The right to be bigoted

For The Australian, August 13, 2015

There's a simple fix to end the clamouring for censorship of political TV ads. 

This week channels 10 and 7 have rejected an ad against same sex marriage equality. Foxtel decided to allow the ad, but are now facing consumer boycotts for the decision. How ridiculous. 

As someone who has run TV ads in favour of marriage equality, I would be remiss not to fight for the right of those who disagree with me to do the same. 

Encouraging private companies to exercise political censorship is a dangerous idea. Imagine this: come next election, Channels 10 and 7 decide that they will only accept ads for the one Liberal Party, but not for the ALP. It would be outrageous: private companies abusing a public good—our airwaves—to censor some political views but not others. 

Thankfully, they’re not allowed to. The Broadcasting Services Act prevents broadcasters from refusing political television ads ... but only from political parties, and only during elections. It's not enough. Politics is far too important to be left to politicians, and important political debates don’t just happen at election time. Marriage equality is a great example. Groups like GetUp, Australian Marriage Equality, and even a number of large public companies, have been funding advertising campaigns to convince Australians to end discrimination against same-sex couples. They’re good ads, they’re well-funded, and their argument is clearly winning. So why are some so scared ofopponents running their ads too? 

One argument is that the ads are offensive. I find plenty of ads on TV offensive. Many are sexist in tone, or simply shilling products that are terrible for the planet. If we were to ban all advertisements someone found offensive, there wouldn’t be much left on TV. 

But, you might say, these ads against marriage equality ads cause harm to people, particularly young queer Australians. The particular ad I saw was relatively innocuous , but in general I agree.Many advertisements cause harm. I can think dozens that push unhealthy body image, racial or gender stereotypes, gambling products, unhealthy food, and many more. Besides, far more harm is caused by the homophobic remarks of certain politicians, but we certainly don’t propose to censor them.

Finally, one might argue that these ads are actually hate speech—opinions so vile and harmful that they should be banned from publication. I agree that such limits on free speech must exist, but we must tread very, very carefully in banning opinions. These ads come anywhere near the level that warrant censorship. But even if you disagree, do you really believe that the arbiters of such censorship should be a handful of advertising executives at commercial TV stations? Surely not. We have hate speech laws, set out in legislation and accountable in court. If they’re insufficient, make an argument to change them—not for more political censorship at the discretion of Foxtel or Channel 10. 

Some might say that broadcasters are private companies and should be able to exercise complete discretion on what ads to air. There are two problems there. Firstly, the airwaves don’t belong to broadcasting companies. They are a public good licensed to those companies by the Government with conditions to protect public debate. Secondly, I doubt TV companies want to be in the position of having to make sensitive political calls on each controversial ad! Surely it would be in their interest to have parameters laid out simply and fairly in broadcasting regulations, which they can simply follow. Less work, less liability, more profit. 

Ultimately, the best response to bigotry isn’t to ban it, but to fight it. When Katter Australia Party ran homophobic ads in the Queensland State election four years ago, I worked with his brother Carl Katter to film a response calling out homophobia and telling gay and lesbian Queenslanders that they belong. Backed by GetUp members, Carl bravely took on his brother in the public domain, and he convincingly won the argument. Katter Australia Party admitted after the election that their advertisement was a huge mistake and cost them votes. That’s a better response. 

I’ve seen Australian TV companies block ads criticising China on human rights in Tibet, and ads exposing Woolworths for their harmful poker machines. We don’t know who made those decisions, nor on what basis. It could have been personal ideology, or perhaps protecting the financial interests of big advertisers. Neither are an acceptable reason to censor political views, and if we're against corporate censorship for one, we must be against it for all, including those we disagree with. 

So if Tony Abbott's Government wants a chance to stand up for freedom of expression, here it is. Simply amend the Broadcasting Services Act to allow every group free political speech without censorship. That would end the clamouring for censorship every time someone runs a controversial political ad. I have an inkling this might not be the last time.