Welcome to Disney World

 2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

The Australian, August 5, 2014


IT can be dangerous to pick a fight with the Australian Press Council so let us state our position plainly. The writer of the column and its publisher do not suggest that there is any comparison between Julian Disney’s redoubtable body and the Holy Roman Inquisition.

Nevertheless, one wonders how Galileo would have fared under the council’s new rules if he had been summoned to defend his views on heliocentrism. Galileo would be allowed to express his opinion that the sun was centre of the world and completely devoid of local motion ­providing he did so “with reasonable fairness and balance”. However, Disney would be entitled to come down on him like a tonne of bricks if his opinion was “based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts”.

Putting aside the council’s cavalier attitude to grammar (the omission of a definite article perhaps?), what are we to make of its assertion that there are two kinds of facts — key and non-key — and its presumption that the council has the sagacity to distinguish ­between them? After all, the omission of key facts — the ones written in the Bible — was the basis of Tommaso Caccini’s complaint that led to Galileo’s denunciation by the ­Inquisition. The proposition that the earth revolved around the sun, claimed Caccini, “contradicts many pass­ages of divine Scripture whose literal sense, as given unanimously by the Holy Fathers, sounds and means the opposite”.

Unless modern scientists have got things horribly wrong, it now appears Galileo was right all along and that the Inquisition was not defending the truth, as it claimed, but merely upholding what JK Galbraith called “conventional wisdom”.

“The high public official is expected, and indeed is to some extent required, to expound the conventional wisdom,” Galbraith wrote in The Affluent Society. “The application of the other test, e.g. their effectiveness as a simple description of the economic or political reality, would be regarded as eccentric in the extreme.”

With the best will in the world, Disney has little choice but to draw upon conventional wisdom when called upon to distinguish between fabrications, facts and key facts. Separating truth from error in areas like economics and climate science is no mean task, even for a professor of law and social justice. What is more, it is not inconceivable that two intelligent people can examine the same set of facts and come to opposite conclusions.

So who should Disney trust? When Andrew Bolt, for instance, wrote that “the planet hasn’t warmed for a decade”, and that the “Arctic ice has not retreated since 2007”, were the facts upon which he drew material or immaterial to the argument? Disney was prepared to accept that Bolt’s assertions about sea and ice conditions “were statistically compatible with the key data sources”. Naturally, however, in view of what Disney described as “the great public importance of these issues”, he could not simply leave it at that. “Mr Bolt,” ruled Disney, “should have acknowledged explicitly that all of the three changes in question were comparatively short-term.”

The policing of opinion articles in this way is a relatively new incursion by the council into sections in newspapers once considered to be havens of free speech. Until Disney became chairman the council largely abided by the liberal convention that news reports and commentary should be judged differently, and that opinion required no justification other that it was honestly stated.

That was the view Disney appeared to come to in 2012 when he dismissed a complaint against a March 2012 column by Piers Akerman in The Daily Telegraphheadlined “Greens and their crazy cronies are holding a gun to our head”. Yet it was clear from the small print that Disney was itching for a fight. He warned: “While columnists and other writers of opinion articles have a wider licence than applies to news stories, it is ‘not ­unfettered’.” The judgment laid out the ­welcome mat to the Greens and their crazy cronies who find lodging complaints with the industry-funded watchdog somewhat easier than competing in the ­marketplace of ideas.

One wonders what Disney and his censorship board might make of this column. Have the facts been presented with “reasonable fairness and balance” and are the facts that have been omitted “key facts” or merely flotsam and ­jetsam? The Age’s Jonathan Holmes suggested that Henry Ergas’s column on these pages last week would serve as a splendid test case for the new rules. Ergas erred, in Holmes’s opinion, by claiming that the Renewable Energy Target would increase electricity prices. Ergas stands accused of omitting a “key fact”, namely that electricity ­prices are increasing because of over investment in poles and wires. “By comparison, the effect of the RET has been small,” asserts Holmes, “as Fairfax Media’s Ross Gittins (among many ­others) recently pointed out”.

Without wishing to take sides in the battle of the economic commentators, it is tempting fate to interpret a proposition as fact purely because it was something that “Ross Gittins (among many others) recently pointed out”. Holmes’s logic is not dissimilar to Caccini’s argument that Galileo’s proposition was false because it was “regarded as discordant with the Catholic faith by very ­serious writers”.

Disney’s dictum that commentators must, in effect, abide by the conventional wisdom puts opinion editors in an invidious position since the accepted view is, as Galbraith points out, “highly predictable,” and therefore is inclined to be dull. Its articulation is “a ­religious rite … an act of affirmation like reading aloud from the Scriptures or going to church”. The council’s new rules put opinion editors in a difficult spot. They could conform, as some do, and publish a dull and unsurprising page, or commit an act of civil disobedience and make a useful contribution to the debate.

Disney, before exercising his new powers, might care to consider the advice of John Stuart Mill. “The peculiar evil of silencing an opinion is that it is robbing the human race,” wrote Mill in On Liberty. “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. If wrong, they lose what is ­almost as great a benefit, the clearer and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”