Australia Censored Episode 1: Defending Free Speech With John Roskam

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13 February 2024
Australia Censored Episode 1:  Defending Free Speech With John Roskam - Featured image

In episode one of Australia Censored, host John Storey, Director of Law and Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs talks to long time free speech campaigner John Roskam.

Here they discuss the federal government’s proposed online censorship laws, how the history of these laws trace back to the former Coalition government and the failure of the centre-right to fight for free speech, both here and abroad.

Below is a transcript of the show.


John Storey:

Hello, I’m John Storey, Director of Law and Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs and host of Australia Censored. Today my guest is my colleague, John Roskam, senior fellow and the former Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs. Welcome to the show, John.

John Roskam:

Hello, John.

John Storey:

John, you’ve got a great Substack called One & Free, which is compulsory reading. We get your great insights on a range of important matters, and I was reading an addition recently where you quoted the following comment. “Make a list of all the things you believe but can’t say. Then a list of the things you don’t believe but must say.” And that really resonated with me and it also reminded me of a comment I heard recently from American podcast host, Matt Walsh, who observed that the old school yard saying, “Don’t tell me what to do. It’s a free country,” which I remember saying that as a kid or hearing it in the school yard. He said, “Kids are perceptive. They don’t say it anymore. They don’t say I live in a free country.” I thought that was a good way to kick off. How did we get here? How did we get to a place where the basic freedoms to say and think whatever you please don’t feel like rights anymore.

John Roskam:

There were a couple of things that happened, John, I remember years ago where we used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I remember that. I don’t think anyone under 20 would be repeating that these days. A few things have happened. As Ronald Reagan said, “Every generation has to fight for its own freedoms to maintain liberty.” And what has happened is we have assumed that the battles for freedom have been one that we can rest on our laurels and that our rights are assured. That is not the case. In Australia, we have seen attempts at press censorship over 200 years defeated, but they come back no sooner had, for example, the Gillard government’s attempts to regulate the media being defeated. Then the coalition itself was talking about media censorship and social media control, which we’ll come to. The same applies to what we might say as individuals to what we might say around the kitchen table. So that’s one thing.

Two, governments have new technologies, new capacity to control and manage what we say and the importance of freedom of speech is that what we say ultimately influences what we think. And we saw some of that control in evidence during COVID.

And then thirdly, there’s been a massive psychological change in western society and western culture whereby victimhood is now being presented as virtuous. And when I would’ve said something about sticks and stones 20 or 30 years ago, it was to demonstrate that I’m my own person and I make my own conclusions and words can’t hurt me. Now we understand words or the claim is words can hurt, words of violence, we need safe spaces, and none of this is good for freedom. So there hasn’t been one single thing that’s happened, there’s been a range of things that have occurred at the same time.

John Storey:

Yeah, even the one that I led with, I live in a free country, it’s an assertion of rights and autonomy. You can’t control me. Whereas now the rejoinder would more likely be you can’t say that or you can’t do that because you’re being racist or you’re offending me-

John Roskam:

And we assumed that we lived in a free country until the COVID lockdowns and it controlled not just our physical activities, but what we could say, what we could debate. We had the influence of intelligence services around the world. And just recently, we are now getting to the bottom of what happened in Trudeau’s Canada. We are getting to the bottom of what happened in the United States, in the UK. Hopefully we’ll come to understand what occurred here in Australia. And I think every time that we have our liberties attacked, we become a little bit desensitised to what has occurred as well. And we’ve become desensitised as a community. And we can see that in polls whereby fewer and fewer young people are believing in the basic concepts because they haven’t been told about them and they haven’t had experience of them.

John Storey:

It’s that frog, the boiling frog [inaudible 00:05:23].

John Roskam:

The boiling frog. But the other thing is that we understand is that when you mount an argument for freedom, and when you talk about real life examples of why freedom matters, the temperature on the stove can be turned down. Boiling doesn’t have to be inevitable.

John Storey:

You alluded to it briefly that over history, different sides of politics, governments of different persuasions have all dabbled in censorship or wanted to, for whatever motivation, wanted to control the narrative, control the press, control what people say. But increasingly recently, it seems like it has become a polarised issue that the strongest proponents of censorship tend to be on what you might call the political left, and those that are willing to shout and claim freedom of speech are on the political right. As I said, this hasn’t always been the case. You go back to the early 2000s where it was a Republican president, George W. Bush imposing the Patriot Act and new controls that the political left were outraged about. So I’m not suggesting this is … Well, it feels to me it’s not necessarily something innate in the political debate. Why is it now such a [inaudible 00:06:58]?

John Roskam:

I think that’s one of the key questions of modern politics, of modern ideology. When did we go from the left defending freedom and freedom of speech and freedom of conscience to the left now imposing a totalitarianism upon us? And you mentioned George Bush. We can go back to the 1960s where the left were fighting for freedom. You can go back to the 1780s, you can go back to the 1640s and the English Revolution. And I think there’s a couple of things that went on. This is not necessarily a left-right thing. It is a totalitarian, authoritarian view of the world versus a view of individual freedom. And I think what we saw was the left in an attempt to gain power starting in the 1960s in modern times, adopted the mantra of freedom to gain control, to gain power. And I’ve written about this, but it was only ever about maintaining authority.

And now that the left has gained authority, the causes that it once espoused, that it campaigned for, that it was out in the streets for have been abandoned. And I think it reveals a couple of things. One is, as I’ve said, that freedom of speech is not a left or right thing because as you said, both sides have at various times supported it and not supported it. But it also reveals the hollowness of the left. And that ultimately, freedom of speech is with people who today we might simply call classical liberals, liberal in a way that allows us to speak and think and debate freely without the government or anyone else telling us what to do and what to think.

John Storey:

You also mentioned earlier the change in technology. I think that’s why freedom of speech has become a more important issue because it’s more achievable. I mean the systems, the technology for monitoring what we say, where we go, even with new algorithms, they can determine what you think almost before they know what you’re going to purchase and who you’re probably going to vote for, maybe more than we do ourselves, which is why I think there’s been a concerted global push for internet censorship. If you can control the internet, you control the modern town square. And we saw in the recent-

John Roskam:

And you do more than control the town square. You control individuals and their human interactions. Exactly.

John Storey:

Absolutely.

John Roskam:

Whether in a town square, whether to a dozen of your friends or whether it’s 5,000 subscribers to a blog or 100,000 or a million people reading it, news outlet.

John Storey:

And that to me would … If you are inclined to think that people shouldn’t just say whatever they want to say, people’s feelings need to be taken into account, we need to acknowledge the dangers of people saying the wrong thing or pushing bad ideas. If you are inclined to think that way, which we sort of said is probably the way the modern left thinks more than the modern right. Then control of the internet is a holy grail. If you can control that, you can silence the ideas you don’t like, you can promote the ideas you do like. And to me that seems to be behind this push. It’s a global push. We’ll get to Australia in a second, but the World Economic Forum in Davos recently, they listed their top 10 global risks for the next 2 years.

Now bearing in mind we’ve just had a spate of new wars. We’ve just come off the back of a global pandemic. And of course everyone’s always screaming about climate change, but none of them were the top risk. It was disinformation and misinformation with the objective of pushing policy makers around the world to embrace internet regulations that would force social media companies to take down misinformation. And of course, Australia sadly ahead of the curve on this issue already last year, introduced new so-called misinformation laws that would do exactly that. It would empower ACMA to punish social media companies if they allow disinformation and misinformation to spread on their platforms. Is that a fair summary of why there’s this sudden push for these misinformation laws is because get control of the internet, you’ve got control of the people?

John Roskam:

That’s a very good way of putting it. It’s about controlling the peasants revolt. What the internet and social media has allowed us to do is talk to each other, talk to large groups of people, avoiding the traditional channels, avoiding mainstream media or using it as appropriate, but not exclusively, avoiding government channels and speaking direct without an intermediary. So that is a potentially hugely liberating force, but it is very, very challenging to the powers that be. And that technology that allows us to do that is also now a technology that can be used by the governments or government agencies to shut down debate. So we have the two sides of the same coin. We have the potential flourishing of discussion, flourishing of debate, the capacity for individuals to come to their own conclusions, to do their own research. And when you’re talking about the concerns of groups like the WEF, the last thing they want is citizens coming to their own conclusions and deciding what might be real or not real.

But then the flip side of the capacity to have this big debate is that the government has the capacity and the media and technology companies have the capacity to shut it down. And at the same time as this is happening, you have a declining in trust in the government, a decline in trust in mainstream media, and governments in the mainstream media saying, “oh, lo and behold, we will build trust by censoring what people can say and imposing ever more controls.” Now the question will be, is the genie out of the bottle? You can’t uninvent the printing press, you can’t uninvent the Biro pen. I think it probably is. I hope it is. And this poses very big challenges for governments.

John Storey:

Yeah. And I mean it’s not a simplistic argument, a simplistic issue in that … I mean, even conservatives, traditionalists would worry about pornography and child exploitation and things and how readily they are spread on social media and online. It is something that that complete freedom to communicate, you can communicate with anyone anywhere in the world with the devices we’ve got in our pocket.

John Roskam:

With the touch of a button.

John Storey:

Yeah, the touch the button.

John Roskam:

I think it is simple. There’s always been, well, in modern times there’s been laws against pornography, exposure of children to inappropriate images. There has been legislation against incitement to violence, threats to physical safety. These principles don’t change. What we have seen is that under the guise of protection of children, to take an example, the media regulation is then expanded. We first had section 18C in the Racial Discrimination Act was introduced by a labour government to control incitement to violence. It was used against conservative commentators. It was used against Andrew Bolt who was threatened against the great cartoonist who’s sadly no longer with us, Bill Leak. It was used against a number of students, the Queensland University of Technology, who were simply making a passing comment on Facebook that in a colorblind society, there shouldn’t be Indigenous only computer labs. So I’m not willing to concede the argument that communication is now necessarily more complex than it once was.

John Storey:

I see it as an issue of trust. There was probably a time where in Australia and across the West that you probably felt you could trust your government to say, regulate something like pornography or something that seems pretty objectively what’s happening, or bullying of children, or incitement of violence. But it just seems that that trust in institutions has evaporated for very good reasons because we’ve seen these institutions, the bracket creep, the scope creep of, as you said, we need a regulator of the internet to get down the child exploitation. It’s soon being used, the same laws or the same bureaucracies-

John Roskam:

Against COVID.

John Storey:

… Is used against COVID, some other health thing. And then health mechanisms are used for climate lockdowns. And so there’s just this feeling of, “Look, I understand there’s some bad stuff on the internet, but I don’t trust you to regulate it because I know that’s just going to mean silencing conservative viewpoints. So it’s better to be a free for all because at least that’s better than a government.”

John Roskam:

And I don’t see it as a question of the people trusting the government to regulate. I see it more as a little while ago, the government was able to reflect community [inaudible 00:18:00] standards, and broad community standards.

What is happening now, and we’ve seen it in all walks of life and all walks of policy, increasingly the state is not reflecting broad community values, broadly accepted conventional and long-established values. It is following a minority viewpoint. And I think that is part of the difference. So if the government is imposing or developing or creating broad community standards, then it would do so very sparingly, it would do so carefully, and it wouldn’t change the rules very often because community values don’t change that much in a short space of time. But what is happening now is the government is regulating on behalf of a minority. And that is a problem. And that’s why one of the reasons why trusting government is declining. So this idea that we can trust the government, the libertarian in me would say that we can’t trust the government to do much at all, and we can’t trust the government to regulate our speech when the government is so self-interested in the regulation of speech.

John Storey:

Yeah. It seems to me, I’m struck by the brazenness of the timing. I mean, the idea that governments want to control what we say and control the internet and control the narrative, that doesn’t surprise me.

John Roskam:

That’s been around for a few thousand years.

John Storey:

Yeah, government overreach and government wanting to control their people is what the entire liberal project was about. It’s not a new thing, but to push for it right now just seems to be … It’s almost like they’re testing what they can get away with.

John Roskam:

There’s a few things happening. Governments and government officials are making ambit claims, and that’s what governments so often do. Governments haven’t traditionally had any pushback or much pushback to their attempts. I think that the capacity to use technology has emboldened governments and governments themselves don’t know yet what they can get away with.

John Storey:

Yeah.

John Roskam:

And we have, I think a community that is almost shocked into sullenness and feels powerless to push back, especially in our political system when you had, let’s take the misinformation bill, when you had it proposed by the liberal party, by the coalition under Scott Morrison, and now taken further by the labour government. So if you vote for one of the two mainstream sides of politics, what do you do? There’s no one saying enough is enough. It’s good that the coalition has finally come around to understanding how terrible their first proposals were. But there’s been absolutely no acknowledgement that the coalition had this idea in the first place, there was no acknowledgement that this got as far as a statement from a coalition minister, there was no acknowledgement that anyone in the coalition party room stood up and said no. It seems that no one in the cabinet said no to this.

It’s as if it hasn’t happened. And until the coalition understands just how bad and appalling their position has been on freedom of speech for such a long time, they’re not going to be able to get any ground to speak up for Australians who believe in freedom of thought and freedom of speech.

John Storey:

Yeah. I mean, I think you’re right that it’s felt for a while that it doesn’t matter who you vote for.

John Roskam:

We famously had Scott … It doesn’t matter who we vote for. And Scott Morrison famously said, “Well, freedom of speech doesn’t create a single job.” So this coming from a senior spokesperson for the party that was meant to defend our freedoms.

John Storey:

Yeah, I mean that was terrible.

John Roskam:

So you ask me, where have our freedoms gone? Well, that can be summed up in that sentence from Scott Morrison.

John Storey:

Yeah. And to get back to the timing though, as I said, government’s grabbing power. We’ve done this dance before and there’ll be many more to come. But on this specific issue when in recent years, governments and institutions, when it’s come to trying to silence opposing views for some public policy reason, whether it’s COVID or election integrity in the United States or a range of issues-

John Roskam:

Or the voice here in Australia.

John Storey:

They get it wrong and quite quickly proven to be wrong. Everything, the Wuhan lab that couldn’t possibly have come from their … Now that’s the orthodox viewpoint. It just seems to be that on so many issues, the government’s view or the mainstream view proves quite quickly to be wrong. And to then at this time of all times when it’s like you guys have just gotten so much wrong, so recently. We all remember it, lockdowns are only a few years ago. To we’ve gotten it so wrong so recently to now say, well, the solution that we proposed to misinformation is to create a government agency that’ll be able to determine what the truth of a matter is and dictate what social media says, it’s just so brazen.

John Roskam:

But it’s brazen for exactly the way you described it, which is as governments and technology have allowed us to prove governments wrong or inaccurate or manipulative, it is precisely because we can now do that, that governments now have turbocharged their attempts to control what we can say about government. When government scandals, when government misfeasance had to be channelled, the news about it was channelled through the mainstream media, governments and the mainstream media had a method of control that the governments now don’t have. So it is because governments are losing control that they are now so brazen about getting back control. They are cause and effect.

John Storey:

And that to me is the huge danger in that if you rightly or wrongly, if you perceive there to be a problem, people get hurt by the free expression of ideas, minorities or whatever. If you perceive that to be a problem, 100 years ago, the solution didn’t need to be … You used the word totalitarian. So 100 years ago, the way you communicated with people was well within face-to-face, by a written letter, or maybe a telegraph. And there was only so many newspapers. So if you were the dictatorial type, you didn’t need to do too much to silence it.

John Roskam:

You could ring three or four media proprietors.

John Storey:

You could regulate the newspapers. There used to be in Tsarist Russia, they would read every letter, they’d read them, or at least the ones that are going from suspected people to suspected people. And they could … “You’ve said the wrong thing” and whatever, but you didn’t have to get into people’s daily lives, understand what they’re doing. They didn’t have to get into their house to be able to do that. Because the communication systems are so free to regulate them requires quite extreme measures in order to, or you can’t say that, they’ve got to really delve into literally your private lives. I know it’s online, but our private lives are online. And I said, that’s what people I think don’t quite grasp the danger. It’s not quite the same as giving the newspapers a slap on the wrists if they print something, they probably … This is-

John Roskam:

And this is precedents being set around the world, whether it’s legislation discussed in Scotland, legislation in Ireland, people don’t understand that governments are seeking to not just regulate, but control and then prosecute on the basis of a private text message between two people that was never intended for public broadcast, that was never intended to be seen by anyone other than the recipient of the message. This is what the state is now planning to do. And in some countries they are well on the way to doing it. The idea that you should have the police, as now happens in the UK under the Telecommunications Act, that the police would come and knock on your door because of an email that you sent to one recipient would’ve been a few years ago, absolutely abhorrent. But somehow now we accept it.

John Storey:

Yeah. I think the Irish hate crime bill that’s being proposed merely having hateful material on your device on your phone.

John Roskam:

That you might not even send to anyone.

John Storey:

You might not even send to send anyone, intend to send to anyone, merely possessing it. So there might’ve been a meme that’s a bit insensitive, but you found it funny and you save it on your device. That is enough.

John Roskam:

And when you talk about governments being brazen, they are so brazen that almost the citizenry is frozen into inaction because it is so dangerous, it’s hard to comprehend. And again, we’re talking about political parties not standing for freedom. The UK Tories are not less bad than what is happening in Ireland at the moment, for example. So it is the minor parties, it is the micro parties that are more likely to be standing up for freedom of speech than the two major sides of politics at the moment.

John Storey:

Looking forward, it’s been a bit depressing so far, to be honest. I think you’re right. I think the root cause is if you don’t defend these freedoms, you’ll lose them. I think that is the root cause. For too long, the centre right hasn’t been willing to fight, they haven’t been willing to-

John Roskam:

The centre right never thought it would get this bad.

John Storey:

Yeah.

John Roskam:

“Well, we’ll let them do this, but it’ll never come to that.” Well, within a few years it does come to that. That’s the story of totalitarianism. Well, I never thought it would happen to me while it is now happening. And by the time you realise where it’s got to, it’s too late.

John Storey:

And look, I mean just some of the optics, I don’t want to weigh into the politics of the Gaza War, but just the optics of some of the things that we’re seeing and some of the things that are being said on public streets every weekend, it’s like-

John Roskam:

But this is the left seeking control. So famous, I’ve referred to famous section 18C, that is intended to control discussion about race that intimidates or humiliates. It has been used against conservatives. It’s not used against hate preachers. It’s not used against people shouting evil things in the streets. So again, this is not actually about hate. It is not actually about incitement to racial vilification. It is about control. It is some speech that we will allow because it is of a political viewpoint that we might agree with. And on the other side, there are arguments that say, “Well, it’s said by a conservative,” but it might be completely mild, it might be completely innocuous, but that has to be prosecuted. I mean, it’s hugely significant that section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, as far as we know, hasn’t yet been used against any hate preacher.

John Storey:

Yeah, yeah. Quite extraordinary.

John Roskam:

It has been used against university students who said Australia should be a colorblind country.

John Storey:

And I note that the New South Wales government are reviewing their hate incitement laws. And I had a read of them. I was asked to comment on it, on the news. And if this legislation as it stands, can’t already be used-

John Roskam:

That’s right.

John Storey:

To silence this, they’re talking about more police powers. It’s like, we’ve seen this. “Oh yeah, we need more police powers to stop this.” In five years time, those police powers are going to be used against the rioters.

John Roskam:

And the risk is we are going to end up with def facto bigotry laws. You’re not going to be able to say something about a religion for fear of offending someone. And again, what we have to understand is some of what you said might be offensive. Absolutely might be. It might be hurtful. That is the price of living in a free society.

John Storey:

You’ve been very generous with your time, John. I thought we’d just finish up on this point. You’ve been a fighter in this space for decades, freedom of speech and other issues. Give us your concluding thoughts. Are you positive about the future or pessimistic?

John Roskam:

No, you have to be positive, you have to be optimistic about the future, you have to be realistic about the challenges ahead, and you have to be realistic that political parties will not always fight for freedom. But the desire to speak your mind is a very strong one. It is innate, it is necessary to human flourishing. And it only needs one person to be able to think freely and to be honest, and to be able to communicate that, to bring down a totalitarian regime. So one of my favourite authors is George Orwell. And in 1984, this is one of the themes that Orwell talks about. It takes but one person to be able to think freely, to keep the flame of freedom alive. And I think there will always not just be one person, but many. So we have many challenges. And it might be that in the short run, we don’t succeed as much as we would like. But in the long run, I’m optimistic about the future.

John Storey:

A lot of people are using Orwell as comparisons, 1984. I prefer Animal Farm. I think the pigs are in charge, and as one set of rules applies to them, and another for the rest of us, I think finishing on a bit of Orwell is a great way to finish. John, thanks for your time and thanks for all you do and have done over many years to promote freedom of speech.

John Roskam:

Thank you, John.

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