How Bolt should be punished

John Birmingham Brisbane Times - Opinion 4 October 2011

Andrew Bolt
Andrew Bolt - Right wing extremist

The messages started early. Some on Twitter. Some emails. A couple of phone calls. All of them sourced back to one news item. The conviction of Andrew Bolt under racial vilification laws. Everyone assumed, rightly, I’d be champing at the bit to hook into the issue of m’unlearned colleague. But probably not in the way you’d expect.

I don’t see the conviction of Bolt as a triumph.


Because Bolt is the sort of oxygen thief I revel in vilifying. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to wake up and find out that once again the champion of the overdog has disgraced himself in public and that Whacking Day is upon us.

Bolt is a gift to likes of me; a self parodying buffoon who rushed to blame the recent massacre in Norway on jihadi extremists, hours before the real perp was revealed to be the sort of unhinged, Aryan culture warrior who’d probably find Bolt’s columns about jihadi extremists to be a jolly engaging read.

People like Bolt do not need to be suppressed. They need – they desperately need – to be mocked. Mocked for their ignorance. Mocked for their paranoia. Mocked for their delusions of adequacy.

Bringing the full force of the state to bear on the likes of Bolt does not change his opinions or the opinions of the cretins who cheer him on. Decisions like last week’s simply feed into their persecution complexes. Witness this sorry excuse for a freedom fighter jabbering from his network television show and his national column and his high traffic blog that his freedom of speech is being repressed.

This is difficult, contested ground onto which the likes of Bolt drag us all. While his claims of oppression are risible (he retains remember, the blog, the column, the TV show) the general principle that our speech is not entirely free stands strengthened.

Bolt, naturally, reaches for more cover than his odious jottings deserve. The suppurating mess of his column brought him undone before Justice Bromberg, not because he is a brave writer who speaks the truth to power, but because he is a bad writer who doesn’t do his research and who uses his grotesquely amplified public voice to insult and traduce the honour of decent men and women who have not a fraction of the resources at his command to defend their reputations.

In a very real sense, Justice Bromberg was simply redressing a deeply imperfect power balance between Bolt and his victims. For victims they were. He gathered them within the confines of his column, and there set about them with vile falsehoods. One wrong claim after another. Error piled upon error, the whole teetering rhetorical edifice held in place only by the spitefulness of his prose.

This is the grotesque and sick-making irony of his latest fiasco: that he now portrays himself as the aggrieved party, having been hauled into a star chamber and stripped of his precious, precious freedoms. His freedom to insult. His freedom to slander. His freedom to wound and belittle. His freedom to do all this in the face of facts and truths he cannot be bothered getting off his soft, white, privileged arse to verify in the first place.

In doing so, he not just damages those whom he attacked, he does even greater damage to the principles for which he claims to stand. How much more difficult is it to defend an unfettered right to free speech when creatures of this ilk use it for such poor ends? To my mind, there can be only one of two explanations for what went wrong with Bolt’s column. Either he’s a liar who cared not one fig for the suffering his lies would cause. Or, my actual belief, he’s just an incompetent, egomaniacal lackwit who should never be left unsupervised around a keyboard.

Perhaps, however, there is a way out. Perhaps rather than a fine, or a spot of detention at Her Maj’s pleasure, the vilification laws might be tweaked so that malefactors like Bolt, upon conviction, lose the right to sue in defence of their reputation for a specified time. Perhaps a year. Perhaps forever.

I could live with that. And Bolt, if he is serious about free speech, should be able to live with it too. Let him write what he wants. But let the answer to his writing, when it comes, come raw and violent in rhetoric, and unencumbered by the weight of any possible defamation. After all, Bolt seems to think that being free to say whatever we damn well please about anyone is an unqualified good.