Free Speech – but not for you

We’re all in favour of being able to say what we want to say, but there are limits! And they apply of course to other people. Like Alan Jones, who has apologised for his rudeness about Julia Gillard’s father. And Andrew Bolt, who discovered that free speech didn’t mean he could offend some indigenous people. In fact, we really don’t have free speech at all. Nothing will stop you saying in Australia that representative democracy is the best system of government there is. But be careful in your criticisms.

I was reminded of the problem about free speech when reading of an incident in the USA that took place recently. America has a Public Broadcasting Service, which is a small version of our ABC. Like our ABC, it is supported by the well educated and relatively well off, and offers programs that are likely to appeal to such an audience.

On 17 September its NewsHour program ran a segment on climate change, and the presenter invited Anthony Watts, the founder of the world’s most visited climate change website (Watts Up With That?) to take part, perhaps to provide an alternative to the prevailing orthodoxy.

Watts is an interesting guy, a former TV meteorologist who became interested in weather data a long time ago, and grew convinced that at least some of the warming said to be occurring was the result of where the measuring instruments were located – too close to car exhausts, surrounded by bitumen, and so on. He agrees that warming is occurring, but shakes his head over the actual reported figures. I like his site for two good reasons. One is that he points to new published work on global warming as it becomes available. The other is that his readers provide him with real data on climate and weather, which he collects and organises. Do you want to know about ENSO? Watts publishes a daily ENSO measure (it is at the high end of Neutral, as I write).

Well, you might think that a bit of balance would be the right way to go on something like the PBS, and what I saw of the segment showed Watts as calm and reasonable. In fact, a very storm broke out in the ether about the program. What was the PBS doing? Within days a petition was being organised, and it has now garnered 18,000 signatures. It calls on the PBS Ombudsman (yes, they have one) to

‘immediately investigate the NewsHour segment featuring climate change denier and conspiracy theorist Anthony Watts for violation of PBS standards on accuracy, integrity, and transparency, and recommend corrective action to ensure that such reporting never again occurs on PBS’.

Whee! To the best of my judgment, this is at the nutty end of the spectrum. The offence seems really to be that PBS allowed Watts to appear. What he actually said could hardly have caused the fuss. Storm in a teacup? No, I don’t think so. What this episode shows is how fragile the notion of free speech is. Like others who worry about it, I think that Voltaire said it the right way – that he might detest what you wanted to say, but he would defend to the death your right to say it.

And the PBS incident reveals the fierceness with which ‘believers’ in anthropogenic global warming (AGW) hold to their faith. Those who utter words to the contrary are resisted with fury and belligerence. I am reminded of Muslims protesting at what they see as insults to their Prophet. Here, environmentalism has become a passionate religion. And I do not think religion has, or should have, any privileged place in a secular society.

For those who might like to think that this sort of thing could happen in the US, but not here, I can assert that I have encountered plenty of it in Australia. It began several years ago, when I was giving a talk to a Rotary group on a book I had written. Was there to be a sequel? I said that I was already at work on it. My published book was about the last fifty years, and the sequel was about the next fifty. The difficult chapter was on the environment, where I would have to say something about global warming, which seemed to me rather over-blown.

That was the last question, and we broke for cups of tea. The questioner came up to me and introduced himself as a diplomat from Germany. He then gave me a finger-wagging. Did I not realise that someone in my position had no right to say these things? The science was settled. I was completely wrong. Worse, people might take notice of what I had said.

I was stunned by this attack, and responded weakly that we would have to disagree. He was the first AGW religionist I met, but since then I have encountered dozens. They inhabit blogs, and their purpose is to shut you up. You are NOT to say these things!

Attitudes like these are the antithesis of free speech, and they are present in Australia just as they are in the USA. They get in the way of debate and discussion, because they deny that debate and discussion are possible. In my view they are pernicious, and a danger to a civilised society. I think that a lot of what Alan Jones says is excessive and arrogant, but it is indicative of our attitude to free speech that Labor is now calling for him to be removed from the air.

Why we have these attitudes in the global warming domain is another question, and though I have touched on it in other essays on this website it really deserves full treatment, at another time.

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