the Prior v QUT judgment – is that Australians have great freedom to express opinions, however offensive to others.

"Freedom of expression is an essential component of a tolerant and pluralistic democracy," Justice Bromberg affirmed in the Bolt matter (in paragraph 14 of his judgement).

Even highly obnoxious opinions:

"Those opinions will at times be ill-considered. They may be obstinate, exaggerated or simply wrong. But that, of itself, provides no valid basis for the law to curtail the expression of opinion." (para 353)

What is unlawful, however, is a public campaign of vilifying racial groups based on hatred, unless it can be justified as having legitimate community value. Motivation by hatred is critical.

This is glaringly obvious from the heading at the top of the section:

‘Part IIA—Prohibition of offensive behaviour based on racial hatred'.

In the Bolt matter, the judge found racial hatred proven by the sheer number of malicious lies Bolt had concocted.

His key finding, repeated several times, was that

"... in relation to most of the individuals concerned, the facts asserted in the Newspaper Articles that the people dealt with chose to identify as Aboriginal have been substantially proven to be untrue." (para 378)

Tragically for all the victims in the Prior matter, the clear findings in the Bolt case did not stop The Australian’s false assertions.

‘For simply expressing his opinion about the weird fluidity of modern-day identity politics, Bolt was found guilty of racial discrimination,’ wrote Brendan O’Neill in 2011, in a piece riddled with almost as many concoctions as the original Bolt articles.

Last month, after the Prior decision but before the appeal, in another error-riddled piece, Janet Albrechtsen claimed that

‘Section 18C makes it illegal to say anything which is “reasonably likely … to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” because of their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.’

Clearly false again.

But Albrechtsen goes one step further:

‘You can hardly blame Prior for slogging it out in the courts. The law – section 18C – invites her to put her alleged pain ahead of freedom of expression.’

That is entirely untrue and seeks to shift culpability in this whole tawdry affair away from The Australian.

Is there any chance The Australian will desist from its misrepresentations of the RDA now the Prior matter is settled and the MPs have tossed the issue aside?

Probably not. But as the community becomes aware of the reality, perhaps its malicious influence may diminish.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing.

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