The ethics of free speech
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 83 autumn 2011
One of our members recently contacted us because he is concerned that more and more blog correspondence from online audiences amounts to a public expression of hate, bigotry and prejudice, despite editorial policies that state that inappropriate material will not be published. Writer and online publisher Mark Bahnisch considers free speech and online opinion.
Recent debates over death threats received by Independent MP Tony Windsor have shone something of a spotlight over some of the more febrile corners of the media landscape: not just talk back radio, but also online spaces where a seemingly unrestrained and relentless onslaught of abusive and hyperbolic commentary dominates comments threads on blogs and opinion pieces.
Sometimes, these ‘opportunities for reader engagement’ devolve into what is akin to hate speech against ethnic and religious minorities or repeat some of the most vile homophobic slurs imaginable. Sometimes, politicians and other figures in the public eye are subjected to thinly disguised threats of physical violence or worse. Most of the time, the climate of discussion is inflammatory, and very far indeed from reasoned argumentation, characterised instead by an apocalyptic tone of loud denunciation and constant anger.
opinion is cheap.
investigative journalism costs money
There are a number of reasons for the existence of such trash speech in online spaces hosted by major media organisations. Many of them are purely commercial. In Australia, the history of the media’s engagement with online discussion moved in the mid 2000s from a position of lofty contempt for allegedly pyjama-clad bloggers to various strategies for co-opting and commodifying online engagement.
Yet, in an age when the business models of big media appear ever more clunky, it has also become harder to turn a buck from online advertising. So, we have the tyranny of the page view – money can be made not from attracting a wide audience to thoughtful analytical articles, but from repeated refreshes of discussion threads by small minorities of disputatious commenters.
At the same time, opinion is cheap. Investigative journalism costs money. Cultivating an intelligent and engaged online community takes time, and personal engagement. Moderation of comments threads – many representing something more akin to a bulletin board than a conversation – is labour intensive. But media organisations can find sufficient copy from willing amateurs, often tied narrowly to the news cycle and mirroring the classic op/ed style, at no cost. The recent sale of the Huffington Post exemplifies the large scale monetisation and commodification of the desire to participate in the public sphere.
Worse, notions of ‘free speech’ are deployed and degraded to justify the publication of a free for all fest of rage and confected indignation. The classical liberal view that truth will emerge from the clash of reasoned views is turned on its head to excuse rants which recite a narrow set of talking points, all the better to report on a ‘people’s revolt. The same journalists who will decry Twitter for various supposedly puerile peccadilloes accord a free pass to commentators whose trade is to reproduce an eternal outpouring of outrage. Obsessions with ‘balance’ lead to a mindset that opinion itself is a good, no matter how disconnected it may be from truth, or any desire to be accountable to truth and civility.
The upshot of all this is that public debate is severely devalued. It’s not just the hunger for the new, the ravenous need to propel ‘the narrative’ on and manufacture another crisis. It’s also that the audience for serious discussion of public affairs is quite small, as Melbourne University researcher Dr Sally Young has recently shown. So a self-referential recital of feigned and febrile trash talk can be represented as a proxy for a wider public opinion, to the detriment of any ability to seriously dispute public policy issues. The appalling quality of what passes for such debate also poses a serious barrier to those who are yearning for real engagement.
responsibility lies on the so-called fourth estate
to take stock of its own practices
Some online publishers, most signally Crikey, but also smaller independent blogs, are coming to see that there is value in moving on from tired debates about ‘the future of journalism’ and acting now to reinvigorate and revive informed discussion of public affairs. But this cannot be enough. A weighty responsibility lies on the so-called Fourth Estate to take stock of its own practices, and its own participation in moving democracy towards idiocracy. A debate over the degradation of public debate is precisely the sort of debate we need to be having now.