14th February 2011
The Australian website Online Opinion is facing difficult financial times after having advertising withdrawn following the publication of an article on gay marriage. Graham Young, the founder and chief editor of the site, offers his perspective.
Listen to the interview by the ABC with Graham Young HERE: http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2011/02/cpt_20110214_1621.mp3
Oversensitivity can only compromise debate
By Christopher Pearson, From:The Australian, February 05, 2011
GRAHAM Young is the founding editor of a well-regarded e-journal called On Line Opinion, and is a regular contributor to The Australian. I'd describe him as belonging in the centre of the political spectrum, perhaps tending to mild conservatism.
In December he published a piece arguing the case against gay marriage by the pro-family campaigner, Bill Muehlenberg, and then a series of spirited exchanges on the merits of the argument. It was not the first article he'd run on the subject ; that honour had gone to Rodney Croome, a gay activist. Nor were most of the essays run opposed to gay marriage.
Young commented on the blog in mid-December. "The On Line Opinion approach is one that many find difficult to accept, and we are currently under attack from a number of gay activists because we dared to publish [Muehlenberg's essay] which is mostly a pastiche of comments by gay activists, even though the majority of articles I can find on the site support gay marriage. And by attack I mean attempting to intimidate me, sponsors or advertisers. How ironic . . . when we are sponsoring the Human Rights Awards."
When I spoke to him on Wednesday, Young said it wasn't the first time advertisers had made life hard. A group called Ethical Investments had objected after their ads sometimes appeared on pages alongside articles questioning anthropogenic global warming.
On account of the Muehlenberg piece, Young told me two major advertisers had just pulled out: the ANZ Bank and IBM. Comparing this year's January gross ad sales with last year's, he calculated that revenue from his main category of advertising had fallen by 96 per cent. Young is worried that these bizarre decisions will adversely affect other websites as well as his own and could even lead to some of them closing down.
Courts might construe that as the result of an indiscriminate secondary boycott, in contravention of the Trade Practices Act.
That's because Young and a group of other political sites have formed a network called The Domain, to bundle up their readers as a more attractive package for advertisers. The sites are very diverse in terms of ideology, from the ultra-leftist John Passant, to the more mainstream centre-Left Larvatus Prodeo, Club Troppo, Andrew Bartlett, skepticlawyer and the likes of Henry Thornton and Jennifer Marohasy.
Obviously I don't agree with much of what some of them say and the tone of some is more virulent than you'd find in the letters page of The Australian. But clearly they have a right to exist and issues of principle are at stake here that go to the freedom of political debate in this country and the character of our civilisation.
I share the view most editors and journalists once took for granted. Almost any rational argument, no matter how abhorrent, deserves a run.
Aside from advocating terrorism, the only exceptions that come to mind are pieces casting doubts on the existence of the Holocaust and apologias for legalising sex with children or animals.
If anyone is proposing to compromise the freedom of political debate on Australian blogs, it shouldn't happen without a full debate and, like most people, I'd rather it weren't big corporations making the decisions.
So I approached the public relations people at IBM and the ANZ Bank, to find out whether the decision to punish an article against gay marriage by withdrawing their ads was corporate policy.
It seemed inherently unlikely that those organisations would want to express a view either way on such a contentious social issue, let alone in doing so to make decisions that put the survival of other, independent political blogs with a range of positions on the issue in some degree of jeopardy.
It also occurred to me that the sums were small enough - thousands of dollars a month, rather than tens of thousands - so that the decisions might have been taken at one remove, perhaps by the delegated authority of an advertising agency which might be trying to exercise some "soft pink power". In 20-odd years as a magazine editor, I sometimes encountered that sort of malarky.
The initial responses from the PR people in both corporations was that it was news to them and they'd get back to me before my deadline. The ANZ's Stephen Ries replied first. "ANZ does not advertise on any opinion-type websites that may cause offence or segregate any individuals or group. In this instance our advertising was placed through an automatic advertising placement service and once we were alerted to the content we removed our advertising.
"The removal of our advertising should not be viewed as a violation of free speech; it's simply that we choose not to advertise on blogs that do not align to our organisational values."
Oh, brave new world! Apparently anything less than uncritical endorsement of gay marriage no longer aligns with the ANZ's organisational values. What's more, the loss of ad revenue to all the blogs in the Domain network, irrespective of each site's stance on the issue, is neither here nor there and has nothing to do with their freedom of speech.
It's also worth noting that despite the blanket assurances of not advertising on opinion websites, the ANZ was advertising on New Matilda on Friday.
IBM's Matt Mollett's reply was more gnomic. "To optimise reach with its target audiences, IBM continuously reviews and refines its advertising strategy based on a range of considerations, including demographics and content."
Young suspects that the peg on which to hang the internal decision to withdraw advertising within both organisations was a code developed by IASH, the Internet Advertising Sales Houses, which he declined to sign.
The code is a triumph of political correctness gone mad, and badly needs rewriting. Schedule C provides that IASH Australia members "are forbidden to place advertising on sites containing barred content - in other words, any of the inventory defined below - in any circumstances. Content articulating views intended or reasonably likely to cause or incite hatred of any race, religion, creed, class or ethnic group. Content articulating views calculated to cause offence to or incite hatred of any individual or group."
The last sentence is the loopiest in the schedule. It forbids anything that might offend anyone. This would neuter not just contentious articles but the free flow of comment on them that gives blogs their character. As Young says, this section threatens any Australian discussion site. "No newspaper could sign up to this and have discussion threads that were anything other than anodyne."
Apart from making hay with the issue of free speech, I expect the other blogs will kick up a huge fuss, online and in court, about being incidental victims of a secondary boycott. Skepticlawyer blog's Helen Dale, with expertise at the bar and a gift for self-promotion, should have a field day.