By George Theodoridis
Exhibit 1: Justin Milne to Guthrie (via email): “…I just think it’s simple. Get rid of her. My view is we need to save the corporation, not Emma…” Milne says these comments were taken out of context.
Exhibit 2: PM Morrison to journalist Cassidy: “I expect the ABC Board to do better and if they don’t, well, they can expect a bit more attention from me.”
Exhibit 3: Odysseus to Agamemnon, wrathfully: “Son of Atreus! What words have escaped the barrier of your teeth!” – Iliad 4, 350.
That’s Homer for you: “Our teeth are much like the topless towers of Troy the Greeks had to face: a barrier to hold back unruly or recalcitrant words,” he tells us. “Don’t let false words, fake words escape that barrier.” Homer also used the formulaic phrase, Ἔπεα πτερόεντα” (“Winged words”), throughout his two giant epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
If he were a modern-day Aussie, he’d put it in these words: “Words are like mozzies, mate: They fly and they can bite you on the bum. Take care what words you let fly out of your mouth!”
And there are two types of words, those uttered and those written. Here’s Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus addressing the Roman Senate: “Verba Volant, Scripta Manent,” he warned the good senators which, in English parlance it means “(Uttered) Words fly, written ones remain.”
All the words uttered in the Australian Parliament are written; so are those in the ABC act. They remain. They are immortal and they are there even after they are erased by some usurper of our Democracy, and they are still there even if nobody takes notice of them.
Emails or hard copy, words said in a pub, a boardroom or from a pulpit, words that mean nothing and words that change worlds, words of every hue and of every tone can fly forever. Unlike chocolate, they have no use-by date.
Laws and important notices in Ancient Greece were chiselled into stone or wooden pillars called “Stelae” and these were placed throughout the city, a practice which gave strength and legitimacy to Aristotle’s view that “all men are political beings.” All men (yes, women were excluded officially from the political process) were an active part of a polis and so they were all responsible for its health -social, moral, economic. They were, in other words, politicians and that’s the real meaning of the word. Solon’s laws were engraved on these Stelae and there they remained and thus they were easy to check and point to when matters became complex or ambivalent. They were there to remain all its citizens that they were politicians.
Words are great. They change their form from abstract, when they’re in one’s head, to sensate when they are written or uttered. They are great to make one happy, great to make one sad, great at praising someone and great at destroying someone. Most importantly, they are great when we try to express even our most subtle emotions:
“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.”
Wrote Elizabeth Browning.
Words can be sweet and they can be bitter. The power of the pen does not rest upon its nib or the colour of the ink it uses but upon the words, it writes. And whilst words are certainly not the only means of communication and we well know what the gesture of a finger thrust hard into the air or a thumb bitten aggressively convey, words have the ability to communicate the most complex of issues in the most subtle way.
The Spartans communicated using the shortest possible sentences, a type of speech called laconic speech. For example, you would hear soldiers daring their enemies with “μολὼν λαβέ” (“Come and get it if you dare!”) or a mother telling her son as she hands him his shield on his way to war: “ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς” (“Return either carrying it as a victor or upon it, killed on the battlefield.”
Their cousins, the Athenians across the isthmus, on the other hand, loved using lengthy orations even to describe the simplest of things, because nothing in the minds of the philosophical Athenians was ever simple. Consequently, Thucydides’ prediction was true and we now have little of what the Spartans have said and a great deal of what the Athenians did, from Literature to philosophy, to theatre, to law and to History. Almost all of the stuff he have now about Sparta and the Spartans was written by non-Spartans.
Both, written and uttered words should be freely expressed.
On the eve of his invasion to Greece, in 480 BC the Persian emperor, Xerxes once asked his Greek counsellor, Demaratus, an exiled Spartan king, if the Greeks will stay to fight an army as enormous as his.
Demaratus nervously, fearfully asked the great King if he would like to hear the truth or whatever would please his ears and heart. Xerxes answered that he wanted to know the truth. Still, Demaratus was afraid to speak it. To tell him the truth.
Demaratus did tell the Great King the truth about the nature of the Greek soldier but the King refused to believe him, which is another trait of a despot, to ignore the truth. Demaratus followed him against his countrymen and the invasion ended in an abject failure for the King.
Herodotus’ whole work, his Histories is an effort to show that societies whose people are free are better than those whose people labour under autocrats and tyrants. Fear and intimidation will almost always conceal or distort the truth. Freedom of speech was at the very core of being a Greek while its opposite, the fear of speaking it was at the very core of a tyrannical despot, ones like Xerxes and his father Darius. Demaratus had left Greece where he was able to speak his mind freely and ended up in Persia where doing so could cost him his life.
A fair and just society is made up of fair and just citizens, the blood and soul of which are words that are the true reflections of the thoughts of its citizens and their expression is pure and undefiled by any interference by anyone. No society can be fair and just if its citizens can’t do that.
If we are to rightfully boast that we are a Democracy, then we ought to have another forum, another platform from that of the Parliament, a platform where the speech of our people, the true demos, can be uttered freely. That forum should be the media and the media should comprise journalists whose only concern is the pursuit of news and its true dissemination, again, free from any interference. The truth should reign free.
The ABC, we all thought foolishly, was a media platform where these vested interests were kept at bay; that this taxpayer-funded body was protected by legislation and that it worked free of manipulation and of agendas belonging to particular interests and not to its funders, the Australian demos. Recently we found out that this was not the case and that the ABC was in fact, run by a board put there by political interests and that these political interests were ruthlessly directing the trajectory of its work.
We know this because the words used by the chairman of its board, Justin Milne, demanding that one of its best-known journalist should be sacked, rose to the surface of public scrutiny, much like the sewage of a badly maintained plumbing complex.
The ABC, which though, I suggest might not always have given us a “no punches pulled” account of the facts, was and certainly is vital to us if we are to understand ourselves, as well as others and to respect the two most crucial elements of a humane society, truth and justice. This body must not brook any interference from anyone and to pursue, as its charter suggests, truth at any cost.
A society is not served at all well if its journalists are so afraid, to tell the truth, that they become silenced hostages of the powerful – effectively nothing more than palace eunuchs.
As I write, I am watching the President of the USA mocking in the most loathsome way, a woman who dared speak out about a sexual assault she suffered by someone who is after one of the most important jobs in America –it is a job for the rest of his life- in the most important field in the running of the American society, that of the country’s Supreme Court.
President Trump was mocking Dr Christine Blasey Ford who alleged that she was sexually assaulted by the Trump’s nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
And this is while the Senate is trying to assess Kavanaugh’s suitability to a seat in the Supreme Court. His words, Trump’s words, are a belligerent, bellowing cascade of bitterness, of hatred and of poison that has indeed, escaped the barrier of his teeth. They are nothing short of a vulgar, unabashed interference in the process of seeking the truth. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/02/trump-mocks-christine-blasey-ford-at-mississippi-rally)
Interference by powerful, vested interests. An aggressive attack on a person with little power other than that invested in the truth, an attack aimed at shutting down any other person who holds the truth but who is not powerful enough to utter it.
The ABC, like the ancient Greek stage, is the platform where the truth comes to see the light and breathe the clear air. This light and this air must not be subverted in any way. It must not be turned into a “truth maybe” or a “truth but.”