Andrew Bolt declines my invitation to lunch. “I’ve read what you have written about me and would hate myself for trying to persuade you I am actually human,” he says in an email. “I’d hate myself even more on finding I had failed.” It is such an unusual response that it is hard to let it pass. He does agree after some to-ing and fro-ing and an assurance that the purpose isn’t to sneer or attack. It’s a lunch, a discussion, an old-fashioned attempt to try to explain why someone thinks what they do.
Bolt says he’s hopeless about time and asks me to remind him on the day, which I do, and we meet at Nicosia, a modest and warm-hearted Turkish restaurant in Malvern. The servings are generous, and Bolt puts together his own dish of spinach and other vegetables, lamb and chicken. The Bolt family – he is married to journalist Sally Morrell and has three children – come here often for dinner.
I confess I’m apprehensive and Bolt says he is, too – Sally has told him this is a big mistake. The media is polarised, with the left and the right searching for the enemy’s soft spots. Bolt sees The Age as having attacked him unfairly over many years. I see Bolt as a right-wing warrior.
As it turns out, he is a courteous, engaging if challenging lunch companion. He is, as you would expect, argumentative, and extremely upset about how he is being portrayed in the debate about the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
“I’ll tell you what it feels like,” he says. “It feels like a piano being dropped on my head every day… this outrage that certain opinions cannot be voiced. I’m not a monster. The articles that got banned were actually articles against seeing each other as racial types and arguments for seeing each other as individuals. For that to be deemed an example of racism is like to be in a Kafka novel, it’s just absolutely shattering.”
Bolt, 54, is the most ubiquitous and influential conservative commentator in the country. He writes highly readable, sometimes funny, always provocative columns in the Herald Sun, which are syndicated in News Corp’s Sydney and Adelaide papers. He’s a prolific blogger, the host of The Bolt Report on Sundays on Network Ten, and a nightly radio guest. He is “completely obsessive, seven-day-a-week obsessive”, with his obsessions focused on a few subjects – challenging the orthodoxy on climate change, the ABC’s left-wing bias, “leftist” follies generally and the dangers of racial “tribalism”.
It was his obsession with race that leads us here. The 2011 federal court decision that two of his columns breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was the acknowledged catalyst for Attorney-General George Brandis’ determination to radically change our racial hatred laws because of their “chilling” effect on free speech. Bolt is the lightning rod in this debate, the cause celebre, the person few defend whole-heartedly.
There are strange bedfellows here. Some people (including me) who disagree with Bolt’s views on most things nonetheless believe that section 18C of the Act that makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group on racial grounds is too broad in a democracy where robust debate means that even the most unpalatable opinions should be contested, not outlawed.
But Brandis’ “exposure draft” of amendments would radically wind it back. It shifts the emphasis from the impact that words have on people to whether they incite hatred towards those people or cause them physical fear. Even if they do, there is a broad exemption for anything that’s part of public discussion. Jewish and ethnic groups, and even some conservative politicians, say they would risk giving a green light to racial abuse and intolerance.
Bolt’s articles named 18 fair-skinned Aboriginal people – artists, academics and activists among others - who he claimed had chosen to identify as indigenous (despite having mostly European heritage) in order to gain career opportunities available to Aborigines. His broader point – one he has written about for many years - was that, paradoxically, this was racially divisive. People could just as easily identify with their British heritage, for instance, or even better, be “proud only of being human beings set on this land together, determined to find what unites us and not to invent such racist and trivial excuses to divide”.
Nine people gave evidence and federal court judge Mordecai Bromberg found Bolt had breached 18C. The Herald Sun did not dispute during the case that all nine had identified as Aboriginal since childhood. And there was no evidence that they had done so for financial or personal gain. Instead, the defence argued that the law was only meant to deal with things that incited racial hatred – a view the judge rejected. But even if Bolt had breached 18C, he argued the columns were “fair comment” in a matter of public interest, the so-called free speech exemption.
The judge ruled he couldn’t rely on that defence because Bolt had not acted reasonably and in good faith as required. Nothing prevented someone discussing the issue of racial identify but Bolt's defence failed because of the manner in which he did so, the “errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language”.
Racist, racist, racist. I should be speared.
Bolt is wary of discussing the case and asks whether Fairfax will legally indemnify him because he takes a “huge risk” talking about it – the court ruled the columns could not be republished. The way he sees it is that the essence of the case was to outlaw his opinion. He might have got some facts wrong, he might have put his views in a sarcastic tone as do many writers, but this was really about banning him from having an opinion others found offensive. It’s better to argue those opinions out, rather than use the law to silence them.
Bolt was labelled a racist, or at the least someone who racially abused people, for columns he insists were anti-racist – they argued against distinctions based on people’s race. Bolt will argue strongly against racism wherever he sees it – and he sees it in “tribalism”, emphasising differences based on who your ancestors are.
“To be criticised for something you believe in, I’ve had that many times, you can take that. To be criticised for something you don’t believe in, as in views you don’t hold but are ascribed to you, particularly toxic views, has just been a nightmare,” he says.
I ask him the obvious question. He was devastated by academic Marcia Langton suggesting on Q and A that he was a racist – for which she later apologised, while maintaining that he was “playing with racist ideas”. Weren’t the people he had written about also devastated about how he had portrayed them? Could he empathise with them?
“I feel some empathy, obviously,” he says. “But should that stop me from debating issues? Should it stop me from wondering whether grants that we give on a race basis which I think is wrong (but) are intended to help people who are suffering a particular disadvantage, to people who in some cases might not obviously be disadvantaged?”
What of the argument that racial vilification can have a profound impact on people, could even cause them to be silenced? How could he know what that feels like?
“In the last month looking at the mass media, I am a racist. Apparently I abused a particular Melbourne University academic, this is utterly false, and drove her from public life. Racist, racist, racist. I should be speared. I should be killed – that was on a blog, not the mass media. I accused someone of being a paedophile, that I am a paid liar, that I say to the Jewish community that they owe me, because I did them favours.
“Is Tim Soutphommasane, the race discrimination commissioner) seriously saying that I don’t know what it’s like to be vilified?... I’m not saying this in self pity, please underline that, I’m not saying this in self pity, but for people to say that people, like me, don’t understand about vilification, Tim, walk in my shoes. I doubt that he could have survived the last month and at times I wondered whether I could.”
Bolt has been pilloried, particularly on social media, for his distress during this debate given his full-blooded criticism of others. There’s also the question of his power to push back against inaccurate claims about him. Bolt now feels powerless, at the whim of people saying things about him that distort what he believes and that paint him as a monster. But he’s still more powerful than almost everyone else who finds themselves in that position, including those who were badly hurt by his articles.
“That’s correct,” he says, “but there are lot of other different laws (other than the Racial Discrimination Act). There are people like me to take up causes. You and I have responsibility to help the helpless. You’re talking about a law that was actually used to silence debate. It’s not to help the powerful. You’re talking about a law that was taken up by people that included professors of law, and activists, and high-ranking academics, and artists.”
Jewish groups have used the laws to fight Holocaust denial and have lobbied for them to stay. Bolt has expressed dismay that so few Jewish leaders have supported him but he stands by his view that Holocaust denial, even though it can be framed in anti-Semitic language, should not be outlawed.
“I’ve been to the point of caricature, someone who has spoken up for Israel, against anti-Semitism ... yet I don’t think Holocaust denial should be banned. It demeans us, it trivialises us. If we as a society don’t have it in us to laugh at Holocaust deniers and denounce them with our words and not the law then we really are in a sorry mess.”
The president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Peter Wertheim, says that what Holocaust denial actually does is deny people their humanity, their individuality. It smears Jews and dehumanises them.
“People deny the individuality of people all the time," Bolt says. “It’s not just race, they say that about religion, about class, about politics, (they say) ‘all conservatives are like this’. They say it of gender, sexual preference. ‘All blondes are this’. People have been insulting each for all time about all different things. Sticks and stones. Sticks and Stones. Grow up.”
I raise the issue of what Bromberg called Bolt’s “gross errors” and their role in his case’s outcome. He is annoyed at this, because he says he cannot properly defend himself.
“You want to raise the errors and if I defend the errors are you going to pay the legal costs? How fair is that? You’re not being fair. What if I say to you, ‘that’s not an error’. What if I say to you ‘that error is insignificant’. … It all goes comes down to the opinion. Let’s not start making excuses for silencing my opinion."
The lunch has stretched out to three hours. It hasn’t all been about race, and most of it hasn’t been heated at all. Bolt loves travel and spent his 50th birthday with his family in Sicily. He would “feel a failure” if he doesn’t write a book one day. There is a long discussion about climate change, in which he accuses most journalists, including me, of a dereliction of duty for not critically scrutinising dire climate-change predictions that have failed to materialise.
He has five months' long service leave owing and his wife wants to escape all that’s been going on and head overseas next year. Over the past few weeks, he has wondered whether he should stop writing about race altogether. He is certain the government will wobble, given the resistance to the changes, and that the final amendments will be a watered-down version of what Senator Brandis proposed.
He was wary, too, about expressing his opposition to the recognition of Aborigines in the Constitution’s preamble, a cause Prime Minister Tony Abbott is championing. “I talked to Tony Abbott, don’t say that, well, I’ve had discussions with political leaders about this issue.” It’s really the same issue he’s been writing about for years. Recognising Aboriginal people alive today as the “first Australians” is racist because it singles out particular people based on who their ancestors were.
“I really believe as a matter of principle that it’s wrong. I believe it will divide us. I believe it will probably fail but I’m not sure. And if it succeeds it’s even worse for me personally. You stood in the way of his historic moment, we all join together, kumbaya, and you’re just a racist.”