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CRISPIN HULL / Twitter, Trump, Freedoms & Failures

Do non-government corporations like Twitter have the right to publish or not publish whatever they want? What does Twitter's banning of Trump's account teach us about censorship and freedom of speech? Why does acting Prime Minister's Michael McCormack refuse to acknowledge the Capitol attack as an act of sedition? And why has Morrison failed to call out some of his recent MP's blatant falsehoods?

What about Twitter’s freedom of speech? And that of other social media platforms which have banned President Trump. Surely, non-government corporations have got a right to publish or not publish whatever they want, subject to the law.

Twitter owns its own show, so it is entitled to ban whomever it wants or remove whatever comments it wants.

That is not censorship. Censorship is when the state imposes legal sanction against publication, especially if there are no national security, public order or defamation reasons for it.

Trump has not been “censored” by Twitter as so many of his enablers and followers, including members of Australia’s governing political parties, suggest.

Trump can still make whatever 280-word statements about whatever he likes (subject to laws about inciting violence or breaching national security). It is just that he can no longer do it on Twitter, You-Tube and others who have banned him.

No-one is censoring him. He can call a media conference any time he likes. He can set up his own website or Twitter-type arrangement.

Why should Twitter be forced to publish his rants if it does not want to?

The real questions are why didn’t it have the good sense to do it a lot earlier and why have so many people, especially within the Australian governing political parties, such as Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Liberal MP Dave Sharma, rushed to call it an infringement of “freedom of speech” when it is precisely the opposite – it is Twitter exercising its freedom of speech.

Further, why have McCormack, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to condemn government backbenchers Craig Kelly and George Christiansen for spouting conspiracy theories about the attack on the Capitol and unproven treatments for Covid-19?

Why did McCormack refuse to acknowledge that the January 6 attack was an act of sedition that Trump had incited or at least egged on?

Why did he instead liken the attack to protests by the “Black Lives Matter” movement? He glibly said that both had resulted in violent injury and death so were morally equivalent because “all lives matter”. It shows at best his ignorance and stupidity, and at worse his lack of moral clarity. Protesting (nearly all the time peacefully) against racial injustice is utterly different from a premeditated violent attack aimed at overthrowing the result of a free and fair democratic election.

The failure is dangerous stuff. It is worse than then Prime Minister John Howard’s failure to unequivocally condemn Pauline Hanson’s “swamped by Asians” speech in September 2016, because Hanson was at least only a member of a minor-party rabble. The present leaders of the Liberal and National Party are failing to condemn the falsehoods hawked by their own members. It is a disgraceful failure.

McCormack’s statements that everyone should have a right to say what they believed was true and “facts can sometimes be contentious” are a lame excuse straight out of Morrison’s copybook.

In August, Morrison said of Kelly’s support for the disproved hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19, “I’m not going to get on to what people talk about on Facebook.”

But this is not just “people”. This is a Member of Parliament and a member of Morrison’s governing party.

And it is not the sort of welcoming clash of ideas that comes with genuine freedom of speech. This is the spouting of proven falsehoods; not the testing of contentious ideas.

Moreover, it contrasts with a long history of the Liberal and National Parties crushing the slightest and most reasoned dissent from the centre and left on subjects like refugees, climate change and same-sex marriage. No respect for freedom of speech there.

It also contrasts with the Government’s appalling record on Freedom of Information – it denies access to anything that might embarrass it in the slightest.

If Morrison and McCormack are going to enlist “freedom of speech”, they should at least replace hypocrisy with consistency.

Voltaire’s biographer quoted him as saying, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

But that it only part of Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance and the part upon which McCormack and Morrison seem to rely – that the Kellys and Christiansens of this world have got the right to say whatever they like.

Voltaire was arguing in favour of toleration of religious belief, but also reserved the right (and even the duty) to argue strenuously against it.

It is no good Morrison and McCormack saying people can say what they like. If those people are members of their political parties, they have a duty to call it out if it is falsehood. Not doing so means the leadership of Liberal and National Parties is not only spineless but complicit in the spouting of falsehoods.

It is within their power to order Kelly and Christiansen to remove this dangerous bile from their social media pages or have the platform of being a Coalition MP that gives the bile unwarranted respectability and credence taken away.

Kelly and Christiansen could still continue to have their “free speech”, but as nutters of no consequence, not as MPs who might injure Australia’s anti-Covid response because people might be looking to their MPs for guidance.

Indeed, this is another reason for Morrison and McCormack to deal with Kelly and Christiansen – the erosion of faith in Australian democracy.

Of course, it would be too much to hope that they might give up their sycophancy and condemn the whole undemocratic, authoritarian, violent, racist, mendacious and narcissistic four years that has been the Trump presidency.

This article first appeared the The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 16 January 2021.

www.crispinhull.com.au


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