On MRI Scans And Freedom Of Speech

I broke my elbow once.  It was a complicated fracture that only partially restricted my movement, and in fact, I initially thought it was just a bad sprain.  After seeing my orthopaedic surgeon, I diligently went to have an MRI done to see exactly what was going on.  MRI machines aren’t the most comfortable things, and in my case I had to be in a particular position, laying face down with my arm straight out in front of me, Superman style.  And I had to be perfectly still.

Sure, easy … right?  For the first minute I was fine.  After the second minute, my fingers were tingling.  Five minutes into the twenty-minute scan, my entire arm went numb.  By the time the scan was over, I was experiencing phantom limb movement where my brain was telling me that my arm was free-floating in space, even though it was laying dormant and lifeless on the bed in front of me.  What was really weird was that I couldn’t lift my arm.  I had to use my other hand to pick it up and carry it with me when I got off the bed.  And that made it harder to walk straight, because my body was used to both arms moving freely to walk straight.

In recent months, Senator Brown has vociferously pushed for media regulation, especially of what he refers to as “hate media” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OydmiPg6j9M).  Of course, by “hate media” he means every newspaper and journalist that would dare to question Greens policy.

In recent days he went further, suggesting that individual journalists should be licensed.  “It’s time the crown licensed the press,” Senator Brown said, before later calling for “some point of reference” to pull up both journalists and proprietors “who do the wrong thing in their tracks” (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/media/brown-calls-for-state-control-of-media-and-licences-for-journos/story-e6frg996-1226156424790).

But who decides exactly what the standards for journalism should be?  Who can claim to be the sole arbiter of truth, and thus able to set firm, objective boundaries that the media can operate within?

Perhaps it should be the Judiciary?  Except that the reputation of Judges as objective respecters of fact must be called into question by the most recent judgement of Justice Bromberg in the Federal Court.  In handing down his verdict that journalist Andrew Bolt breached the Racial Discrimination Act, Justice Bromberg pronounced that Bolt used language which was not “moderate or temperate but often strong and emphatic” and contained “a liberal use of sarcasm and mockery”.  Justice Bromberg commented: “Language of that kind has a heightened capacity to convey implications beyond the literal meaning of the words utilised. It is language which invites the reader to not only read the lines, but to also read between the lines.” (Media Watch Dog Issue 114, http://www.thesydneyinstitute.com.au/media-watch-dog/).  As columnist Tim Blair astutely noted, “Reading between the lines of Bromberg’s ruling, Bolt seems to have been condemned for a form of thought crime.  We’ve now witnessed a legal procedure about race involving racial differences nobody could see and words nobody could read.” (http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/blank-spaces-between-the-lines/story-e6frezz0-1226156284507)

Perhaps we can trust the Greens themselves to be an impartial arbiter?  Except that they have already shown that they are thin-skinned and insular.  I refer not only to Senator Browns “hate media” comments, but also to the deputy-leader of the Greens, Senator Christine Milne.  She told ABC TV’s Q&A program on the 25th of July 2011, “The Murdoch press has been running a very strong campaign against action on climate change … The bias is extreme, in The Australian in particular … We’ll also have a look at a range of other issues, including who are fit and proper people into whether we need that test into people to be running media outlets. It’s time we had a good inquiry and certainly bias is certainly going to be one of the things that’s certainly to be looked at.”  It is well and good to look at media bias, but can we be guaranteed that such an inquiry will give the same attention to left wing media bias?  Indeed, can a government review process ever be truly unbiased?

But even more fundamental is the issue of freedom of speech.  In 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Article 19 affirms the right to free speech: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

On the 10th of December 1998 the Australian Government pledged to give wholehearted support to the principles enshrined in the Declaration.  However, such a freedom is not wholly enshrined by the the Australian constitution, and indeed, no parliament has moved to enact the freedom of speech articles into Australian law (http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rn/2001-02/02rn42.htm).

Yet free speech remains one of democracies most powerful and fundamental principles.  Indeed, without the ability for any society to openly debate any topic, the sustainability of the growth in knowledge comes under threat.

I believe that knowledge in its broadest sense is like a plumb line.  Within human civilization, knowledge within any discipline or relating to any particular topic goes through fundamental changes as each opposing side is allowed to freely add their input.  Some of these changes are seismic in proportion, the “paradigm shift”, while others are infinitesimal.  A paradigm shift pushes the plumb-bob off on a tangent, and the swing of the plumb-line in its journey back to it’s central point is representative of the course that knowledge takes as each school of thought around that topic or discipline has input into it.  If left to it’s natural course, the oscillating plumb-line regains its equilibrium around the central position, and similarly, if the process of intellectual exchange is left unhindered, the truth within the discipline is revealed.  Such a process relies on the unimpeded action of gravity on the plumb-bob and the knowledge equivalent relies on the free exchange of ideas, unimpeded by political interference within the scientific or philosophical debate.  Once the scientific process is corrupted, or debate stifled, the plumb-bob of knowledge remains skewed off course, artificially held away from its true centre.  We must hold on to the freedom to share our opinions.  It is the only way that human kind will ever discover true knowledge.

I do not agree with most liberal commentary.  But it is essential for ultimate truth to be revealed.  The same must go for conservative commentary as well.  Both sides are needed for balance – like my body’s left and right arms after my MRI.  Or your left and right legs.  If recent legal precedent remains unchallenged, or politicians on the extreme left such as Senators Brown and Milne have their way, we will have the socio-political version of a stroke, and as a country, we will be rendered lame.  Like it or not, journalists, writers, and indeed all Australians, need to be able to speak without fear so our country remains racing, not limping into our future.

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