Columnist in court after questioning race of leading Aborigines

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Andrew Bolt is Australia's most notorious right-wing columnist. He rails against climate change scientists, asylum-seekers and welfare recipients.

But when he wrote a series of columns and blogs questioning the Aboriginality of prominent light-skinned Australians, he ignited a debate about racial identity and free speech – and ended up in court.

In his articles – published in Rupert Murdoch's Herald Sun, Australia's biggest-selling daily newspaper – Bolt questioned why the people he named identified themselves as Aboriginal despite their mixed racial heritage. He drew attention to the fact they had obtained grants, awards and appointments reserved for Aboriginal applicants.

In one article, he wrote of a leading artist, Bindi Cole, who has an English-Jewish mother and part-Aboriginal father: "[She] could in truth join any one of several ethnic groups, but chose Aboriginal, insisting on a racial identity you could not guess from her features. She also chose, incidentally, the one identity open to her that has political and career clout."

Cole is one of nine people who have accused Bolt of racial vilification in the Federal Court, where lawyers have linked the 51-year-old columnist to eugenics, Nazi race laws and the Holocaust.

A judge will rule later this month on whether he breached the Racial Discrimination Act, but in the meantime the issues he stirred up continue to simmer. Debate has long raged about the influences of biology, culture and perception on Aboriginal identity. In Tasmania, where most Aborigines were killed following white settlement, descendants of the survivors – all of them light-skinned – argue bitterly about who can claim indigenous heritage.

In his articles, Bolt described Larissa Behrendt, a well-known author and academic, as "a professional Aborigine". But it was his emphasis on biological descent that prompted Ron Merkel QC to attribute to him notions of racial identity akin to eugenics. His differentiation between "true" black Aborigines and "false" white Aborigines was "a downhill escalator to a racist hell", Mr Merkel claimed.

Bolt insisted that his columns were "a plea against racism". His principal concern, he said, was that prizes and accolades given to the nine should have gone to more deserving recipients.

While he may not win any popularity contests – "a lot of us cringe at the stuff he writes," says one colleague at the Melbourne tabloid – the case has caused dismay, even among his detractors. Chris Berg, a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs think-tank, warned it could have "a stifling effect on political debate".

Some commentators regard Bolt – who has denounced the "myth" of the Stolen Generations, the Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents – as Mr Murdoch's voice in Australia. Others consider him a maverick. Denis Muller, a research consultant specialising in media ethics, calls him a member of "that ultra-conservative part of the commentariat which is preoccupied by issues of race". "He's in the same league as Fox News, although not quite so rabid," said Dr Muller. "He's not unintelligent and he's a good rhetorician. Whether he actually believes any of this stuff, I don't know."

Bolt's colleague thinks he does. "There's no doubt that he's a professional provocateur," he said. "But he's quite obsessed with the black-white issue."

It seems unlikely that Bolt's career will suffer. The TV network Channel Ten recently hired him to host his own political talk show, The Bolt Report.