By Francesca Millena
“We cannot have free speech conversations that are divorced from the notions of power,” says Waleed Aly. “I view the challenges to free speech in Australia through the prisms of power, not through the prisms of law.”
The broadcaster, writer and commentator will deliver the first in PEN’s Free Voices lectures for 2013 at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The lecture, entitled ‘Free Speech, Power and Vilification’, explores the discourse of power and its fundamental relationship to free speech, but with a twist.
It’s an interesting position for the 35-year-old former lawyer to take in light of the recent legal battles that have involved journalists on the subject of free speech. From Herald-Sun columnist Andrew Bolt’s racial vilification stoush and talk-back radio host Alan Jones’ court-enforced mea culpa, free speech has been mentioned as frequently in the legal courts in recent times as it has been a tenet of the media mandate itself.
“I understand the law but if you look at it as the basis for examining the operation of free speech in Australia, you won’t get very far,” says Waleed. “The key function of free speech is the ability to hold power to account and to uphold the right of the powerless to speak their mind in the face of the powerful.
“What I want to examine is the extent to which that has been forgotten in our free speech arguments in Australia. As far as the Australian conversation is concerned, free speech is typically an argument deployed by those who have cultural power against those that don’t, and that’s where vilification comes in.”
Waleed Aly is a respected commentator on Muslim affairs and his 2007 book People Like Us, How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and the West, explored the gulf between Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia. His awareness of the power disparity between the haves and the have nots, and the impact on free speech, crystallised after the events of September 11.
“After September 11, I found myself in a social minority that was being vilified and didn’t have the social capital or power to respond. There was this incredible sense of powerlessness in the conversation, this idea that you were being spoken about like you weren’t in the room, and there was really nothing you could do about it.
“People can say it’s a free country, there’s free speech, and you can say what you want. But it doesn’t work that way. Who’s going to print it and who’s going to broadcast it? What’s a community newsletter going to go when it’s up against a major current affairs program?”
A ‘flash-point’ is how Waleed describes September 11 in the development of his consciousness around power and prejudice in Australia. Although growing up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, he was always aware of being the only Egyptian child on his block. He says after September 11 being a non-white became more of an issue.
Yet he concedes that unlike most Muslim Australians, his ability to contribute to public dialogue post-September 11 was largely enhanced. As a Melbourne University law and engineering student in 2001, Waleed would go on to work as a legal associate for Joseph Kay, one of Australia’s most senior Family Court judges, before branching into journalism where he would find multiple platforms from which to communicate. But the September 11 experience was nonetheless formative.
“When you witness first-hand the effect of power disparity, you realise it’s incredibly important. Once you’re attuned to it, you see this power disparity everywhere.”
An outspoken commentator on women’s rights, Waleed was a White Ribbon ambassador for the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2005. He draws on the recent uproar over reverse sexism as an example.
“It’s an obnoxious argument for people to complain about women making sexist comments about men because it discounts power. It discounts the fact men have been in a dominant position for a very long time and they still are. So the use of their power to vilify women is not remotely equal to women vilifying men because they’re coming from very different social positions.”
Today Waleed is a prolific journalist who writes for The Age, The Australian, and The Monthly and is presenter of ABC’s Radio National Drive program. Yet he cites the lack of media diversity and its concentration in the hands of few as the key challenges to freedom of speech in Australia.
“What this means is that radical opinions aren’t broadcast. You’re not going to see an anti-democracy rally being broadcast, unless it’s pretty major, of course. What happens with a concentration of media diversity is almost similar to political correctness but it’s closer to what I’ve heard called ‘patriotic correctness’. It essentially limits which arguments are admissible into public conversation.”
Although he doesn’t deny the right of media proprietors to set their own agendas, Waleed Aly suggests that when those proprietors are few in number, as the case is in Australia, public conversation can become very “contained”.
“I’m not saying it’s a human rights issue in the sense that people aren’t going to be thrown into prison. The questions of power and diversity are more central to understanding how we experience free speech in Australia because the way our speech is limited is not through coercion, political power, or through human rights abuses but through other reasons and other means.”
While most Australians would probably take free speech and freedom of expression for granted, Waleed believes Australians on the whole are engaged in the subject.
“I don’t think Australians are blasé about free speech. We’re not a country that was founded on the idea of freedom like the United States so in some ways the significance of free speech to our self-image is an interesting concept and possibly owes something to the influence of the United States our culture.”
As articulate as his arguments are, Waleed says that coming up with solutions isn’t his bag. “I’m an academic. I don’t solve problems…” he says with a laugh.