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Wanted - new financial backers

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 7 February 2011


For 11 years On Line Opinion has been my passion. It’s been my passion because I’m a child of the Enlightenment and I was raised to believe that not only do people have a right to an opinion, but they have a responsibility to continually test and examine that opinion in the light of what others think and believe.

From an honest examination and testing of what one believes arises most human progress as well as respect for the dignity and humanity of others. Someone who continually questions will be open to difference and novelty. They will be capable of moving forward, and they will be less inclined to believe in their own infallibility and superiority.

On Line Opinion is an open platform for ideas. We have a larger audience than any other Australian opinion site outside the mainstream media because we offer diversity and quality, and because we treat our readers with respect, promoting equality as a core value.

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A number of years ago Emunah Hauser, a US writer who contributed a piece to us in 2004 when she was studying law at the University of Sydney gave us a reference and remarked how unique and “Australian” the site is.

Well now this very Australian site which strives for tolerance and civility and better community understanding is under threat because of the bigotry of some entrenched interests and the weakness of some corporates both masquerading under the banner of values.

In round terms On Line Opinion needs somewhere around $100,000 per year to function. We have been earning around $50,000 of that from advertising on the site and on the blogs listed in our Domain.

We have an advertising agency that represents us, and they deal with advertising agencies that place advertisements on behalf of advertisers. The Domain was my initiative. It was a strategy to increase the size of our offering and also spread the benefits of the advertising to a broader pool of quality blogs.

In keeping with the ethos of On Line Opinion the blogs are a diverse but high quality crew ranging from Jennifer Marohasy through to John Passant, and including Club Troppo, Larvatus Prodeo, Henry Thornton, Skeptic Lawyer, HomePage DAILY and Andrew Bartlett.

In fact, Jennifer Marohasy would not have started and persisted with blogging without my encouragement. I also persuaded John Passant to start, and even came up with the name for his blog. We truly do have an equal opportunity approach to intellectual endeavour.

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That advertising income, which helped to sustain both us and a number of the blogs, has just fallen to close to zero, and all because I published this piece by Bill Muehlenberg opposing gay marriage.

I am told by our advertising agency that the piece was found to be objectionable by an employee at IBM, another in the advertising agency that places the ads for IBM, and that as a result ANZ also withdrew their advertising.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the half of it. While significant, these advertisers did not represent the majority of our advertising revenue, yet virtually all of it has disappeared. This suggests to me a wider boycott.

I wrote an initial blog piece about the incident, but an article by Christopher Pearson in the Weekend Australian - “Oversensitivity can only compromise debate”- has turbo-charged it and caused me to write this piece.

I’m going to make some general comments about the rights and wrongs of the situation later in the article, but the most pressing issue is obviously financial and if you value this site and what it does I need your help.

There are a number of ways of raising the $100,000 we need.

  • Voluntary subscription from users is one way, and I am proposing that we peg that at $50.

  • We also need more “members” of the site. We offer membership to organisations in return for providing them with their own page, complimentary advertising opportunities, and an open door to their submissions. The cost of this ranges from $1,000 plus GST to $10,000 plus GST, depending on the level of service provided.

  • And of course, there are lots of advertising spots available on the site. Why would someone advertise with us? Well they might just support free speech and the civilizing benefits that it brings and be happy to associate themselves with them, and earn a tax deduction at the same time. Or they may want to reach you as an audience. The advertisers that we had were not doing it from charity - On Line Opinion actually gave them a better return than most other sites.

So if you are associated with an organisation that could benefit from membership or want to advertise to our audience, or if you can influence someone who does, please email me. And if you feel the urge to make a voluntary subscription you can do that now by clicking here.

If you are interested in the rights and wrongs of the case, please read on.

My decision to publish Muehlenberg has been criticized as being deliberately inflammatory and “link bait”. It was nothing of the sort.

We published a series of articles on gay marriage after we were approached by Rodney Croome calling for a conscience vote on gay marriage, and in the context of the Prime Minister urging all parliamentarians to go out and consult with their electorates on the issue.

It is important to us that we cover the ambit of arguments as much as possible, so of course we approached writers from all sides, and received submissions from many more.

Muehlenberg’s article is a literature review of what a number of gay activists have said and extends their views towards the gay community as a whole. Similarly structured articles are written about almost every subject you could imagine. The conclusions that he draws seem to be a fair representation of the quotes he pulls together, whether those quotes give an accurate picture of gay relations or not.

It’s a researched article couched in fairly neutral language. Not only that, but Muehlenberg is someone who has earned a place in the debate, whether you agree with him or not and runs a small lobbying organisation.

And while Muehlenberg’s may not be a majority opinion he still represents a sizable minority, as attested to by the 116 people who were prepared to “like” the article on Facebook.

If gay readers are offended by it they should go after the writers of the original material as well as Muehlenberg - people like prominent conservative gay Andrew Sullivan, and his publisher, The Atlantic. Of course they’re not, because the object of the exercise is to use mock outrage to try to close On Line Opinion down.

And some gay readers claim not to have been offended by the article, but by some of the comments to the article. Gregory Storer, one of the activists who have been lobbying against us claims to have been offended by this comment because it refers to homosexuality as a “perversion”:

It's interesting that so many people are offended by the truth. The fact is that homosexual activity is anything but healthy and natural. Certain lgbt's want their perversion to be called "normal" and "healthy" and they've decided the best way to do this is have their "marriages" formally recognised. But even if the law is changed, these "marriages" are anything but healthy and natural. It is, in fact, impossible for these people to be married, despite what any state or federal law may say.

These aren’t my views, but I don’t believe they are the sort of views that ought to be censored either. If Messrs Storer et al have a problem with them, then answering them on the thread is the correct course, not trying to suppress them. They’ll find many people who will agree with this poster as well as 1,310,000 results for a Google search on “homosexuality perversion”. They won’t change their minds by telling them they have no right to this opinion.

Which leads us to the question of whether it’s right for someone who disagrees with my publishing decisions to go to people who supply us with advertising and pressure them to withdraw that advertising?

Quite clearly it is not. It is a form of blackmail. It is an attempt to get me to break my fiduciary duty to my employer, as well as break the implicit covenant with you, our audience, to act impartially and fairly to all and to publish across the board without pushing a particular point of view. What activists like Storer are saying is that if I don’t act corruptly and prefer them against the interests of our stakeholders they will cause me financial harm and destroy something which you our audience also value.

As Christopher Pearson points out in his article, based initially on a post by Helen Dale at Skeptic Lawyer, it is also a form of secondary boycott, something which is also illegal. For me the secondary boycott issue is very much secondary to the moral and ethical aspects of this activity.

On top of this they financially damage a number of sites which have nothing to do with my editorial decisions, some of whom have, and probably will, editorialise quite strongly in favour of gay marriage.

From a political point of view this activity is quite stupid anyway. Bill Muehlenberg’s article has received many more reads than it might otherwise because of this activity. Indeed I have been contacted by one organisation that lobbies for gay marriage seeking to assure me that they had nothing to do with the activist activity.

This sort of brown-shirt behaviour increases resistance to the aggressor’s agenda - it doesn’t help it.

Which leads us to the behaviour of the corporates.

I hope that the reasons the ANZ gave to Christopher Pearson were PR fluff rather than the truth.

ANZ does not advertise on any opinion-type websites that may cause offence or segregate any individuals or group. In this instance our advertising was placed through an automatic advertising placement service and once we were alerted to the content we removed our advertising.

"The removal of our advertising should not be viewed as a violation of free speech; it's simply that we choose not to advertise on blogs that do not align to our organisational values.

If they don’t advertise on any “opinion-type websites that may cause offence or segregate any individuals or groups” what were they doing on New Matilda months after this decision was made? And how could they in fact justify being on any of the mainstream media sites? On Line Opinion doesn’t “segregate”, in fact it does quite the reverse with a degree of tolerance that is remarkable amongst media in general, and particularly online media. As for “offence”, it doesn’t matter what you publish, there is bound to be someone who can confect outrage at it, even if you’re running a tatting blog. It doesn’t leave the ANZ with a lot of choices for online advertising venues.

And in what way does OLO not align to their organisation values? Is the ANZ really telling us that it discriminates against customers based on their political beliefs, or that it supports blackmail rather than free and open, properly informed debate?

No, the only way to read the ANZ action is that for their, in their terms relatively small advertising investment in our site, it wasn’t worth the grief they thought they might get from the gay lobby, and it might prejudice their pitch for the pink dollar - they are afterall the sponsors of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. So someone decided to pull the ad.

I doubt whether the decision was thought through, or that originally it was even made at a particularly high level. No-one bothered to approach me or I might have pointed out that on top of all the other injustices they would be helping to perpetuate, they would also be damaging one of their own customers.

That’s right, The National Forum actually banks with the ANZ as a result of the long term relationship that I and my family have had with the bank that goes back over 44 years. It puts a new spin on “bankrupt”!

While the ANZ has every right to make commercial decisions they are also a major corporate citizen which receives substantial government assistance as well as earning its income through a government licence.

With its commercial rights go responsibilities, and aiding and abetting in the unethical, if not illegal, damage to someone else’s business, which just happens to be the provision of a public good, is quite contrary to those responsibilities.

Similar arguments apply to IBM.

So there you have it. We’d be happy to have the ANZ and IBM back on the site. First rule of crisis management is when you’ve made a mistake to admit it. They’ll probably pick up some customers who’d appreciate them not only supporting free speech and discussion in the community, but admitting that they made an error.

But the reality is that we probably need to find new advertisers.

I believed that the Internet opened up a huge opportunity for doing politics and governance better than we used to. On Line Opinion, and various blogs in the blogosphere, are part of that better way, but they don’t have a long-term future without financial support.

We need advertisers who understand that their profits stem from political stability and that they have a duty to support that stability, not run away from it because of a short-term, but ultimately ephemeral, dollar.

If you know any of those advertisers, please send them our way to keep this most Australian of sites, and our colleagues, afloat. Hopefully this episode can set us on the road to improved sustainability.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is a writer, and a former vice-president and campaign chairman of the Queensland Liberal Party.

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