Stewart Mills (NSW) responds to Kerr’s “SBS knew Israel drama would offend Jews, Lib senators insist”, The Australian 17Feb12 February 16, 2012

The Australian:  “SBS knew Israel drama would offend Jews, Lib senators insist” by Christian Kerr, 16 February 2012

Freedom of Expression must include a license to offend

For some, films like Brokeback Mountain, The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, broke into new territory and exploded existing social norms.  For others, like certain religious groups, they were considered highly offensive.  Such was the offense by Monty Python that it was banned for eight years in Ireland, for a year in Norway and it was not released in Italy until 1990, eleven years after it was made.

The hysteria that has arisen with certain sectors of the community and by Senators like Helen Kroger and Glenn Sterle over Peter Kosminky’s, The Promise is disturbing (“SBS knew Israel drama would offend Jews, Lib senators insist”, 16 February).

Firstly, there was the cry of anti-Semitism by the ECAJ, Friends of Israel (WA) and Sen Glenn Sterle. When this failed.  This was followed by the cry (of Sen Helen Kroger) that The Promise was aired by SBS despite “independent assessments, which determined that it was offensive to the Jewish community” (The Australian 16 February 2012).

Sen Kroger’s comments raise a number of issues.  Firstly, what did the Senator mean when she said “independent assessments”?  Larry Stillman has already responded to the question about consultation of affected communities –stating SBS does not arrange such consultation and such matters are considered internally.

Secondly, there is the Senators misunderstanding of the SBS Code of Practice.  Mere offence is not grounds to prohibit the airing of material on SBS.   The SBS Code of Practice is clear:

“SBS’s programming can be controversial and provocative and may at times be distasteful and offensive to some.  Not all viewpoints presented will be shared by all audience members” (SBS Code of Practice 1.1)

This is repeated again in SBS Code of Practice 1.2 – “Some subject matter broadcast by SBS may be controversial“.

Instead of criticizing SBS, Senator Kroger, should be congratulating them for a job well done.  Credit needs to be given to SBS management for the difficult job they do.  It is not a job for the faint-hearted.  Australia has such a diverse society with spectrums of opinions and beliefs.   This challenge is reflected in SBS Code of Practice 1.2:

“SBS is for all Australians.  Accordingly SBS is committed to broadcasting programs that reflect a diversity of experiences, lifestyles, beliefs, cultures and languages in Australia.”

It is inevitable that the SBS will offend one group or another from time to time.  Some groups may in fact always be offended by some material.  Take for example some religious groups perspective on topics like homosexuality, abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research or political hot spots like the Middle East

There needs to be a market place of ideas.  The SBS (and the ABC) provide such a space for Australians.  It is a national treasure as described by Senator Scott Ludlum.

Some years back IQ2 held a debate titled “Freedom of Expression must include a license to offend”. Janet Albrechtsen, teamed up with the Reverend Peter Jensen, and Journalist David Marr (an unlikely debating team if ever there was one – but weren’t they good!).  Albrechtsen speaking in the affirmative said:

“Suppressing even the most offensive opinions won’t make them go away. They are driven underground where they avoid the blowtorch of robust public debate and often become more powerful as they fester.

When we shut down offensive speech we lose the best possible method of demolishing bad ideas, namely demonstrating in a public forum why they are wrong. Free and full debate only kills bad ideas. It sustains and invigorates the good ones.”

An integral part of a democracy is the freedom of expression.

As supporters of a democracy we undermine the values we stand for if we try and shut down speech because we find it offensive.

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