Christopher Pearson writes in the Weekend Australian about a current situation involving Club Troppo and other prominent oz political blogs:
GRAHAM Young is the founding editor of a well-regarded e-journal called On Line Opinion, and is a regular contributor to The Australian. I’d describe him as belonging in the centre of the political spectrum, perhaps tending to mild conservatism.
In December he published a piece arguing the case against gay marriage by the pro-family campaigner, Bill Muehlenberg, and then a series of spirited exchanges on the merits of the argument. It was not the first article he’d run on the subject ; that honour had gone to Rodney Croome, a gay activist. Nor were most of the essays run opposed to gay marriage.
Young commented on the blog in mid-December. “The On Line Opinion approach is one that many find difficult to accept, and we are currently under attack from a number of gay activists because we dared to publish 1 which is mostly a pastiche of comments by gay activists, even though the majority of articles I can find on the site support gay marriage. And by attack I mean attempting to intimidate me, sponsors or advertisers. How ironic . . . when we are sponsoring the Human Rights Awards.” …
On account of the Muehlenberg piece, Young told me two major advertisers had just pulled out: the ANZ Bank and IBM. Comparing this year’s January gross ad sales with last year’s, he calculated that revenue from his main category of advertising had fallen by 96 per cent. Young is worried that these bizarre decisions will adversely affect other websites as well as his own and could even lead to some of them closing down.
Courts might construe that as the result of an indiscriminate secondary boycott, in contravention of the Trade Practices Act.
That’s because Young and a group of other political sites have formed a network called The Domain, to bundle up their readers as a more attractive package for advertisers. The sites are very diverse in terms of ideology, from the ultra-leftist John Passant, to the more mainstream centre-Left Larvatus Prodeo, Club Troppo, Andrew Bartlett, skepticlawyer and the likes of Henry Thornton and Jennifer Marohasy. …
I’m not that fussed about the loss of income flowing from the actions of these corporate thugs. I don’t even know how much it is except that in broad terms it’s piddling money at least for us: Troppo has never chased a mass audience. It’s the issue of principle than concerns me deeply.
I should make clear that I also find Muehlenberg’s article offensive. Not because it opposes gay marriage; plenty of gay and lesbian people do too, or at least don’t regard it as an objective that should be pushed aggressively. Erstwhile Troppo contributor Geoff Honnor is an example. It’s Muehlenberg’s assumption that gay people generally are by nature promiscuous, and that they collectively harbour a hidden agenda to redefine marriage as not involving sexual fidelity that I and no doubt many gay people will rightly find deeply offensive. It seems to have escaped Muehlenberg’s attention that promiscuity is hardly confined to homosexuals, or that lots of prominent heterosexuals have advocated and practised open marriage and no doubt still do. It’s a classic example of the sort of discrimination community abhorrence for which underpins federal and state equal opportunity legislation. It is no more fair or accurate to assert that gays generally are promiscuous than to suggest that gypsies are habitual thieves, all men potential rapists or that New Zealanders harbour carnal desires for sheep.
However the actions of IBM and ANZ are much more offensive than those of Muehlenberg as far as I’m concerned. Muehlenberg is merely expressing an opinion, albeit a false, ignorant and hurtful one. He isn’t attempting to force anyone to share it or coerce them to act in accordance with it. The same can’t be said for IBM or ANZ. Voltaire apparently never said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” but it’s a fair summary of his beliefs and I share them. It’s both easy and meaningless to defend the free speech rights only of those with whom you agree; it only becomes meaningful in liberal democratic terms if the speech being suppressed offends influential elites and even oneself.
What can be done? As a lawyer my first thought was for legal remedies. But that’s a bit tricky. Australia’s Constitution contains an implied freedom of political communication, and this is indisputably political subject matter. However the freedom only constrains the actions of governments, it doesn’t meaningfully restrict the actions of private persons or corporations.
Then I considered equal opportunity legislation. The various State and Territory laws certainly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexuality or political opinion, both of which arguably fit the bill here.((Most equal opportunity legislation prohibits discrimination based on imputed as well as actual opinion. It seems clear from the statements of IBM and ANZ spokesmen that we are being punished for imputed opinions about homosexuality even though we neither hold them, published them nor assisted their publication. ~ KP)) However those laws generally only apply to businesses supplying goods or services, accommodation, education, club membership and the like. Here it’s Troppo that’s supplying the service (advertising space) and IBM and ANZ who are (or rather were) purchasing it.
Then there’s the secondary boycott provisions of section 45D of the Trade Practices Act, recently renamed the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth). My first thought was that maybe this was a primary boycott which wouldn’t be covered. But on second thought, these corporate bullies are boycotting Troppo and the other blogs not for anything we’ve done or said but for the actions of a third party namely Online Opinion which merely assists us to source and place advertising on our blogs. It certainly looks a lot like a secondary boycott. Moreover, according to Pearson’s article, spokesmen for both corporations have made admissions about their actions and motivations which might well prove legally fatal.
Nevertheless I’m not at all sure that I can be bothered suing these corporations even though I suspect it’s a clearcut case. IBM and ANZ both have very “long pockets” and I’m not at all sure that my principles extend as far as to expend the time, energy and money that would be required to fight them through the courts. However I’ll certainly be joining the others in sending an appropriate letter of demand and taking whatever other actions we reasonably can to hold IBM and ANZ to account for their unconscionable conduct. I’ve already instituted my own personal primary boycott against them. Of course I’m not urging Troppo readers to do likewise, partly because I don’t especially want to be sued myself. Nevertheless I have always acted on the belief that one of the few real powers we as individuals possess is to refuse to patronise businesses that provide poor service or otherwise act unconscionably. On just about any approach to liberal democratic freedoms, IBM and ANZ are acting in a grossly unconscionable fashion.
Update and apology – This post and Don’s on the same topic have generated considerable debate and resulted in disclosure of information not originally known when I wrote this post several days ago. Mel(aleuca) has suggested in the comment box to this post that an apology to original OLO complainant Gregory Storer is warranted. Given what we all now know, I agree.
I wrote the primary post on information that a mysterious but identified small group of “gay activists” within ad agencies had effectively ambushed OLO (and by extension Troppo and the other Domain blogs) by orchestrating a campaign for an advertiser boycott of OLO because it had published an article on gay marriage by Bill Muehlenberg which they found offensive (as do I). Had that been the situation, the activists’ actions would have been highly objectionable in my view, despite the offensive nature of the original article, for the sorts of reasons discussed in the primary post. The events would also have raised secondary boycott issues (albeit with significant legal, evidentiary and practical uncertainties as discussed earlier in the thread).
It has subsequently emerged from discussions here and at LP that the actual dispute was about the extremely toxic/offensive comment threads to the Muehlenberg post rather than the article itself, and that there had been extensive dealings between OLO and the complainants (most prominently Gregory Storer) where they sought unsuccessfully to have the problem addressed. It appears they would see themselves as having approached advertisers as a last resort. Personally I would have preferred to see them take less drastic expedients such as anti-discrimination/equal opportunity complaints, because the result of approaching advertisers might well be the closure of a valuable and longstanding independent opinion journal (whatever one may think of its moderation policies).
In those circumstances I certainly agree that I should apologise to Gregory Storer unreservedly, and I do so. I feel both angry and stupid, but hopefully most of us learn from our mistakes.
I also want to record that, although this apology is obviously implicitly critical of Graham Young, I’m very unhappy about the impact all these events seem likely to have both on him and OLO. Online Opinion is an extraordinarily valuable publication for Australian political discourse and culture in my view. Many readers may not know that its existence and development are overwhelmingly due to Graham’s efforts, determination and personal financial backing over many years. I can only hope that all of us in the blogosphere will find a way to draw a line under these unfortunate events and do what we reasonably can to help Online Opinion to survive and prosper.
- Muehlenberg’s essay