THE recent murder of the American ambassador to Libya and some of his diplomatic staff has yet again brought free speech into public discussion. We don't know all the details. Some reports indicate that protests over the infamous video that was offensive to Muslims either led to their deaths or were used as a diversion to allow a premeditated attack.

The video was nothing to do with the government of the United States. In any event, we are appalled.

We all know that there are limits on free speech. Libel, slander and inciting to violence are all out of legal bounds. Merely causing offence is not.

Recently, ABC presenter Leigh Sales was apparently outraged when political commentator Grahame Morris referred to her as a cow. But this episode didn't appear to be about setting standards, given that Sales returned the compliment by referring to Morris as a dinosaur.

It reminded me of a goody two-shoes smarty pants in about grade 2 who smarmily told our teacher on the way back from morning prayers that a classmate had left her eyes open during the Lord's Prayer. ''Gotcha,'' I thought as the teacher responded with, ''How do you know?''

Putting aside the fact that there are many more important things for the media to focus on (indigenous health and education, national productivity and so on), there is a case to be made in favour of rich language.

The public and journalists alike complain that politicians are too careful, too guarded and too boring in their language. Is it any wonder? The great conversation of life needs to have colour and vibrancy if it is to have any hope of engaging electors.

''Come hither whilst I render you somnolent'' will never win a heart or mind. It could lose the speaker a vote or two. It will certainly make you switch channels.

One might sound more important exclaiming ''Scintillate scintillate, aerial vervific'', but people will understand you much better if you stick with ''twinkle twinkle, little star''.

As for the term ''cow'', I think it not too bad myself. Actually I have been trying to use it a lot more, in preference to stronger terminology to which I became accustomed over so many years in politics.

My not inconsequential frame has over the years provided many a jester with material. I don't recall ever complaining. That was mainly because I believe once you play the victim card you paint yourself in the weaker position. It was also because life is rich and colourful and, yes, sometimes a bit rough. But life without the richness and colour is not only a pretty dreary existence but something of a pantomime.

Nor do I recall any journalists taking issue over the years with their colleagues or mine over any of the rubbish that came my way. I don't see calling a portly female ''Aunty Jack'' as being in any way less offensive than ''cow''. While I adored Aunty Jack, I knew the expression was not one of endearment. But so what? Are we not wise enough to let a speaker be judged by their own words?

For years women have had to battle stereotypes designed, it seemed, to limit their behaviour. A man is determined, a woman is stubborn. A man is sharp, a woman devious. A man argues strongly, but a woman is aggressive. These are to be ridiculed for what they are.

Deliberately derogatory terms are one thing. The vernacular is another. It is everyman's language, in the street, in the workplace, at the pub and at the footy. It is to be celebrated. The more debate we can get on that wavelength the better. Then, the great conversation of life gets taken out of the hands of highbrow elites and put where it belongs - in the hands of everyone.

Some time in 2000, John Howard was commenting that at the Sydney Olympics he had noticed how prevalent the use of the vernacular had been. Chief among the terms was ''g'day, mate''. He was simply highlighting the importance of speaking as comfortably as one could in language that everyone could understand and of, where appropriate, using ''the vernacular''. It added little when I pointed out that if one were to use the vernacular one would not, of course, use the word vernacular.

To have a healthy democratic system, voters need to be engaged. If we take all the colour and vibrancy from our language, why do we think they will want to listen?

And we have to talk about the things that are important to them. The kerfuffle over Malcolm Turnbull's recent speech tells us just how shallow and narrow the reporting of our politics has become.

A speech that clearly called for a wider public debate on issues important to Australians was reported through the filter of the media's choice, namely leadership issues.

Sadly for those journalists, it later became clear that Turnbull had cleared the speech with Tony Abbott. Sadly for all of us, we saw how willing the media are to slip whatever filter they choose over their reports.

That worries me a lot more than being called a cow, or Aunty Jack.

Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.

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