Bolt’s columns did not deserve to see the light of day. End of story

When I was editor of The Age, I thought about hiring Andrew Bolt as a columnist. Indeed, I think I even met with him to see whether he had any interest in coming back to the Age. (Bolt was on the Age staff when I joined the paper in the early 80s.) I thought Bolt might add … how should put it … a certainly unpredictability to The Age oped page. As it was, I don’t think Bolt had any interest in joining the red rag I edited and looking back, I’m glad it never happened. That’s because inevitably, sooner or later, Bolt would write a column that I would refuse to publish. And then I’d have a martyr to free speech on my hands.

I would not have published the two columns for which Bolt was found to have contravened the Racial Discrimination Act. I would not have published them firstly because (I hope) in the editing process, there would have been questions raised — by me, by the oped page editor, by our lawyers perhaps — about the facts on which Bolt built his pieces which basically argued that some people had chosen to identify themselves as Aborigines to reap material rewards of one kind or another. I would not have published them even if the columns were factually accurate because I thought the tone of the columns was nasty and demeaned the people he was writing about.

There’s a lot of nonsense talked about free speech, especially by people who are in a position — and who do so daily if not hourly — to make decisions on what is acceptable speech and what isn’t in the public sphere. Editors, news directors, executive producers of current affairs and news programs, even the esteemed editor of The Drum, decide the limits of free speech all the time and they do so, not merely on the basis of what is legally safe. Often they make this decision on gut feeling, on their understanding of their readership or their audience, of the traditions and history of the organization that they are fortunate enough to run for a period of time.

Of course, I am not talking about the blogosphere here, where mad people and sane people, people consumed with hatred and bile and people who want only to serve the public good — and all those in between — feel like they have a licence to say anything and damn the consequences. Still, while the media revolution may be upon us and the old media gatekeepers of what is acceptable speech and what isn’t might be, Canute like, holding back an irresistible tide, at the moment, the old media still delivers mass audiences and for that mass audience, public speech is not free and never has been — via redwolf.newsvine.com

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