Censorious laws treat us all like children
It was one of the most confronting Australian news images of 2012. A little boy holding a placard reading “Behead all those who insult the Prophet”, standing among the hysterical crowd at the Sydney protests against an obscure art-house film ridiculing Mohammed.
The discussion inspired by that image was impassioned. The child and, particularly, his parents were held up as evidence that something was seriously wrong within sections of our multicultural society.
The heated nature of the discussion was not surprising at all, even if some of it was unpleasantly over-the-top. But in a free society such as ours it was still a conversation worth having.
You can understand that the family in question felt distressed. Yet it was their own abysmal actions, in using their kid as the tiny front man for the most sickening political demand, which turned them and their little boy into public figures, and valid subjects for public debate. If they didn’t want to face this kind of distress they should probably have ditched their stupid sign and stayed home and let their son play with his Lego, rather than parade him about in Martin Place demanding beheadings.
I write about this issue not to dredge it up again but to consider how it would have been reported and how it could have been discussed under the changes surrounding media conduct and public conversation being considered by the Gillard Government. From what has been revealed by the Government so far, and from what the Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is also believed to have up his sleeve, it is doubtful that a story such as this one could have been reported at all. In addition, the discussion around it would have been massively curtailed, if not shut down for fear of litigation, by the prospect that people could have been offended by its tone or content.
It is worth noting the comments of the Prime Minister this week about the proposed consolidation of the anti-discrimination act into one new piece of legislation, namely that no final decision has been made, and that she welcomes this kind of discussion of the issue. The discussion around it has been largely negative, with many people on both the conservative and progressive side of politics, members of the mainstream and independent media, all lining up to say that the laws will put a brake on freedom in letting people take legal action for merely being offended by something.
The other thing which is happening behind the scenes is that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is considering a push for a tort of privacy. Such a tort – which basically means people will have redress in the law for having their privacy breached – has been strongly supported by many in the legal profession for a long time. Should Conroy go down that path, it’s likely that whatever he draws up would be similar to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s proposed tort which covered questionable forms of behaviour such as the use of secret cameras and also included blanket bans on the broadcast or publishing of images of minors without the express permission of their parents.
On the face of it a lot of people would probably say fair enough to these proposals. Where it starts to get interesting and troubling is when you think about specific cases to see how the law applies. If you think about the story of the Islamic protests and the kid with the sign it is obvious what it would mean. It would mean the story doesn’t appear, or at least not with an image of the child or with any identification of his parents. And even if the story did run, albeit shorn of any human element such as a face or a name, you would have to tread very carefully if you wanted to discuss it publicly, lest some of the people who were advocating beheadings or throwing haymakers at the coppers had their precious feelings hurt.
There are already examples in this country of laws which sound noble in their design and are actually perversely counter-productive in their application. In NSW it is illegal for the media to identify any child who has died as a result of a crime, once charges have been laid against the alleged offender. It sounds good in theory but what it can often mean is that a child who died as a result of scandalous circumstances, possibly involving government failure, will be airbrushed out of the news, dehumanised, that they will basically just disappear.
One of the most harrowing stories I can remember was the shocking murder of two-year-old Dean Shillingsworth, a little Koori kid on the fringes of western Sydney who was killed, put in a suitcase and thrown into a lake in a park at a public housing estate. The image of him in his Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas with his bright eyes and cheeky smile was absolutely heart-breaking. Not only was this a story of shocking social dysfunction, it was also a story which went to the heart of case management by the Department of Community Services. It was also a human story. The media quite rightly ran the image of Dean for days, and the moment murder charges were laid he just vanished from our pages and from the TV screens.
It is much easier for governments to manage a crisis such as this, much easier for negligent parents to shield themselves from deserved shaming, when it involves someone called Toddler X whom the public has never and will never see.
Those who regard the media as morally bankrupt should reflect on the logical fact that the media is in the business of not only reporting news but also making money. I cannot think of a better way to destroy your product than to offend your readers by gratuitously and cruelly breaching a child’s privacy. You would deserve to go out of business. The cases I mentioned above do not fit that category. They were stories which needed to be told. Our coverage and your conversations should not be stymied by ham-fisted legislation which accidentally or deliberately shuts all of that down.
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