The propensity of Australians to believe "fake news" undermines the fact that, in a democracy, the dissemination of truth is as important as freedom of expression.
Recently my aunt posted a meme on Facebook about how Sharia law is going to take over Australia. Surely “everyone knows” this is true?
While democracy requires free expression, it also requires the dissemination of truth. It requires that discerning minds question what they read — including this article — and ask: is this rubbish? This hit home to me recently when I read an article in one of the major newspapers in the UK, The Daily Mail. In this article, the Mail claimed that a British court recognised Sharia law.
Makes sense doesn’t it? “Everyone knows” Britain has a problem with its Muslims? Right?
Plenty of Islamophobes would be up in arms if the British courts “secretly” imported Sharia law. Honestly, I would be too, if the article were true. But it is not. I am a lawyer, so I had one of the juniors in my office dig up the original judgement. It is not hard. It is available online.
The case was a divorce. The husband claimed there was no marriage and therefore the wife of 28 years and mother of his four children was entitled to nothing under the UK Marriage Act. The judge said that “The husband defended the divorce on the basis that the parties had not entered a marriage valid according to English law.”
Then he went on to say: “What this case is not about though is whether an Islamic marriage ceremony (a nikah) should be treated as creating a valid marriage in English law.”
He went on to do a full analysis of existing English law, including the “presumption of marriage” if parties had lived together and were accepted by the community as married. In the end he ruled that the marriage was a “void marriage and the wife is entitled to a decree of nullity”.
So there is nothing, absolutely nothing in the judgement that attempts to include Sharia law into English law. In fact, the judge specifically rules it out. The newspaper article was clearly, objectively and absolutely false. But do we blame the newspaper for printing such rubbish, or blame ourselves for believing it without checking?
Just in case you think that this is a UK-only problem, let’s look at recent events in Australia.
The Victorian government, over a decade ago, changed the law on age of consent to bring in “proximity of age defences”. Before that, if two 15-year-olds engaged in sex, as inadvisable as that may be, a fixed age of consent meant both children should be charged with statutory rape and put on the sex offenders list. The “proximity in age” defence allows two teenagers to undertake inadvisable activity, without being labelled criminals.
A friend told me this was a further example of how “Sharia law was being used to allow sex with children, including marriage with children”. He claimed the Victorian government was part of a secret Islamic conspiracy.
It was a ludicrous suggestion.
The Herald Sun ran a similar piece raising the possibility of Sharia marriages with children in Australia.
While this would be a worry, if true, the Australian Marriage Act is abundantly clear that no marriage under 18 is allowed, with the exception of people between 16 and 18 marrying only with the court’s consent. The Marriage Act specifies that no overseas marriage will be recognised if it involves children. The Marriage Act disproves my friend and The Herald Sun.
Hence, Australia too is subject to the same fear-mongering that bears no relation to facts and can be easily disproved with a cursory examination of primary source material.
The greatest threat to our democracy is not when people publish “fake news”. The greatest threat to democracy is when we believe what we read, unthinking, unquestioning and then share it without checking.
Andrew MacLeod is a visiting professor to Kings College London, Chairman of Griffin Law, a non-executive director to Australian and US companies, and a former high-level UN official.
This article originally appeared in The New Daily.
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