By Nigel Jackson.
The Australian Press Council has declined to accept for processing a complaint against the Melbourne newspaper The Age which I laid before it on 2 October 2012. As the reasons given by the Council for so acting appear to me to be logically invalid and not in accord with its own principles, I believe that the situation should be presented for consideration to the general public, especially since very important ethical issues are involved. During 2012 the Finkelstein Report, chartered by the federal government, called into question the effectiveness of the Council and recommended that it be replaced with a government-regulated body. This generated enormous public interest and discussion. Thus a context exists in which the Council’s practice should be most closely studied.
The Council was established in 1976, as its publication Objects, Principles and Complaints Procedure tells us, with two main aims, one of which is ‘to ensure that the free press acts responsibly and ethically’ by providing a forum for complaints. In a section of this booklet (pages 6-7) we are given the Council’s ‘Statement of Principles’. I made my complaint relying on the following aspects of this declaration: (1) that in dealing with complaints the Council will give first and dominant consideration to what it perceives to be in the public interest; (2) that publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced, and that they should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission (Principle 1); (3) that where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence (Principle 2); (4) that where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article, but, failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication (Principle 3); that publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the by-lined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion, but that relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed (Principle 6).
This is the complaint which I submitted to the Council.
In its editorial ‘Free speech has to include freedom to offend’ published on 8th August 2012 The Age made statements about what it called ‘Holocaust denial’ which I believe are fundamentally false and which seriously misinformed readers about the nature of revisionist historians and their writings about the Holocaust. (‘Holocaust denial’ is a term habitually used by hostile critics of such historians and their work, whereas these historians themselves, and their supporters, prefer the more accurate term ‘Holocaust revisionism’,)
The editorial stated that ‘Holocaust denial’ is ‘speech so toxic or inflammatory or dangerous’ that ‘it threatens public safety and free discourse’ and implied that it constitutes ‘hate speech or incitement to racial violence’. It added that it is ‘an attack on historical truth’ which is ‘necessarily pernicious’ and ‘designed to provoke fear among Jews and other victims of Nazi terror.’ I believe that these claims are of no worthwhile substance whatever and involve a gross impugning of the motives of the revisionist historians concerned.
A representative statement of the aims of Holocaust revisionists is published on the website of Inconvenient History. It includes the following words: ‘Our desire is to return to the roots of revisionism without any political agenda or desire to white wash totalitarian regimes. We are free-thinkers who seek to support the concept of intellectual freedom as a means to peace and understanding between nations.’ Their writings appear to be clearly in accord with these aims. (The six Holocaust revisionists I named in my correspondence to The Age can be taken as representative of the school.)
On 8th August I sent a short letter of correction and balancing to The Age, but it was not published. Subsequent requests for reconsideration made to the Letters Editor and then the Editor were ignored. I believe that The Age is now in breach of the Council’s principles 3 (failing to publish a balancing response) and 6 (misrepresenting and suppressing relevant facts).
The matter is profoundly important to the public interest because the editorial was using its misleading assertions to argue for a very serious limitation on free speech in Australia. As I noted in my appeal to the Letters Editor, ‘a particular historical event, or set of events, is, it appears, not to be subjected to the usual scrutiny by successive generations, on pain of legal punishment,’ This would constitute a serious invasion of traditional free speech in Australia.
My original letter to the editor which The Age declined to publish read as follows.
Your editorial claim (‘Free speech has to include freedom to offend’, 6/8) that ‘Holocaust denial’ (or do you mean Holocaust revisionism?) is ‘so toxic or inflammatory or dangerous it threatens public safety and free discourse’ is nonsense. The work of men like Robert Faurisson, Germar Rudolf and Carlo Mattogno is in no way an ‘attack on historical truth’, but is a set of well-researched and calmly expressed theses arguing that some of the hitherto accepted truths of World War Two are in fact falsehoods.
In effect, you are claiming that a reassessment of certain aspects of history is ‘necessarily pernicious’ – a thoroughly unacademic position. Most false of all is your despicable slander that Holocaust revisionism is ‘designed to provoke fear among Jews and other victims of Nazi terror.’ Far from that, it is designed to free humanity from serious misunderstanding that is still used by some groups to wrongfully obtain advantage for themselves.
It is a shame to see The Age expressing such an illiberal prejudice.
As a justification of my request to the Letters Editor for reconsideration, I supplied the following four points.
(1) The Age editorial is advocating a very serious limitation on free speech: a particular historical event, or set of events, is, it appears, not to be subjected to the usual academic scrutiny by successive generations, on pain of legal punishment, and The Age supports this limitation. I don’t recall The Age ever before stating this position so bluntly. Surely the principle involved needs to be widely discussed! Most thoughtful people would see claims that some matter of history cannot lawfully be discussed and challenged in public forums as the infallible mark of tyranny.
(2) The editorial wrongfully and unnecessarily insults and defames critics of the current understanding of the Holocaust. Examination of the writings of men such as those I named and others such as Jurgen Graf, Paul Grubach and Richard Widmann does not reveal any sign of a desire to cause fear among Jews or other victims of Nazism. If the Holocaust revisionists are plain wrong, then the only explanation that is credible is that they are deluded or suffering from an idee fixe. The Age needs to withdraw this accusation or at least allow it to be challenged in its letter columns.
(3) ‘Holocaust denial’ is a term used by those opposed to the Holocaust revisionists. It is a propaganda term. Ordinary people, ignorant of the work of the revisionists, which they never see fairly presented in mass media like The Age, can be gulled by this term into thinking that the revisionists deny the obvious – that Nazi Germany had an anti-Semitic policy and that large numbers of Jews (and others) suffered unjustly as a result. I’ve never seen any published claim stating such an absurdity. The correct term to use is ‘Holocaust revisionism’. That is what Faurisson and the others have engaged in. They argue that the Holocaust was not as bad as has hitherto been believed, but they are still strongly critical of Nazi wrongdoing. Revisionism is and always has been a fundamental principle of historical research generally. Does The Age really believe that the Holocaust and World War Two history should be immune to that process?
(4) The position of The Age in this context is incongruent with its general stance as a liberal/radical newspaper. A strong presumption exists that The Age in this matter has been unduly influenced by pressure, perhaps financial, from those Jewish agencies which regularly attack Holocaust revisionists. If that is so, The Age should, in the public interest, free itself from that influence. Publishing my letter would be a step in the right direction. If it is not so, then The Age needs to provide explanation for its extraordinarily illiberal position as expressed in its editorial.
My original letter and the above reasons were provided as evidence with my complaint to the Council.
On 11 October Paul Nangle, Director of Complaints for the Council, responded to my complaint as follows.
The editorial does not elaborate on the type of comment about the Holocaust that it is referring to as ‘Holocaust denial’. Accordingly, there is no basis on which to establish that the editorial is referring to the views of the kind which you describe as ‘Holocaust revisionism’. In any event, the meaning and application in this context of the distinction between ‘denial’ and ‘revisionism’ is likely to be a matter of contestable opinion, in relation to which a newspaper is entitled to express its own views in an editorial. It is also for these reasons that The Age was not obliged to publish your letter.
I understand that you may be dissatisfied with this conclusion, but I am not able to assist you further in this matter.
These reasons given by the Council to justify its refusal to process my complaint appeared to me to be entirely insubstantial, so I appealed to Mr Nangle to reconsider his decision, providing the following statements to support my appeal.
It is true that The Age editorial does not elaborate on the type of comment about the Holocaust that it is referring to as ‘Holocaust denial’.
However, the correct presumptions to be made from this are surely that The Age was confident that its readers would understand what it meant, and that therefore the term is to be understood to mean what it does in common parlance.
There is, in my view, no doubt about what it means in common parlance and what, therefore, The Age meant it to mean. Wikipedia, which I consulted on 27th September, is quite clear about what it means: ‘Holocaust denial is the act of denying the genocide of Jews in the Holocaust during World War II. The key claims of Holocaust denial are: the German Nazi government had no official policy or intention of exterminating Jews, Nazi authorities did not use extermination camps and gas chambers to mass murder Jews, and the actual number of Jews killed was significantly (typically an order of magnitude) lower than the historically accepted figure of 5 to 6 million.’
The views of the kind I have described in my complaint as constituting ‘Holocaust revisionism’ very much include those listed by Wikipedia as ‘Holocaust denial’.
Your claim, therefore, that ‘there is no basis on which to establish that the editorial is referring to [those views]’ itself has no basis in logic or fact.
You are correct in stating that ‘the meaning and application in this context of the distinction between “denial” and “revisionism” is likely to be a matter of contestable opinion.’ Wikipedia itself notes that ‘Holocaust deniers generally do not accept the term “denial” as an appropriate description of their activities, and use the term “revisionism” instead.’ I made this point both in my letter to The Age and in my complaint.
However, this semantic debate in no way constitutes a justification for the Council to decline to accept and process my complaint.
The fact that ‘a newspaper is entitled to express its own views in an editorial’ is not in dispute and did not form part of my complaint, although I personally believe that The Age breached Council Principle 2 in publishing the remarks I have complained about.
Thus I am unable to see any grounds in your case for not accepting and processing my complaint.
Effectively, what I am complaining about is that the comments by The Age about ‘Holocaust denial’ were so extreme and slanderous that it should have been prepared to publish a balancing letter (mine in this case). I rely on Principle 3 here and you have provided no argument to show that Principle 3 has not been fairly and relevantly invoked here.
There is such a gulf between the actual writings of Holocaust revisionists and the description of these given by The Age that its account cannot, I believe, be seen as ‘fair comment’, but only as outright and serious misrepresentation. That is why my complaint invokes Principle 6; and you have also provided no argument to show that this cannot be relevantly and fairly invoked here.
It will not be hard for the Council to investigate (and, in my view, establish) the truth of my complaint. I have provided the names of six such historians (a manageable number) and can refer the Council in due course to two or three short essays by each to justify my claims. The amount of research needed is not excessive.
A serious deficiency of your response to me is that you have made no reference to my point about this matter being very much in the public interest, since a very serious breach of free speech is being advocated by The Age. Surely the Council will agree that thoughtful readers should be given both sides of the controversy over Holocaust revisionism (or ‘denial’), especially when the question of free speech is being debated so widely in our public forums at this time.
The matter is also important because in a number of Western nations people have been fined and/or imprisoned for ‘Holocaust denial’ and it is undesirable, I assert, that such a situation should be reached in Australia. This is a point that I believe the great majority of thoughtful Australians would agree with.
Bearing in mind all these points, I ask you to reconsider my complaint and to accept it for processing.
This appeal elicited a brief letter dated 29th October 2012 from Derek Wilding, the Council’s Executive Director, as follows.
I referred to the Chair of the Council your request for reconsideration of my decision not to proceed with your complaint against The Age.
The Chair considered that the editorial in The Age refers to the term ‘Holocaust denial’, but does not specify what type of views about the Holocaust fall within this term and does not refer to any particular group of people. It cannot be said, therefore, to misrepresent the issue of ‘Holocaust revisionism’ (under General Principle 6) or to be unfair to a group of people who might identify as ‘Holocaust revisionists’ (under General Principle 3).
The Chair decided to uphold my decision not to proceed with the complaint.
The Executive Director’s letter clearly did little more than repeat Mr Nangle’s position. I thus exercised my right under Council rules to appeal to Professor Julian Disney, the Council’s chairman, to review the situation, writing to him on 30th October as follows.
Mr Wilding’s letter does not deal with any of the arguments and evidence I submitted with my request for reconsideration.
If those arguments and evidence really fail, I would expect the Council to explain clearly why that is so. As it is, it seems to me that the Council, in unreasonably rejecting my complaint, is failing to abide by its own principles. Can you show otherwise?
Professor Disney did not reply to this personally. Instead I heard again on 19th November from the Executive Director as follows.
The Chair has received your letter dated 30 October. He asked me to confirm to you that my letter of 29 October accurately conveyed his decision in response to your request for review and that he considers that sufficient reason for his decision was given in that letter.
We appreciate that you remain dissatisfied but this file will now be closed.
The question of Holocaust revisionism (or denial) – its nature, validity or lack thereof, what should be done about it and what has been done about it – is one of the great intellectual controversies of our times. One feels that men like John Milton, John Bunyan, Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, to name only four possible candidates from among the great defenders of human freedom within Western European culture, would be horrified to learn that in 2012 some fourteen or so nations, most of them within that cultural orbit, forbid by law dissent from the received account of a major historical topic, many of them imprisoning the dissenters and one at least (Germany) even imprisoning a defence lawyer for a dissenter. We should do everything we can to prevent this system of repression from engulfing our own nation.
As for our Australian scene, I believe that the great majority of thoughtful Australians do not relish the idea of the state decreeing what may or may not be publicly spoken and published about any area of history. Today it might be the Holocaust, tomorrow it might be ‘the Stolen Generation’, the next day it might be the crucifixion of Jesus. Government censorship of historical debate on any issue is fundamentally incompatible with the principles of a free society. Thus, the gravity of what The Age suggested in its editorial needs to be exposed and laid open in public forums for the people to discuss it.
It is common knowledge that ‘the Holocaust’ is the most sensitive political topic around and that dissent from the received view of it can lead to destroyed reputations and careers. Is it really right that this should be so?
Is it right that for a long time our major media, judging (in my case) from the major newspapers read in Melbourne, have failed to report properly on this great controversy, instead shielding the proponents of repression from the light of day and refusing space to the revisionists to put their cases?
It seems to me that the Australian Press Council, having been asked to assess a complaint that brings all these matters out into the open, has fallen at the first jump.
In my view the Council has much explaining of its position to do if it wants to remain credible. It needs to answer each salient argument I have brought forward, and not just depend upon assertions which I have, I believe, shown to be intellectually worthless.
Melbourne, 20th November 2012