Very few people can polarise people the way that Alan Jones can.
He has a loyal following of conservative AM listeners but has also attracted criticism for some of his controversial comments and opinions.
Alan Jones has recently been defeated in a long-running case after using terms like ‘mongrels’, ‘idiots’ and ‘vermin’ to describe Lebanese men.
The comments were made in response to a speech made by Muslim cleric, Sheik Faiz Mohammed, who, amongst other things, said that a victim of rape had no one to blame but herself.
Jones’ outrage is completely understandable. What was not acceptable is that instead of condemning the cleric and small group of people who propagated these unacceptable ideas, he channelled his rage against an entire race and described them in demeaning, subhuman terms like ‘vermin’.
Jones claimed that the words were not even his own, saying that he was simply reading a letter from a listener.
Yet neither Jones nor the radio station has produced any evidence that the letter ever existed.
The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal ruled that whether or not Jones was reading a letter was irrelevant; it was clear that he endorsed the views, which was enough to find that he had contravened the law.
Did Alan Jones commit a criminal offence?
There isn’t a specific crime of racism, but it under section 4 and 4A of the NSW Summary Offences Act, offensive conduct and offensive languages are considered to be criminal offences.
A person conducting themselves in an offensive manner in or near a public place or school can be sentenced to up to three months imprisonment and/or a $660 fine, whilst offensive language may be punished by a $660 fine or up to 100 hours of community service.
In addition, section 11.4 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 makes it an offence to incite others to commit violence. The maximum penalty for that offence is up to 10 years’ imprisonment, depending on the crime that is incited.
But Jones was never prosecuted by police for his on-air comments.
Instead, a complaint was made to the tribunal by Muslim leader Keysar Trad that he breached section 20C(1) of the Anti-Discrimination Act which makes it unlawful for a person, by a public act, to incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or group of people on the grounds of their race.
An essential requirement of the section is that act must be public, which is also an essential ingredient of the much-debated section 18C which makes racial vilification unlawful.
According to the Tribunal, the fact that Alan Jones is a public figure was very significant – especially because his opinions carry great weight amongst his nationwide following.
This magnified the effect of his offensive remarks.
Under section 20C(2)(c) of the Act, words or actions will not be classed as racial vilification if it was done in the public interest including for academic, artistic, scientific or research purposes or to start discussions or debate.
But the tribunal found that this exception did not apply in Jones’ case.
Jones was ordered to pay Keysar Trad $10,000, as well as contributed towards the payment of Mr Trad’s legal costs.
While $10,000 may be chickenfeed to Alan Jones, it sends a powerful message to those in positions of influence that no-one is beyond the reach of the law.
The tribunal stated that it was sceptical about Jones’ claims to have received training related to racial vilification, and radio station 2GB is now required to undertake a critical review of their 2005 programs and policies in order to adopt changes so that no these incidents will not occur in future.
Where does freedom of speech end and unacceptable hate speech begin?
Should all offensive comments be unlawful? By definition, freedom of speech should extend to unpopular or even wrong ideas.
And the atrocious terrorist attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo in France has reinforced the notion that freedom of speech is a valuable ideal that must be vigilantly protected.
If people were only allowed to voice pre-approved set of opinions, it would mean that diverse and valuable views might be suppressed – which would be undesirable and even destructive to a liberal democracy.
But freedom of speech has never been absolute, and voicing one’s thoughts comes with a level of responsibility.
So where should the law step in? When does an opinion turn into an unlawful act?
According to section 20 of the Anti-Discrimination Act, the line is crossed in the context of racial vilification when a public act:
- Incites hatred towards;
- Serious contempt for; or
- Severe ridicule of
a person or group of people on the grounds of race, which has no valid public interest.
It is easy to see why Alan Jones’ comments fit into this category – he unfairly insulted all Lebanese men based on the actions of a small minority.
If Jones had restrained his insults to Sheik Faiz Mohammed and his followers, there would not have been any formal repercussions.
But instead he chose to generalise, unfairly and untruthfully labelling all Lebanese men “idiots” and “vermin” who hate our country and heritage.
Mr Trad described the victory as symbolic and the message clear: even powerful media personalities like Alan Jones will be held accountable for unlawful comments.