Earlier in the year I was asked to take part in the Intelligence Squared debate on internet filtering organised by the St James Ethics Centre. I agreed. I have since changed my mind. In this letter to the producer, I explain why.
Ms Deb Richards
St James Ethics Centre, Sydney
Dear Ms Richards,
After significant consideration, I am writing to advise that I must pull out of the St James Ethics Centre Intelligence Squared Debate scheduled for May 11.
As mentioned in previous correspondence, it is hard enough going into this debate in the first place, given the level of misinformation and misrepresentation of the Government’s proposed mandatory filtering scheme.
But then, for you to include – without any consultation – a Chinese speaker who defends the Chinese firewall, means that our side is doomed to fail before we’ve even started the debate. His inclusion makes it a lost cause for us: the audience will have to vote against us because they won’t support political censorship –I don’t either. I don’t support the Chinese firewall, I don’t support any filtering of political content, I don’t support filtering of the views of dissenters and minority groups. I have been publicly critical of China’s human rights violations, including the lack of freedom of expression.
If the format were something other than a “debate” – for example, the opportunity to express a range of views as individuals - I could view it differently. However, as it is a debate, in which the audience votes to determine the winning team, how can we possibly have a chance of winning (unless the audience is stacked with PRC supporters, even then, this would not be the support I’d be seeking).
I am not wishing to reflect on Kaiser Kuo personally. He may have some good arguments. He may be a nice man. He may have been educated in the West. We may agree on “one or two points”. But that is hardly recommendation enough to have him on a team which doesn’t agree with his overall position and is therefore divided. Going into a debate like this requires unity of position and our side will not have that. The other side will. They will have opportunity to discuss their approach beforehand, to meet face to face if they wish, to hone their arguments amongst themselves. We, however will have none of these opportunities and would enter the debate at a disadvantage. We would also be essentially one person down.
In your email of March 27, you write, “If it is any consolation, the ABC’s Q&A program have leapt at the chance of having him on their panel”. This is irrelevant. Why wouldn’t they want to have him? He is interesting enough. But it is a completely different format. A panel discussion is not a debate in which the audience votes.
It has been important all through the porn filtering debate to distance the policy, and differentiate the argument, from the Chinese fire-wall. In other words, to make it very clear that the arguments for filtering illegal pornography (among other things) are completely distinct from those for political censorship, and that we are as opposed to political censorship as those who are against porn filtering. The national classification scheme that the Government’s policy is based on does not consider political content at all.
The decision to invite a defender of the Chinese Government’s political censorship – on the spurious grounds of “cultural relativism” – is very damaging for our side of the debate. We will be inescapably bracketed with arguments in favour of wider censorship which can only play strongly into the hands of the internet libertarians.
I cannot join a debating team that will include a member arguing that it is legitimate to censor from the internet material that a government finds objectionable on political grounds.
When the audience comes to vote on the proposition, those inclined to favour porn censorship would have to vote “no” because a “yes” vote means a vote for political censorship as well.
I apologise for any inconvenience my decision might cause.
Melinda Tankard Reist
April 8, 2010