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Bookmark and Share Ideas & Liberty and Freedom of Speech | John Roskam
Spectator Australia 17th March, 2012

The IPA 's Freedom Extravaganza Tour with Mark Steyn finished last week. Sold-out events across every mainland capital (sorry Hobart - next time.) Nearly 600 people in Melbourne for Steyn and Andrew Bolt onstage together and 600 for Steyn, Janet Albrechtsen and Tom Switzer in Sydney. Plus a dozen media interviews and an appearance for Mark on Q&A. (They probably call it Q&A because the audience asks the questions and Tony Jones gives the answers.) At our Spectator/IPA event in Sydney it was hard to know who was the bigger star: Steyn or John Howard. It took the former Prime Minister half an hour to get from the front door to his seat in the first row next to Janette. When he entered the room he was mobbed by teenagers, none of whom would have been old enough ever to have voted for him. Meanwhile, it was pleasing to see so many high-profile Liberals - Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, among others - coming to see and dine with Steyn. Giving the vote of thanks in Melbourne, Bolt described Steyn as the Michaelangelo of conservatism.

There's something else Bolt said about Steyn: he laughs at himself, he laughs at the stupidity of government, and he laughs at the predicament we're in. Humour is human and it's dangerous. By and large, the Left are not funny. Dictators certainly don't much like laughter. Bolt pointed out that Milan Kundera's first novel published in 1967 was The Joke. One of its characters, Ludvik Jahn, a supporter of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, makes the mistake of writing on a postcard: ‘Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!' The authorities don't find the postcard funny. They send Ludvik to the mines.

On a Sunday afternoon in April last year, two people walking past the Driftwood Beach Bar on the Isle of Wight in the UK didn't find what Simon Ledger, aged 34, was doing funny either. Ledger was an entertainer at the bar and he was singing the 1974 one-hit-disco-wonder ‘Kung Fu Fighting'. The two people were of Chinese origin. After they heard Ledger, one of them complained of racially-motivated harassment. Ledger was arrested. Yes - arrested on suspicion of causing harassment, alarm or distress under section 4a of the Public Order Act 1986. That's why Australian audiences got to hear Steyn belt out ‘Kung Fu Fighting'. Mark's got a nice singing voice. He has released some albums of Christmas carols. If you want to see him sing ‘Kung Fu Fighting', you can go to the IPA website and watch the video Steyn recorded last year for the IPA's Freedom of Speech public meeting. As Steyn said, the point of what happened at the Driftwood Beach Bar is not just that it's ridiculous. It's dangerous. And it represents a perilous trend. Freedom of speech means sometimes people get offended. If so, bad luck. As Steyn stressed, he would not have necessarily chosen ‘Kung Fu Fighting' as the rock on which to fight for the liberties of Western civilisation. But so be it. And it's not a Left/Right thing; it's a free/unfree thing.

As it turned out, in the middle of Steyn's visit we got to see how at risk the free/ unfree thing is in Australia. The so-called independent review of media regulation by former judge Ray Finkelstein demanded by Bob Brown so he could get even with Rupert Murdoch and News Limited was released on 2 March. Finkelstein's review was much worse than expected. Basically he wants a News Media Council to censor the news. Why? Because according to Robert Manne the media is biased. No. I'm not making that up. Robert Manne is deciding media policy in this country. Go to page 114 of the report to see how Finkelstein takes Manne's word for it on how evil the Australian is. In the way of many judges, Finkelstein thinks the mass of people are too stupid to decide for themselves the merits of what's reported. That's why we need a News Media Council to adjudicate on what we can watch, and hear, and read. And who's going to be on the council? Why, judges and journalism academics, of course. In my column in the Australian Financial Review I called Finkelstein's recommendations ‘totalitarian'. That was mild. When she was in Sydney just after the report came out, famed anti-consumerist activist, agitator, feminist, and Wall-Street-Occupier Naomi Wolf called it ‘step one to fascism'.

The Finkelstein report caused a disagreement between me and my friend Malcolm Turnbull last week. Maybe I had been hanging around Mark Steyn for too long. But I wrote that Turnbull as the Coalition's media spokesperson should not have said it deserved careful study (which he did), and he should have rejected it completely and utterly (which he did not). Sometimes it's OK to be airy-fairy and even-handed, but not when it comes to freedom of speech. From memory, I called Malcolm's statement mealy-mouthed. To say he took exception to what I said would be just a little bit of an understatement. He went on the ABC1's Lateline that night to complain about me. He said I didn't properly appreciate that he had in fact indicated he opposed the establishment of the News Media Council. He's right. I didn't. He argued that a News Media Council is ‘not one which would appeal to the Coalition' and ‘it must be said our instincts are to look for ways to promote and protect freedom of the press...'. (That's how I feel about slavery. It doesn't appeal to me much and my instincts are to oppose it.) Here's a bloke who made his name fighting censorship (think Spycatcher and Bill Henson), and his instincts favour free speech? Really? That's the best he can do? It should be more than an instinct to defend the right of Simon Ledger and Mark Steyn to sing ‘Kung Fu Fighting'.