The left response to Uhlmann on freedom of speech

Chris Uhlmann, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Political Editor, published an op ed in The Weekend Australian on 20 February.  His main point was a lament that,  as he sees it, some journalists are not sufficiently committed to free speech.  As a secondary point, he placed this in the context of what he argued was a broader intolerance of dissent by those on the left and posited that this had its roots in the ongoing influence of Gramsci, Marcuse and “Frankfurt School academics” who fled Hitler’s Germany to the US in the 1930s.

I had a robust exchange about the Uhlmann piece on Twitter with Jason Wilson, who occasionally writes columns for The Guardian.  Wilson tweeted if it was a problem that the ABC’s Political Editor “peddles right wing conspiracy theories”.  I criticised Wilson’s post (at one point I called it “fuckwittery”) and a subsequent piece that he published at The Guardian.  The exchange ended with Wilson saying that I have “a whiny right wing victim complex”.  I sent Wilson this email in response.


Your final tweet in our exchange about this requires a response that Twitter is not suited for.  You say that all I have on my side is a “whiny, right wing victim complex”. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I saw it, because it is at once so wide of the mark, and yet so symptomatic of what annoyed me about your response to uhlmann’s piece.

I’m not right wing; at least that’s not how I perceive myself. I suppose I could give a list of progressive credentials. But that would be pretentious and would also dignify the arrogance and stupidity of your comment.

I’ve always been put off by the tribalism of the left – the way that an epithet like “grouper”, “trot”, “fascist” or “…phobe” signals not only disagreement with another’s political perspective but also the certainty that anything the person so labelled had to say on any topic should be dismissed without consideration.

In my view (and I’m not alone) this tendency is now more widespread and more vicious than it has ever been; no-platforming, even of people with objectively impeccable progressive credentials) is its most recent and egregious expression.

When I read uhlmann’s piece on Saturday, his central complaint resonated with me. I noticed that he didn’t cite specific examples of journos who had tried to silence him or suggested that Abbott should not address the US anti-gay group, but it occurred to me that some were likely to have been ABC colleagues, and he may have wanted to avoid that confrontation. I also noticed that one senior former ABC journo supported him on Twitter; she seemed to know what he was referring to, which led me to think that others probably do as well.

The ABC has been part of my life for as long as I remember, both as a listener and, professionally, in my career as a musician. It’s an indispensable part of Australian cultural life and journos like Fran Kelly, Mark Colvin and numerous others are treasures. But anyone who spends any time listening to or working with or in the ABC cannot fail to recognise the essential truth of the charge that those on the right make: its program makers and on air personnel are generally of the left. Anyone who denies this is delusional.

I recall in 75 when Whitlam was dismissed, being appalled when I walked into the ABC studios in Perth during the election campaign and saw staff members walking around wearing “shame Fraser shame” badges. I agreed with them, but in my naivety I thought that public servants shouldn’t promulgate their political views publicly. Not a lot has changed since then in my view. The “group think” criticism has some force.  Denying that fact doesn’t do the left any good, and the fact itself isn’t helpful to progressive thought because too many progressive sacred cows go unchallenged. I have no particular brief for uhlmann, but I will say in his favour that I have never noticed that his personal political views colour his coverage of politics.

But to anyone like you who subscribes to the tribalism tendency, people like uhlmann are oddities, and traitors to some sort of generally soft-left party line when they express an opinion.  Barry Cassidy can opine against the Abbott government as much as he likes and people like you will say nothing, partly, I suspect, because you don’t even notice. But witness the savage response that greeted uhlmann. You promptly accused him of spreading right wing conspiracy theories and you dangled the spectre of anti-semitism; another person even characterised his article as “anti-gay”. (Your guardian piece walks back from the anti-Semitism smear, but you didn’t shirk from putting it out there, ever so subtly, in the first place).

I found uhlmann’s Frankfurt school analysis a bit overwrought, but the Marcuse quote was acutely prescient when Marcuse expressed it, given what’s happening on campuses around the western world (the recent excommunication of Greer from feminism by a male Melbourne Uni cultural studies academic was just one absurd local example). To that extent I found uhlmann’s diagnosis unremarkable: it’s simply untrue to say, as you have, that he is stating that the Marxists have “won”, but there’s no denying that a particular kind of censorious left world view has a strong presence on campuses throughout the west, and to an extent in institutions like the ABC, and I think it’s fanciful to suggest that cultural Marxism (or something like it) has had no influence on that.

Almost none of the critical reaction to uhlmann’s piece engaged with his central point: the necessity for journalists to support freedom of speech. Rather, the response of you and others was to take issue with a relatively unimportant aspect of the piece, the tactic being that if it’s possible to take issue with any one part of an article, then the whole piece must be suspect.

So that’s why i found your last tweet in our exchange both laughable and sad: it exemplified the arrogant certainty with which those on the left assume that anyone who has anything remotely supportive to say about someone who is “right wing”, or who criticises someone who regards themselves as “progressive”, must themselves be right wing.  And it also exemplified the arrogance that says that the opinion of anyone who can be characterised as right wing is axiomatically of no value and can be dismissed or silenced. This sort of game is played in reverse all the time by those on the right like bolt and cater, but we are supposed to be better than that. Unfortunately, too often we’re not.


Paul Noonan


About noonanite

Paul Noonan is a lawyer and musician based in Melbourne, Australia.
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