by Tony Thomas
March 15, 2013
Clive Hamilton is a stout defender of the media and of political dissent. Any moment now, he will spring to the defence of press freedom against Senator Conroy’s proposed media licensing regime.
As we should all know, Senator Conroy plans a media licensing regime creating government-sanctioned journalism, along with a government-appointed media super-regulator, and a “public interest test” for media ownership.
Clive Hamilton is not merely, as he puts it himself, “a public intellectual”. He is also a Professor of Public Ethics, a 2009 Greens candidate, and from last year, a government-appointed member of the Climate Change Authority.
His website also says he is a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. That sounds impressive, almost like “a Fellow of Royal Society”. There are only 27,000 of these arts Fellows.[i] I can apply to become one by paying $150 as a one-off and $300 a year, and can expect confirmation within 12 working days.[ii] I can then include the letters FRSA after my name, like this: “Clive Hamilton, FRSA; Tony Thomas, FRSA”.
I put in a test application for an FRSA, for convenience using the name Kim Jong Un, of Pyongyang.
I got emailed a form saying “Although we don’t contact all referees, some may be contacted for a character reference request.” I nominated Clive, his bestie Robert Manne and Ray Finkelstein QC, without knowing of course whether they will support or criticise Mr Kim’s application. Watch this space.
Apologies, I’ve digressed. That’s because my cerebral cortex is so lit up after speed-reading Clive’s wonderful 2007 book, Silencing Dissent – How the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate. Clive co-edited the book with Sarah Maddison, a Future Fellow in Arts at the University of NSW.
Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute did not like the book, as it defamed him with erroneous accusations. The publisher promised to correct the errors in a second edition, for which there does not yet seem to be a public demand.
This is how public intellectual Clive reacted to Gerard’s factual complaints:
“Your increasingly absurd arguments and demands are no more than self-serving and bullying tirades confirming the widely-held view that you are little more than a pompous fool…
I will entertain no further correspondence from you. Yours sincerely
The Australia Institute.”
Clive’s co-editor/author of Silencing Dissent is Sarah Maddison, also beloved by the Greens. She has absorbed the Greens’ distaste for allowing unorthodox views to be published. For example, Ms Maddison advocated in the Sydney Morning Herald last August the silencing of dissent:
“Think about climate change: an obsession with so-called ‘balance’ in the media resulted in climate sceptics given equal air-time with climate scientists, perpetuating the view that the science on climate change is actually in question.”
Good one, Sarah!
I actually attended the launch of “Silencing Dissent” at the Melbourne University’s Asia Centre in 2007, where Clive told us that under Prime Minister Howard, dissent had become really, really dangerous! At question time, I asked, “Given that the Howard government has just appointed its forthright critic Tim Flannery as Australian of the Year, doesn’t that blow your thesis clear out of the water?” Clive didn’t think so.
Democracy-advocate Clive, a mere five months after publication of Silencing Dissent, wrote in the Courier Mail:
“Very few people, even among environmentalists, have truly faced up to what the science is telling us. This is because the implications of 3C, let alone 4C or 5C, are so horrible that we look to any possible scenario to head it off, including the canvassing of ‘emergency’ responses such as the suspension of democratic processes.”
The Hamilton/Maddison book contains a foreward by Robert Manne (of course) who wrote presciently: “The health of a democracy relies on many different things: limited government; strong civil society; the independence of autonomous institutions; the encouragement of dissident opinion, wide-ranging debate. All these values are presently under threat.”
The middle bits of “Silencing Dissent” seem a bit turgid, but that’s impossible. As Clive put it modestly, when touting the book:
“If you want a broad audience then you have to write in a way that’s intelligible and entertaining, that people want to read or find enjoyable to read even though, as you say, the subject matter can be disturbing.
“And I guess it’s just a skill that I’ve worked on over the years, and have finally acquired a certain facility in doing it. I’m not the only one of course, but those who can express powerful ideas in a simple and compelling way can have quite an influence. ..You just have an intuition for the times or a predisposition to understanding what your target audience is thinking and how to keep them reading.”
All the same, and with no disrespect to Clive, I’ll skip to the book’s conclusion:
“A vibrant democracy must embrace variety of opinion and encourage active engagement of institutions that are comprised of and are accountable to the people themselves. Without that engagement and participation of citizens democracy is dead. Around the world people are struggling to free themselves from authoritarian rule and develop democratic systems of government that rest on the authority of the people themselves. In Australia our own fear and complacency are allowing these same institutions to be ground down.
…When democratic institutions are eroded, authoritarianism is not far behind. In light of this, it is time to reassert the role of dissent and to praise the contribution to democracy made by those who speak out, engage in debate and criticize the powerful, no matter how uncomfortable it may make the government of the day. Dissenters should not be silenced or pilloried; as defenders of Australian democracy they deserve our gratitude.”
Will Clive indeed protest about Senator Conroy’s media licensing plans? Why, of course. As he himself said:
“I think there’s a huge role in history for courageous individuals who stand up at the right time and say the right thing. A lot of the doubts and worries that others are having suddenly crystallize and people shift… There are powerful political forces exerting influence in various ways, and that has meant that people realize the consequences of resisting or speaking out are much more serious, potentially. It only takes one or two people to be made examples of – everybody gets the message pretty quickly…
“I suppose, even with McCarthyism, what we’re experiencing now in Australia doesn’t get close to that. There are certainly some similarities, but in terms of the intensity of it, the U.S. in the 1950s was a very scary place for any sort of independent thinking. The fact is that in Australia alternative opinion still can be expressed, although often at some cost to the critic. Some of the laws restricting free speech that have been introduced recently go too far and represent a significant threat to our civil liberty.”
Clive, you’re a good man, a brave man. Now go tell all this to Stephen Conroy!
Tony Thomas thinks the world of Clive Hamilton.
[i] Fellowship is open to anyone anywhere in the world who shares or demonstrates a commitment to positive social change in their professional, civic or personal life.