I want to return, hopefully with whatever wider perspective a few weeks brings, to Paul Keating’s inflammatory remarks about the late right wing pundit Paddy McGuinness. We should keep in mind for a start, as Peter “Mumble” Brent implicitly noted at the time, that McGuinness himself wasn’t averse to sledging recently deceased political adversaries, often in ways every bit as vicious as Keating’s attack on him:
McGuinnness’s attack on Diamond Jim McClelland, deserved or otherwise, was especially savage. In those circumstances the argument that one should show public restraint to spare the feelings of the deceased’s family has less force than it otherwise might.
The problem with Keating’s remarks was not so much their savage intent, but the fact that for PJK the essence of McGuinness’s execrable nature was his refusal to give due credit to Keating’s economic genius! Bob Carr’s comments about McGuinness were almost as negative but exhibited a rather wider, less self-absorbed perspective, and hence didn’t attract the same level of opprobrium.
However, should we heed pious injunctions to post-mortem restraint in any event?
At least where a person has played a significant role in Australian public life, I would argue not. There are severe constraints on what can be said about a person during their lifetime, due to defamation law. The threat is slightly lessened now because the new national uniform Defamation Acts make truth a defence (not “truth and public benefit” or similar higher hurdle than “mere” truth).
However, that won’t assist a defendant where a public statement seeks to evaluate the plaintiff’s behaviour in ethical terms rather than engaging in straight reportage of the facts, as will amost always be the case with any useful evaluation of a public figure’s behaviour. Then the defendant’s words will fall to be legally judged by the test of whether it amounts to “fair comment”, a standard affording ample opportunity for courts to award substantial payouts in most cases involving prominent plaintiffs irrespective of whether the statement was one that most people would have regarded as fair enough (or at least not appropriate to be punished as lying outside the realm of permissible free speech).
Indeed the occasion of a public figure’s death may well be the first and only time the truth can be told in a situation where it will be heard by the general public. That is simply because of the nature of the news cycle: after the immediate flurry of publicity surrounding the person’s death, the event rapidly becomes stale news that simply won’t be published. Had Paul Keating pumped out the same media release about Paddy McGuinness today it would probably have hit most editorial waste paper bins within seconds.
Subsequent scholarly biographies might serve a corrective purpose to a limited extent but rarely come to the notice of the general public. If we allow a social convention in favour of only praising the newly dead, in however carefully qualified, mealy-mouthed terms, Australians’ perceptions of our history and culture run a distinct risk of acquiring a misty, rose-coloured hue that won’t assist our collective ability to make sound judgments about all sorts of questions affecting the nation’s future.
That such a social convention has already taken hold to a surprising extent is demonstrated by the seemingly almost universal condemnation that greeted The Chaser’s brilliant Eulogy Song when it went to air last year. What better way to end this post than by republishing it?