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Like the Overton window of political possibilities, what the Swedes call the “opinion corridor” channels the range of acceptable speech. Among the many startling aspects of the topsy-turvy world that we have lived through since early 2020 is the extent to which the media and social media, often with the active collusion and indeed under requests-cum-instructions from national governments and international organizations, denied space and voice in their columns, letter pages and online commentary to questioning and criticism of the official narrative.
This is darkly ironic, for the net health, mental health, economic, educational and social outcomes would have been far better if the media had performed their traditional role of subjecting official claims to critical scrutiny and provided a platform to a range of responsible and credentialled commentary.
The Australian is the country’s leading and most influential centre-right daily in print. Of course, because it is part of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire, people with left-of-centre political views routinely dismiss it as far-right (centre-right doesn’t exist in their lexicon.)
Yet, it is rare in the Australian media landscape for being prepared to publish competing perspectives and thus shows greater viewpoint diversity than, say, the state-funded broadcaster the ABC. More importantly, several of its columnists are a cut above, in the quality and depth of their analysis, their competitors in the print media and often worth reading despite, or perhaps even more because, often arguing a case with which readers may strongly disagree.
Despite this, the paper’s online comments moderation is at the risk of falling into the trap of censorship of ideas and debate under the guise of enforcing community guidelines and standards. On 7 May, as part of its extensive reporting on the Coronation of King Charles III, it published an article with the title “The “warrior princess” heroine with a bejewelled sword.”
The story was about Penny Mordaunt who, in her capacity as Lord President of the Privy Council, carried the 3.6kg Sword of State for over 50 minutes during the ceremony in complete silence with great grace, flawless poise, and solemn dignity. The performance was both impressive and eye-catching with a stunningly attractive dress that made her look like a Greek Goddess.
One of the online commentators discerned party leadership qualities, which is a leap of logic in that strength, stamina and sartorial style are not among the top leadership attributes for most people. The commentator added that Mordaunt eschews woke diversity. I replied to that: “You are kidding, right? This is the aspiring PM who insisted that transwomen are women.” This was rejected.
The reply was thus a direct response to the comment already published. It is factually accurate. Here is a YouTube video of Mordaunt saying exactly that in Parliament on 1 March 2021. There is no abusive or offensive language. But as with Twitter in the pre-Elon Musk era and as is still the case with Facebook, they can reject comments without being required to defend their actions.
Earlier, during Posie Parker’s (real name Kellie-Jay Keen) whirlwind tour of Australia and New Zealand in March, reporters routinely referred to her as an “anti-trans activist,” for example Anne Barrowclough in this report on 2 April. In response to one such article, I commented:
The overwhelming majority of your readers have repeatedly pointed out the explicit smear in describing pro-women’s rights advocates and activists as anti-trans. Article after article, and video footage from several different cities in Australia and New Zealand, have made it abundantly clear that it is anti-women’s identity and rights rabble that has yelled at, shouted down and even physically attacked the Give Women a Voice and Let Women Speak rallies.
Thereby making the point of Miss Keen’s campaign, as Brendan O’Neill’s article yesterday so eloquently made clear.
You guessed it: Rejected.
The two most liked comments on that article were: “Let’s stop calling her an anti-trans activist. She is a pro women’s rights activist pushing back;” “She is pro women not anti trans big difference!”
Curiously, though, the title of that article (which is usually provided by a sub-editor and not decided by the author) read “Pro-women activist Kellie-Jay Keen” and, since the original publication, “anti-trans activist” seems to have been amended, even in the body of the article, to “anti-gender reform activist” Kellie-Jay Keen.
Small signs of progress, perhaps?
Last year, on 19 April Max Maddison reported how Prime Minister Scott Morrison had offered “a fierce rebuttal” to the calls for his personal pick as candidate for the seat of Warringah for the imminent general election in May, Katherine Deves, to be disendorsed because of some historic tweets critical of transgender policies regarding children. Describing Deves as “a woman, standing up for women and girls and their access to fair sport,” Morrison insisted he would not “allow her to be pushed aside as the pile on comes in to try and silence her.” Deves herself slammed the “vile” criticism directed at her.
In the context of this story during the election campaign, I commented: “The PM is spot on. Since when has it become a crime in Australia to defend the safety, dignity, privacy and access to fairness in sporting competitions for women? And okay to strip away women of all their rights in order to kowtow to trans bullies?”
On the same theme, on 18 March 2022 the Australian reported on the big international story involving trans swimmer Lia Thomas winning the US 500-yard freestyle collegiate swimming women’s championship. My comment: “Sorry, but until girls and women start boycotting all such events, I am no longer able to get excited over these results. Conversely, once the boycott starts, the madness will stop almost instantly.”
For more than two years newspapers also tiptoed around pandemic-related content. On 31 March 2022, Adam Creighton wrote a story on the Covid paranoia gripping Washington. “Last week in DC,’” he wrote, “a cab driver insisted I hold a tissue over my mouth throughout a short trip after I conceded I had ‘forgot’ my mask.” My comment: “There we have it, ladies and gentlemen (I hope I don’t get censored by The Oz for using this phrase). The sheer idiocy of most of Covid hysteria in a nutshell. Or rather, in a disposable tissue.”
As Creighton wrote a year later, he paid a heavy personal price for having called out the lockdown madness early in 2020, receiving “persistent and violent threats” and was forced to change his name on social media accounts.
On 20 March 2022, Natasha Robinson wrote about two tests that could dramatically cut Australia’s heart attacks death toll. She noted: “Coronary calcium scores are not reimbursed by Medicare but only cost $70-120.” I asked: “Tell me again, how many suffer heart attacks every year in Australia, and what is the fatality rate? And how many have died of Covid in comparison, but the cost of all tests and injections are fully covered? Please explain.”
On the different topic of changes to the superannuation funds tax regime announced in February, with new taxes for funds in excess of $3 million, Robert Gottliebsen wrote an article on 6 March noting that on actuarial tables, the prime minister’s taxpayer-funded pension entitlements over his and his partner’s lifetime would require about $20 million in a super fund. Would he be taxed according to the new tax regime?
In response one commentator, who garnered nearly 400 likes, wrote that Peter Dutton should move an amendment whereby “all government defined benefit pensions will be capped to an annuity equivalent to investing $3M.” My comment: ‘Good luck with that. Can I sell you a harbour bridge I own in Sydney?”
On 17 May last year, Creighton wrote about the appointment of Karine Jean-Pierre as Joe Biden’s new press secretary, one of the most high-profile jobs in the country. The article began with her proud claim: “I am a black, gay, immigrant woman.” I asked in vain:
In the context of Biden’s gender recognition policies, not to mention the difficulties the same question has caused Australia’s Health Secretary Brendan Murphy and the New Zealand PM Chris Hipkins, if you can spot why the comment was inappropriate or offensive, your insights are far superior to mine. Not to mention US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was chosen from a field restricted to black women but declined to answer what is a woman by saying she is not a biologist.
The Australian’s reporters and columnists may be from Mars but their online comment moderator(s) would appear to be from Venus. Several of the former write robust and forceful analyses, often going where others fear to tread and prepared to skewer pomposity and hypocrisy. The latter seem like snowflakes, afraid of being booed by the perpetually offended. The way they wield their censorship pen is as if they have been trained by and recruited from Twitter of yore.
Could it be that online comments moderation is handed down to relatively junior staff who reflect the cultural norms in the newer generation of journalists who have been indoctrinated in the new sensitivity ethos? And that the senior editors and managers are not even aware of the discontent that is growing among their own faithful readership and the resulting brand damage?
A little over a month ago, Quadrant, another centre-right online opinion journal, published a brief complementary article on the zealous wielding of the blue pencil by the Australian’s comments moderators and invited readers to share their experiences.
Many responded with umpteen examples of their own rejected comments with no obvious reason for the decisions. Matching my suspicion, several correspondents speculated that “the comments are being vetted by cookie-cutter work experience kiddies fresh from their J-school indoctrinations.” Some were so irritated that they cancelled their subscription. Alienating the very people who form a centre-right paper’s “natural constituency” should be a matter of concern to the Australian.
It would surely be simpler and better not just to tolerate robust debate, but to promote it? Incivility and offensiveness would likely be more effectively curtailed by restricting comments to subscribers using their verified actual names, instead of being allowed to post anonymously. Of course, this would eat into the business model of attracting more eyeballs and thus would be putting ethics and community values before profits.
Yet, this is what the Wall Street Journal, which is also part of the Murdoch media empire, does. Often, the Australian reprints stories from the WSJ. Intriguingly, sometimes comments on a few such reprinted articles have been rejected by the Australian but published by the WSJ. Go figure.
Since the above article was written, Senator Alex Antic’s probing questions led to official confirmation that in less than three years, the federal government intervened more than 4,213 times to restrict or censor posts about the pandemic on digital platforms. Moreover, echoing the growing understanding about the lead role played by the national security apparatus in the US pandemic response, these requests to the Australian media came from the Department of Homeland Security.
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