A world too wide


You know those cartoons where the pursuing villain suddenly has a car fall from the sky and land on him? Or a big boulder, or a tree. Kersplat!

That’s old age. There you are tootling along, minding your own, and others, business, clear path, distant horizons beckoning, not, as has been the case, a physical care in the world, when Whammo!

The future was always another country. Some distant, unfamiliar country that other people lived in. Needed a passport, I thought, to get through Customs, cross the border. Not so.

Always used to being the youngest in any room. Suddenly the lights went off and when they came back on, hey, who is this old fellow in the corner? No gradual process, no time to get used to the idea, adjust, practise being old, just Kaboom.

Past is another country? Nah, past is same-old same-old, been there done that. Wearing a younger man’s clothes, sure, but you’d recognise him in the street, compare notes, have a chat about shared experiences. But the fellow wearing the older man’s clothes? Would you recognise him even? And what would you talk about? Sickness? Hospitals? Infirmities? Loss? Disappointments? Failures? You, young fellow, haven’t experienced those, have nothing to contribute, have no more to say than if confronted by an old fellow who had fought in wars, experienced the Great Depression, lived through plagues, droughts.

And yet, suddenly, there you are, in a pub, at a party, and you are the old fellow holding forth to the young folks whose eyes are already glazing over. They have no idea of old age, also hanging over them like Vesuvius over Pompeii in 79 AD.

Shakespeare knew all about it, heard the volcano rumbling, though it rumbled not for him, dead at the young age of 52. He was just in his Fifth Age:
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.

But he had watched others, and knew what came, after the triumphal but brief years of maturity, next:
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Well, ain’t that the truth? Go to bed one night with round belly and wise saws, wake up the next morning sans everything. Old Age comes as a shock to every generation. Need perhaps to pay some old people to chant, as you walk by, bouncing along, full of joie de vivre and bullet proof:
Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you will be,
Prepare for death and follow me.
No, not next week, you foolish man
Tomorrow, and you have no plan.

Or, more simply, a sign saying “Beware, large, old man troll ahead with big club”.

On the way to the forum


A funny thing happened after an election last Saturday in a little town called Canberra not a million miles from Watermelon Headquarters. It’s only a little local political curiosity, perhaps, but it may, if I stretch a point, have some resonance elsewhere.

The leader of the local conservatives, out of power for some years, made an astonishing speech on election night claiming “victory”. He hadn’t actually won, you understand, no one had. Trends were clear, general features of the final result reasonably obvious, but he hadn’t “won” (and nor had anyone else!). But what he was saying was that there had been a “swing” towards his party, and that, therefore (the logic was a little fuzzy) he had won the election because a swing meant that the public were unhappy with the previous government (a coalition of Labor and Greens) and so wanted him.

Now this concept, that you don’t have to win a majority of seats (the Westminster system for several hundred years) to become a government, merely get more votes and seats than you got last time was stunning in its audacity, and if applied retrospectively would considerably alter the course of history in most countries. But it was so silly that I kept expecting the room in which he was speaking to erupt into laughter “yes, good one Zed, what a joker you are”.

But the very next day the federal leader of the conservatives (The “Liberal” Party, for historical reasons irrelevant for decades) joined in. Yes indeed, he suggested, good old Zed had a “moral claim” to be the next government. It was all a bit like losing a game of tennis, and later claiming that the rules were now changed and the person who hit the net the most was the winner; or a game of cricket where you claimed that padding the ball away was really worth six runs.

What both of them were intent on doing was bullying The Greens, obviously about to hold the balance of power again, into backing the conservatives, diametrically opposed politically to Greens, instead of Labor again, much more closely allied politically. The point of these statements was also, more importantly, to massage the media narrative, and through that the public expectations.

I was reminded of the 2000 US Presidential election where the Republican-friendly media prematurely declared Bush the winner in Ohio, another narrative massage, but then turned the Florida post-election legal battle into one where the people stealing the election were the good guys, and those appealing for justice and democracy were the bad guys ( representing “Sore-Loserman”). Australian conservatives have learnt a lot from Republicans, and this election night grab for power in Canberra was another example of Rovian tactics in action.

It is inconceivable that it will work of course, but even if it doesn’t it leaves behind a sense of injustice, even perhaps unlawfulness, if the media really come to the party. Helps to delegitimise the government in the same way Mr Abbott did after the 2010 election faced with a similar scenario. In fact another motive for him may well be to add support to his view he was “robbed” in 2010 by “that woman”.

Once upon a time it seemed that both sides of politics played by the rules. Fought an election hard, but then accepted the verdict of the people even in close contexts. Anything else would not be cricket. The outcome would affect the country economically, philosophically, culturally, but the ebb and flow of election results would balance all that out eventually over the years.

These days big money is involved. If you can get a conservative party into power then the government will be open to business. All kinds of restrictions will be scrapped, deals done, wars, quite possibly, started, mines opened, forests cleared, workplace wages and conditions substantially reduced. Big money for the corporations. And big money for the conservative politicians after they leave politics – seats on Boards, consultancies, media roles, and so on.

So now anything goes. War by other means. War to install conservative governments and reap the spoils of office.

Got a feeling we ain’t seen nothing yet.

The background. The Australian Capital Territory (ie the land on which Canberra, Australia’s capital, sits, and surrounding areas) with a population of around 370,000, gained self-government in 1988. It had previously been administered by a federal minister and department. Its parliament (the Assembly) currently has 17 elected members. There is a fixed term of office, with elections every four years, and a “Hare-Clark” electoral system, giving it, with Tasmania, the fairest election results in the country. Fairest in the sense of parties being represented in parliament proportional, as closely as possible, to their percentage of votes.

I won’t go into the considerable detail here. Just note that instead of 17 electorates, one per member, there are just three, two of which have five members and a larger one seven. Within each electorate, to simplify, each party gets a number of members proportional to its total vote (bearing in mind the limitation that members can’t be part people). The system is about as fair as it could be, breaking the stranglehold the two major parties normally have. As a result the ACT Assembly very rarely sees one party with a majority of seats, and negotiations and agreements have to be made with third parties (these days usually The Greens) or Independents.



Some years ago the Cancer Council of Australia ran an advertising campaign based on the phrase “Cancer: It’s a word not a sentence”. Clever in a sort of pretty unsubtle way of course, it was used to mark a change from the days when the only possible response to cancer was a kind of surgical blitzkrieg, the chances of success low, to those where new chemical and radiation treatments began to be introduced and refined, either to improve the success of surgical intervention, or as stand-alone procedures. Remission periods grew longer, outright cures became possible, so the Cancer Council was right to tell people not to despair that they were doomed when the doctor uttered that doom-laden C-word, but to be optimistic, to have hope the treatment could be worthwhile.

But, leaving behind the intended meaning of the slogan, that cancer is no longer, necessarily, a [Death] Sentence, the phrase is completely wrong. Cancer isn’t a word, it is a sentence. Unlike getting an injury, or breaking a bone, or catching an infection, for all of which there is treatment and cure, quickly over, something barely remembered a few years later, cancer is ongoing, unforgettable, a long sentence, a life sentence. And here it is:

Cancer is: having a series of increasingly unpleasant tests, waiting anxiously for the results, then watching as the oncologist’s face goes grim as he reads them; spending a day every couple of weeks hooked up to a bag of nasty chemicals by a sharp needle in your hand or arm; never feeling well for months at a time while treatment proceeds, and constantly feeling anxious that you will suddenly feel worse and have to be rushed off to hospital; spending your life moving from one doctor’s waiting room to the next, one testing facility to the next; suffering from a series of debilitating after-effects, conditions and diseases that your depleted immune system no longer copes with; worrying that every symptom you get, once dismissed as some minor ailment, might be the cancer returning; knowing that there are cancer cells always lurking somewhere in your body waiting to burst out and start a cellular revolution at any time; never really feeling well, and so reluctant to do once-normal activities; dealing with the concerns of family and friends.

Some sentence, eh?

Note – I have previously written about other aspects of my cancer experience here, here and here.



What a pity we didn’t have the modern media in earlier times. Just think of the entertainment with close-up shots of people being burnt at stake, or hung drawn and quartered. Think of microphones stuck on their faces for last-minute reactions. Or cameras for reaction shots of loved ones. Cameras set up permanently at stocks to see the tomatoes and rotten cabbages hit the faces. Run with vigilante mobs as they hunt down some suspect in the Wild West.

Those images occurred to me this week as there was discussion of some British move to have “victims of crime” decide on the sentences the perpetrators of crime will get. Already similar moves here with “victim impact statements” before sentencing.

The media are pushing, pushing, pushing to take us away from the idea of an impartial justice system with people presumed innocent unless proved guilty, and with the presiding figure of Justice herself,  eyes bandaged to avoid bias, weighing the scales impartially. In the days of X-Factor and Big Brother and Survivor where’s the entertainment value in that old-fashioned nonsense eh?

At the same time as the media pushed for revenge to come back into sentencing came another case illustrating what is happening to our justice system.

In 1991 highly respected, much-loved and valued heart surgeon Victor Chang was shot dead during a failed extortion attempt. The two killers were sentenced to very lengthy jail terms. One was released, after 18 years, a few years ago, the second, after 21 years of a 26 year sentence, was recommended for parole recently, on the grounds that he was aged 69 and suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia and hadn’t long to live. Open and shut case? Not these days.

Immediate outrage from media, followed by more outrage from populist conservative govt leading to legal challenge. That failing, followed by deportation (both killers were Malaysian nationals). Media following to airport, where vision of a frail old man with shaking hands was accompanied by a journalist voiceover saying that he showed “no sign” of the “illness which supposedly had him released on parole”. Followed by cameramen filming him during plane trip. Followed by a tv interview in which he expressed his sorrow and regret for what he had done. Followed by a “victims of crime” spokesman rejecting the apology as not sincere.

Hard to know where to begin with this. It is the classic media “whip up outrage and sell newspapers” ploy. And it gets people phoning the shock jocks, reading blog opinions. Fundamentally the media have taken the stand that all sentences should be for life and that there should be no parole. They don’t really believe this, but saying they do will agitate the people who believe we should still have public whipping and hanging. And will agitate the victims of crime who believe no punishment is too great.

Jail is meant to serve four purposes: punishment, public protection, deterrence, rehabilitation. The second and fourth of those were no longer relevant to this sick old man. The deterrence part was long gone (“hmm, if I murder someone and am sentenced to 26 years and contract Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases after 20 I’ll get parole and be deported. Hey, that’s pretty slack, where’s my gun.”). So that leaves punishment.

Punishment, as William Gilbert remarked, is meant to fit the crime. That is why we have a graded system of sentences to match a graded system of crimes of increasing seriousness. If you are going to give the maximum sentence for small crimes how will you discourage greater crimes? Australia should be specially sensitive to this given our convict past arising from a criminal justice system that could hang someone for poaching, send them to Australia for stealing a handkerchief. If you always demand a maximum sentence, if you complain about parole board decisions, however strongly based, then what we have reverted to is a legal system based on revenge, not justice. And revenge, as Shakespeare and indeed the Greek playwrights knew, puts bums on seats.

As I was writing this came yet another disturbing development. The West Australian government announced the launch of a web site carrying photos and details of paedophiles. As the lawyer’s association pointed out, this is a clear invitation to vigilantism, and the attendant problems of misidentification and the discouraging of rehabilitation.

Look, dunno about you but if, Rumpole forbid, I ever found myself entangled in the legal system, I would rather my fate was decided by a qualified judge and a jury of my peers and an experienced parole board, than by a sensationalist media, populist politicians, and wannabe lynch mobs.

Time the tabloids (of print, television, radio) cooled it on the legal system, or before you know it you might have policemen bribed, phones tapped, people followed, all in the name of sensational stories from court cases. And then, who knows, members of the media might find themselves in court, being covered by other media…

It’s in no one’s interest for the justice system to be turned into a branch of the entertainment industry.

Just fauxing


Interesting article (“Martha Raddatz and the Faux Objectivity of Journalists“) by Glenn Greenwald following the Biden-Ryan VP Debate. “The highly questionable assumptions tacitly embedded in the questions Raddatz asked illustrate how this works, as does the questions she pointedly and predictably did not ask.” “That is what this faux journalistic neutrality, whether by design or otherwise, always achieves. It glorifies highly ideological claims that benefit a narrow elite class (the one that happens to own the largest media outlets which employ these journalists) by allowing that ideology to masquerade as journalistic fact.” Greenwald gives examples of the “Medicare going broke” and “Iran is the greatest national security threat to America” questions to illustrate his point.

I just saw a discussion on one of our tv networks about the effects of the “carbon tax” in Australia after “100 days” that is a slightly different example of the same thing. As these things go it wasn’t so bad. They had actually got an expert to talk about it instead of a politician or shock jock as they normally would. The questions were based on the “sky is falling in” scare campaign of the Liberals, and his answers were calm and measured. So what am I complaining about (never satisfied am I, even when they do the right thing, whinge whinge whinge?)?

Three things. The segment was advertised for an hour preceding with the words “Carbon Tax”, the term used throughout the segment except occasionally by the guest. Now “Carbon Tax” is the term the conservative politicians and shock jocks have been using for two years (alternating with “Great Big New Tax”) for two reasons. First to continue the lie that the Prime Minister had lied in saying she would not introduce a “Carbon Tax”, and second so they can scare the living bejeebus out of all the punters out there by pretending that they were going to be paying so much tax that the Apocalypse would be a walk in the park.

In fact the PM had gone on to say words to the effect “but I intend to put a price on carbon” and that’s exactly what she did. A carbon price isn’t a “carbon tax”. No one is paying extra tax. In fact because of the package of compensation measures almost everyone is better off. Instead of introducing a punitive tax to stop people using so much carbon-generated power, the government used the carrot of compensation so that if you began producing less CO2 you would do even better. To keep on using the term “carbon tax” is to keep selling the conservative meme.

Second, all of the questions, as I said above, were based on the dire warnings the conservatives have been running for two years – businesses ruined, towns wiped off map, pensioners dying in unheated rooms, lamb roasts costing $100 and so on. But still presenting them as questions on 14 October 2012 implies that they were indeed valid points to raise. Proved by the last 100 days to be wrong (although one of the hosts, whose politics are always worn on her sleeve, muttered that meat prices might have gone down but that was because of good seasons – still fighting the battle to the last), but who could have known that?

Well, you could have. You were told plenty of times. There was endless modelling to show the effects, but even without that a moment’s thought about the way the scheme was set up would have told you that all the conservative publicity stunts and deceptive parliamentary questions were as fake as the ones involving an antique shop and a pensioner’s electricity bill. That is “100 days” tells us nothing we couldn’t have known in advance if you hadn’t constantly legitimised the conservative campaign by merely reporting it as fact for the last two years.

And finally the Polar Bear in the room was never mentioned. The Arctic is melting at a frighteningly rapid rate, America has been frying, Barrier Reef in big trouble, and yet reducing greenhouse gases, the whole reason for putting a price on carbon was never mentioned. Nor has it been very often during the last couple of years in this context. So for the public the government has inexplicably introduced a “great big new tax”, apparently for no other reason than to ruin antique shops, wipe towns off map, and kill pensioners, because they are such nasty people. And still, today, the carbon price was discussed without this frightening context.

Australian journalism, like American journalism has a history in recent years of this kind of acceptance of what Lakoff calls conservative “framing”. Perhaps, to give them the benefit of the doubt, unknowingly, but I suspect often in full awareness of what they are doing.

Watch out for it.

Bound for Botany Bay


Ah, Xmas, mistletoe, Xmas trees, snow, hot roast dinners with Yorkshire pud, plum puddings with threepences in. Could be at Manor Farm with the Pickwick Club could we not? Except we’re not. We’re in Western Australia in the 1950s. The temperature outside is 40 degrees C, inside hotter as the wood-fired oven cooks the roast chicken and potatoes. The “snow” is artificial, powder sprinkled on a northern hemisphere pine. The assembled family are sweating with the heat. The children are demanding to go to the beach but being told to shoosh because it was Xmas. Ah yes, the Dickens Xmas, the Prince Albert Xmas, just one of the many inappropriate things exported from Britain to its former colony in the south seas.

It would have been better for the Australian environment if, on 26 January 1788, the ships rounding the Heads into Sydney Harbour, had contained not English, Irish, Scots and Welsh soldiers and convicts, but settlers from southern Africa, Middle East, western China, or Chile.

Thing is the British soldiers, convicts, and later free settlers all brought with them a great deal of cultural baggage. It wasn’t just that the seasonal greetings and celebrations of Xmas were taking part in a totally inappropriate environmental setting, so was everything else. The heavy clothing that was worn, the inappropriate housing that was built, also would have been better discarded on the London or Liverpool docks. Those things, like Xmas celebrations, didn’t matter much, apart from generations to come feeling discomfort, especially in Summer. They were retained, like the monarchy, long past their rational use-by dates as a way for strangers in a strange land to cling to their heritage.

But there was other cultural baggage, unrecognised for many years, which was much more important and damaging. They were coming from a small island country which had, in no particular order: plenty of water; managed forests of deciduous trees; deep soils; island climate with the added impact of the Gulf Stream; no catastrophic events, notably drought or fire; a fear of “wilderness”; the removal of any animals perceived as a threat; the presence of a number of species which had, it would turn out, enormous potential to become pests in a new environment.

People were coming to a country where those things were not true, the reverse in fact, but they would perceive it through eyes conditioned to the natural world of Britain. Just as they brought hot Xmas dinners and three-piece woollen suits, they also began stocking the country with British animals so they would feel at home, could continue hunting. In came (almost unbelievably) foxes, rabbits, hares, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, most of which would go on to become pests that would damage the environment on a catastrophic scale. In came willows, poplars, pines, oaks, elms, to replace the despised native trees cut down and burnt. Anything un-Australian was prized.

They would clear land whose thin top soil was only being held there by vegetation; pump water from streams that were only seasonal, from rivers whose flow was very irregular; stock land at high rates according to what a really good season could support, as if the good times would never end; plant monoculture crops over huge areas; pretend that eucalypt forests could be “managed”, initially by cutting down trees, later by use of fire; hunt and wipe out thylacines, and so on. [Oddly perhaps, they didn't bring with them the one practice, hedgerows, which would have been a plus in Australia]. Farming practices that had evolved over thousands of years to suit British conditions, were applied indiscriminately to a continent that hadn’t evolved to cope with them. But people were comfortable with retained Britishness in land management as in everything else, and so forests were cleared, land was overgrazed, rivers and irrigation basins were drained, topsoil blew away, species became extinct.

Things have gradually changed. Hot roast dinners have mostly given way to backyard barbecues, or salads and seafood at the beach. Houses are better designed for climate extremes (and are beginning to incorporate energy-saving and solar panels to make use of the Australian sunshine). Still have suits and ties of course (in spite of the efforts of one state premier in the 70s to popularise light “safari suits” for business wear), and still have the monarchy, but hey, some things take time.

Land management change takes time too. Oh a lot has been learnt about dry land farming, preparing for droughts, stocking rates, crop and stock varieties, working thin soils, being more efficient with water and chemical use, and so on. There has been a big development of wind breaks, equivalent in a sense to the British hedgerow. On the other hand forests and woodlands are still being woodchipped or cleared at high rates, with massive outcries at any attempt to slow down let alone stop it; irrigation, including, astonishingly, for crops like cotton and rice, is still full steam ahead, again with massive reaction whenever there is a suggestion it might be reduced; killing of native species goes on as frequently as it ever did; people are still talking nonsense about using fire and “thinning” to “manage” forests; and many farmer’s organisations are still hotbeds of climate change denial (change that will decisively demonstrate that we are not living in Britain). A long way to go, and no time.

Time we became un-British (well, except for cricket of course).

Abridging too far?


Well, way to get myself into trouble, but hey, that rarely stops me, so here goes.

America lumbered itself with two amendments to the Constitution which have had a crippling effect on it ever since. Don’t want to talk about the Second Amendment here, since, with every individual citizen becoming his or her own unregulated militia, with 300 million guns and thousands of gun deaths every year, it was self-evidently foolish. Could Thomas Jefferson be brought into the future to have a look at how it was interpreted he would rush back and considerably change the wording.

So, Second Amendment obviously bad, but First Amendment seems to be universally accepted in the Western world generally, unquestionably good. Here it is:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Let’s break it down into components. The first part is excellent, and, for its time, brave and radical. Religion still had enormous influence on governments in Europe (and even more so elsewhere), and it was a remarkable step for this remarkable bunch of people to say “We want none of that here”. They would of course also be horrified at the religious influence on government in 2012, and may have want to rethink the “free exercise of” clause, but that’s another story. “Petition the government”? Yes indeed, again far-sighted and radical in the context of the autocratic and oligarchic governments of the Old World. In today’s world, in practice governments have found ways to ignore petitions, and conversely petitions can be corrupted (especially in the internet age) by astroturf groups and media. Essentially the idea of a petition by the citizens has been corrupted to the extent that it is no longer the safeguard envisaged in the eighteenth century, when individual citizens signed their John Hancock’s with quill pens on pieces of paper.

Not doing too well are we. I know, let’s try “peaceably assemble”. Another bold statement in the context of thousands of years of rulers suppressing “peaceful assemblies” of citizens by sending in the soldiers to cut them down or shoot them, and capture the ring leaders then have them hung drawn and quartered, hung in chains, or, if the ruler was feeling benign, beheaded. None of that for America, the citizens had a problem with the government they could assemble, perhaps carrying a petition, and let them know. Such a far-sighted move, but again, Jefferson would be horrified if he could see the response to “peaceful assembly” today in America and elsewhere. Protests banned, people with tee shirts with messages refused entry to events, protesters shut into pens far away from the place where the president will be, police (and indeed, in Europe once again, troops) dressed in full riot gear and with horses, water cannon, tear gas, pepper spray, breaking up demonstrations. We have ways of making you not talk.

Well, that just leaves one (or two I suppose), and it is the one which has become engraved in stone as the rock solid core of what America is about, what most western democracies are about, and what protesters in many other less democratic countries aspire to. Nobody, it seems, questions its utter goodness. Except me.

Let me draw your attention to: “Buckley v. Valeo (1976) upheld limits on campaign contributions, but held that spending money to influence elections is protected speech by the First Amendment.” and “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) the Supreme Court of the United States held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment.” And now a billion dollars to elect a president? “Super Pacs” running unlimited attack ads full of lies? Koch brothers setting up astro turf groups? What say you, President Jefferson, this how you thought it would work out?

I used to be all in favour of a Bill of Rights, or a more prescriptive Constitution, for Australia, but watching the American Supreme Court tie itself, and the country, in knots because of a particular word written 230 years ago, I no longer am. The Law, when faced with indelible words on a sacred document, is quite often a Ass.

But it’s even worse than that. When the words were written the “press” was a small number of newspapers produced on printing presses. this “free press” clause meant that individuals could write and publish freely even strong denunciations of the government’s behaviour collectively or individually. Not true in Britain for example, right through the nineteenth century (poor old innocent , naive Leigh Hunt, for example, in 1813, wrote an attack on the Prince Regent in a newspaper he and his brother published, based on substantial truth, and was subject to prosecution and a sentence of two years’ imprisonment. His brother the same). So, yes, freedom of the press, right on, well done Founding Fathers.

Except, except, just as a well thought out law about militias armed with muskets in case the British ever came back was turned into a nightmare of mass killings by school kids with the availability of automatic pistols, AK 47s, and rocket launchers available in drug stores, so did the “freedom of the press” become overtaken by events. No way Jefferson, cosily reading his local newspaper at breakfast could possibly have guessed at the development of radio, tv, and the internet. Nor could he have guessed at the way a few giant corporations, each led by men who had no interest in the democratic traditions of America, would come to dominate every source of information available to citizens in 2012.

Nor could President TJ have pictured the way these owners of the media would employ hate filled individuals, give them bully pulpits to spout their bile to millions, in order to move the whole political landscape over to where they wanted it, and bugger the destruction of the political conversation of the citizens. Same pattern in every western country. In Australia the ubiquitous Mr Murdoch owns 70% of the newspapers, including almost every leading newspaper in all the major cities. A small number of companies own the three commercial tv networks. Radio is similarly restricted in its ownership.

The phrase “Freedom of Speech” was almost certainly written with “political speech” in mind. No one was going to abridge the people talking about , say, farming, or trade, or technology. But in the Old World, saying the wrong thing about a king or his ministers or their actions or policies, and you would find yourself abridged into prison or onto the gallows. Jefferson and his friends were determined that this wouldn’t happen in America. More positively they believed that in the free expression of ideas, in the contest for ideas, in wide-ranging political discourse in which everyone had the right to express an opinion without fear or favour, speaking truth to power, would come the people expressing their will. This is still the idealised view expressed in all western democracies (most recently in the Australian context, in the decision to allow the abhorrent Geert Wilders a visa to visit Australia. The immigration minister, Chris Bowen, said, in a statement which Jefferson would have applauded “‘I think our society’s robust enough, our multiculturalism is strong enough, and our love of freedom of speech entrenched enough that we can withstand a visit from this fringe commentator from the other side of the world. We should defeat his ideas with the force of our ideas and the force of our experience, not by the blunt instrument of keeping him out of Australia.'”

But as with the rest of the First Amendment, the problem is the unforeseen way that it would be used 230 years later in a different world. The problem is in America, to be more specific, the deadly duo political operatives of Atwater and Rove. They realised that if you could say anything you like, then, with the blessing of the Constitution you could tell lies, heap shit on your political opponents, destroy them by any means you could find. Think “Swift Boating” think Max Cleland, think Obama’s birth certificate, and on and on. Politics as total war. Policies? Ability of candidates? So old fashioned, who do you think you are, Thomas Jefferson? In Australia the Liberal Party operatives watched and learned. Politeness? Civility? Mutual respect? Policy discussion? All out the window, America, a new light on a new hill lit by Karl Rove, had shown the way for conservatives to win elections even when the majority of the public disapproved of conservative policies had they known about them.

Meanwhile, in parallel, the likes of Rupert Murdoch and similar media moguls had also realised that if you could say anything you liked they would hire people who were prepared, for a good fee, to say anything at all. That there was an audience for nastiness. That these shock troopers (sorry, jocks) of the Right could work hand in glove with a Karl Rove war on the Left, both amplifying the lies he was telling, and creating a public discourse which was moving ever closer to that of a seedy bar where drunks argued late at night. It was a slippery slope (and was made worse when the conservatives managed to get the “Fairness Doctrine” scrapped as a restriction on free speech). To compete for a Tea Party audience which clung to guns and god, the shock jocks (Coulter, Hannity Malkin, Beck, Limbaugh, O’Reilly) had to be ever more outrageous, ever more vicious, ever more malignant. Same with the politicians. What once seemed (and was) outrageous (like the attacks on Cleland and Kerry) began to seem like Lincolnesque politics as the Tea Party (not coincidentally) grew and prospered, and politicians like Palin, Bachmann, Brewer, Brown, Akin worked for re-election while standing in the gutter.

Same in Australia. The parliament has had the conservative Opposition screaming abuse across the chamber in a way that could never have been imagined before 2010. Then going out to press conferences, or publicity stunts, where they simply told lies dutifully noted down verbatim by reporters, because, you know, free speech. And all the while the Australian shock jocks, modelling themselves, like the politicians, on their American counterparts, also became ever more abusive.

Australia of course doesn’t have a “freedom of speech” written in black letters on parchment. In practice though there have been really only two limitations on “free speech” – the laws of defamation and libel, and the Racial Discrimination Act (a recent notorious case discussed here), and they make little impact on what we are talking about.

This all, in a sense, came to a head in Australia in the last few days (which stimulated me to write about the general issue). One of the shock jocks, broadcasting for many years, who has made a habit of attacking our female prime minister in vicious terms, accusing her of constantly lying (and encouraging the use, generated I think by one of his viewers, of the name JuLiar, instead of, you know, Prime Minister or even Julia Gillard), saying she should be put in a chaff bag and dumped at sea, organising and taking part in protests where there were signs referring to “Bitch” and “Witch”, has recently stepped over an invisible line.

At a fund-raising dinner for “Young Liberals” (plus some federal and state Liberal politicians) he gave a speech in which he again said the prime minister constantly lied, that all her cabinet knew she constantly lied, and that her father (who died a few weeks ago, aged, I think, 82, and who of course was enormously proud of his daughter the PM) who she loved dearly, and for whom she was still grieving had “died of shame because his daughter was such a liar”. The audience laughed their heads off (except, presumably, the senior politicians, who had, it would turn out later, heard not a word). After the speeches a number of “amusing” political items were auctioned including a coat made out of chaff bags (geddit?).

Now all this only came to light because a reporter from News Ltd had the initiative to sign up to go to the dinner, pay his fee, unquestioned, and record the speech. As soon as his paper published the transcript, and the recording was made available, social media erupted in a storm of protest. It was a case, it seems, where the old adage “your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”. Oh other shock jocks and conservative politicians quickly rushed to his defence, muttering about freedom of speech and so on until, by the end, it seemed the whole thing had been the Prime Minster’s fault, and the shock jock himself was the real victim. Such has our political discourse been coarsened, that such offensive nonsense passes for normal, almost unremarked. But for the rest of Australia wasn’t buying it. At some point it seemed, the “normal” offensive shock jock speech, bellowed out every day on our airwaves, filling our newspaper columns, increasingly appearing on tv, which we had grown resignedly used to, had crossed a previously invisible line. The public may not have known much about shock-jockery, but they knew what they didn’t like.

I can understand conservative politicians and opinionators screaming about “freedom of speech”, a toxic political atmosphere suits their agenda, but what about the ordinary citizens who did the same this time? It is often said that poor people vote for rich people, vote for tax cuts for them, because they believe one day they will be rich and then the tax cuts will apply to them. The rich exploit this. Same with “freedom of speech”, people imagine themselves in the Gulag, or facing the Inquisition, and think that they might need a “freedom of speech” get out of jail free card themselves, although never having had any problem speaking their mind. Shock jocks and conservative politicians exploit this.

But this time a lot of “ordinary people”, those with fathers, those who have recently lost a loved one, those who wouldn’t want to be called a liar by a shock jock, those who are sick of misogyny, dug their heels in and protested. Flooded social media with their anger, contacted advertisers, voted in opinion polls. And what they were saying was this – “free speech” has limits, we know them when they have been breached. “Free Speech” in the American sense was written into the Constitution in a gentler time. It can’t cope with the cynical use to which it has been put. It relies on a social contract in which shock jocks and politicians agree that there is a line you don’t cross, that “Free Speech” is enhanced by the individual decision not to push it to the limits. Rather in the way that a champion boxer would stop himself getting into a fight in a bar. That you have the freedom to speak but the character not to say any nasty thing that comes into your head.

And that limit? Well over recent years the shock jocks have been like those “drone” technicians who, sitting in Colorado, blow up people in Afghanistan, never seeing the consequences of pushing the button (just as, in earlier times, a bomber unleashing a load of bombs on, say, Coventry or Dresden, did not see the consequences of their action. Nor did the Enola Gay crew, far above the screams and the burnt flesh. Being involved, on the ground, looking into children’s eyes, hearing people scream, makes it harder to commit atrocities. No, not impossible, as we know, but harder).

So too with shock jocks. Easy to sit in a studio, earphones on, speaking into a microphone, miles away from where the victim of your nastiness is listening. Or speaking at a function involving a hundred of your political friends, or taking part in a “protest” involving your listeners. The real test is, would you say those things to the face of your victim? Would you scream abuse, face to face, at someone at the funeral of their father? Would you tell someone, face to face, they should be drowned, killed, that they were a bitch, a witch?

If there are things that you wouldn’t say to someone, face to face, that marks the boundary of “free speech”. But let’s not define it legally and write it down in a Constitution or “Bill of Rights”. OK?

PS the opposite view on Mr Jones, written more-or-less at same time as this, is here.

Note for American, UK, and probably other visitors. The “Liberal” Party of Australia is certainly not “liberal”. It is equivalent in ideology, policies, and behaviour to the Republicans and the Conservatives (and indeed it has strong links, exchanging ideas and tactics, with both).