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SBS tweets: who really harmed public broadcaster’s reputation?

There has been a good deal of muddled thinking arising from the sacking of Scott McIntyre by SBS because of a series of tweets he sent out on Anzac Day.

In the tweets, he said: “Wonder if the poorly read, largely white nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered”; “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan”.

The Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, described them as “despicable remarks” and drew them to the attention of SBS management. The SBS managing director, Michael Ebeid, then sacked McIntyre, setting off a lively debate about whether this amounted to an attack on McIntyre’s right of free speech.

There are two issues here, one of principle and the other of penalty. They need to be disentangled if we are to arrive at a reasoned conclusion.

First, the issue of principle. Seeing McIntyre’s sacking as an attack on his freedom of speech is a fundamental conceptual error. McIntyre was sacked not because he tweeted but because the offensiveness of what he tweeted brought SBS into disrepute.

[pullquote] “Very likely, the fact that it was Minister Turnbull who reported the tweets to SBS placed some subliminal psychological pressure on SBS management …” [/pullquote]

He was an SBS sports commentator. Organisations like SBS are public institutions. When its employees publish on a matter of politics — which this certainly was — their personal persona is inseparable from their public persona. Therefore, they are accountable publicly for what they publish.

The fact that McIntyre used Twitter and not SBS’s broadcast frequencies is not to the point. The point is, he was identifiable as an SBS journalist, and that provided sufficient grounds for SBS to hold him to account.

In a liberal democracy such as Australia, freedom of speech is an extremely important right, but it is not an absolute right. It gives way every day to competing rights: for example, to people’s right to the protection of their reputation from wrongful harm, and to an accused person’s right to a fair trial.

These intersections between competing rights are regulated by the laws of defamation and contempt, and are only two examples among many of how, in a country where the rule of law prevails, the prioritising of rights in particular cases is decided.

The principle is that we are entitled to speak freely, but we must be prepared to take the legal and ethical consequences if our speech does unjustifiable harm to others.

In McIntyre’s case, the competing right was the right of SBS to not have its reputation brought into disrepute. The organisation took the view that by publishing such an offensive series of tweets, McIntyre had done it unjustifiable harm. Clearly, under the principle just described, it was entitled to take action in response.

This brings us to the issue of penalty.

The principle here is that the penalty should be proportional to the harm done. So, what harm was done to SBS’s reputation?

McIntyre is a football commentator. As such, his views on the horrors of war carry no particular weight. He has about 35,000 Twitter followers, doubtless many of them because of his coverage of football, perhaps none because of his standing as a war historian.

His tweets were ignorant, juvenile and offensive to a substantial proportion of the population, but it is an open question how many of the offended population would have ever heard of them except for his being sacked.

So the harm to SBS’s reputation is likely to have been slight until, paradoxically, the decision by SBS to sack him, thus oxygenating the issue dramatically. In football parlance, there is something of an own goal here.

Very likely, the fact that it was Minister Turnbull who reported the tweets to SBS placed some subliminal psychological pressure on SBS management, and that this pressure played a part in the decision to sack him.

Depriving a person of his employment is a very heavy penalty. In this case it looks disproportionately severe, compared with the share of harm to SBS’s reputation that can be sheeted home to McIntyre. A brief period of suspension and a formal warning would have comfortably met the case.

This article appeared in The Citizen, online newspaper for the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University. The analysis was originally broadcast on ABC Radio Victoria’s Behind the Media on Tuesday 28 April.

 

Author Bio

Denis Muller

Dr Denis Muller has been a journalist, political scientist and senior executive in the Victorian Public Service. He is a Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism and a leading expert in media ethics.