Censorship in Australia

Freedom of speech in Australia is in far worse shape than generally understood. Frank Moorhouse, researching his essay, “The writer in a time of terror” came across first one and then a large number of extremely frightening examples of Orwellian censorship and government interference. The following article is based on an interview Moorhouse did with Ramona Koval, of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Book Show. You can listen to the interview in full here.

  • June 2004: Andrew Wilkie, a former Office of National Assessments analyst who left because of his discontent over Government lies leading up to the Iraq war, and later became a Green party electoral candidate, wrote a book called “Axis of Deceit”. He was to be published by the well known and respected Melbourne firm Black Inc.. The book was about the Iraq war and its justification. Black Inc had the book checked out with another former ONA officer, and voluntarily removed some sections in the manuscript. Finally to make sure there was no breach of security legislation, Black Inc sent it to a lawyer in Canberra, Martin Toohey, who had expertise in the Intelligence area. He immediately sent a copy to the Attorney General’s department.

    1. A team of technicians appeared at Black Inc to “cleanse” their computers of offending material, including about another page and a half of cuts. This process took several days, and included smashing the original hard disk with a special hammer.
    2. The same process took place at Wilkie’s relatives, with a documentary film maker Carmel Travis, and Professor Robert Mann who was the commissioning editor of the book.
    3. Those involved were then asked to sign an agreement promising to never disclose these events. As Frank Moorhouse says, this is like the Mafia saying “this conversation never happened.” Carmel Travis refused to sign it, despite bullying and verbal harassment, and some people from Black Inc have now breached the agreement.

    So it was an attempt to erase parts of the manuscript as well as any evidence that this censorship had ever taken place.

  • Australian satirist and social commentator Richard Neville made a website which was a mock message by John Howard apologising for the Iraq war. A day later the website was closed by his hosting service, on orders from the Prime Minister’s department.

  • Eight books and a film were to be banned because they might incite violence or because they encouraged or praised jihad. The Attorney General referred them to the Federal Police and the Crown Prosecutor, who said that their contents did not constitute any offence. The Attorney General then referred them to the Office of Film and Literature Classification, which normally gives ratings such as MA-15 to films or refuses classification, thereby effectively banning it. The same process applies to books, except that although they may be refused publication they are not classified. This board said there was no problem, so Philip Ruddock, the Attorney General, then insisted that the material be presented to the Classification Review Board. Under pressure from the government and the Attorney General’s department this review board decided that two of the eight books should be refused classification.

    The books were banned on the basis that they gave direct instruction on how to conduct terrorist operations. Frank Moorhouse has obtained copies of these via the internet, and checked that the internet copies were the same as the printed version. He says they contain, to his eyes, nothing which you could not find on television on any night.

    After these difficulties with getting his way with the OFLC, Philip Ruddock had it moved into the Attorney General’s department, thereby completely undermining its impartiality.

Moorhouse says he has a large number of similar examples, which demonstrate several important issues for free speech in Australia:

  1. There is often no clear security purpose served by the government’s actions. In some cases the censorship quite obviously bears no relation to security concerns.
  2. There is a confusion between national security and government policy – even a sense that someone who is in conflict with the government is a potential traitor and certainly “un-Australian”.
  3. Under a regime of censorship the public’s ability to make informed and considered decisions is diminished. Our democracy depends upon access to good information.
  4. It also sends a message to young Muslims in Australia that freedom of speech exists except for them. Of the 18 cases Frank Moorhouse investigated nearly all the censored authors were non-Muslim, but that doesn’t change the perception, especially since the censorship takes place in a secretive rather than open way.

Frank Moorhouse’s essay will appear in the next edition of Griffith Review.

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