Free speech does not mean a media platform

Release Date: 
29 June 2015

If a man called for the public gang rape of two prominent women, what would be your response? Revulsion? Outrage?

How about giving the man a taxpayer-funded megaphone, live and unvetoed, with a million people listening?

This is what the ABC did when they gave the microphone to Zaky Mallah on their flagship program, Q&A, last Monday night.

Mallah tweeted this year that two well-known female journalists were "decent whores that ... need to be gang banged on the Sunrise desk". He followed up by suggesting he would be first to participate.

There was no mistaking by ­Q&A who this man was: host Tony Jones gave a short description of him before he took the floor. Mallah was a known entity who was selected to ask a live question, had his travel to the studio paid for, and then was given the stage.

His criminal background and extreme views, which I will come to, are frightening but on Mallah's views on women alone it is unfathomable that he was part of Q&A. Where else would those views be acceptable?

I have decided not to participate on Q&A tonight, having been invited to do so a couple of weeks ago. As a parliamentary secretary to Tony Abbott, I don't think it is appropriate I attend while a formal government review of last week's program is in progress.

It does not mean I will never attend, but I am concerned my participation could be construed as suggesting the Prime Minister and government are not taking the matters from last week incredibly seriously. We are.

The government review is to understand what happened that led to Mallah's getting a platform on the program. Who knew what and when? How can the ABC ensure such a thing will not happen again?

The government does not have any power over editorial decisions, nor would we want to.

But it can make recommendations to the ABC board, as it did with its efficiency review. Mallah's views on women are just one part of the disturbing profile of this man.

Two days after our Anzac centenary commemorations on April 25, he expressed his support for the view that our soldiers were summary executers, rapists and thieves.

But his criminal history and terrorist sympathies are the most frightening.

This is a man who has spent two years in prison for threats to kill ASIO officers. Police had raided his house and found an illegally acquired rifle, 100 rounds of ammunition and a manual titled: How I can prepare myself for Jihad.

He had produced a videotape that included recitations from the Koran, images of himself and his purported last message to the world.

When you read the full details about Mallah, including his use of the media for attention-seeking, he sounds remarkably like Man Haron Monis, Sydney's Lindt Cafe terrorist.

When given the microphone on Q&A he used it to his advantage, providing a chilling justification for terrorists that came perilously close to incitement. This is exactly what extremists across the world seek: media attention to magnify their message.

Look back at the NSW Supreme Court case against Mallah and you see that the judge warns against giving him media exposure, saying that placing such a person in the spotlight is likely "to encourage him to embark on even more outrageous behaviour".

Initially the ABC regretted the decision to invite Mallah, but then it doubled down by repeating the program in full and keeping it on its internet platform. Later, ABC managing director Mark Scott gave a partial justification for its decision. So when Abbott asked, "whose side is the ABC on?'', it was a legitimate question.

Islamic extremists are at war with us. We have suffered two recent terrorist attacks and others have been stopped. ASIO is monitoring more than 400 people of high interest. We have all been appalled at the atrocities on Friday night in France, Tunisia and Kuwait.

The choice of side should be uncomplicated when it comes to people who seek to bring down our way of life.

This is not a matter of free speech, as Scott pretends. Free speech means a person is legally allowed to express views. It does not mean that those views must be magnified with taxpayer assistance. Media companies will make mistakes, as we all do.

But a mistake of this magnitude and seriousness requires more than an expression of regret, a weak justification from the managing director and silence from the board.

The government's review will elicit the facts of what happened but ultimately it will require a desire from the ABC to change.