Thursday, 29 September 2011

Freedom of speech is under attack

in Australia right now. No, I am not referring to the shenanigans in the Federal Court yesterday. I will come to that shortly.
There is something even more serious than that. The government has set up an inquiry into the media. It might be more accurate to say the Greens set up an inquiry into the media. Of course the government had to agree to put it into place but the Greens have the upper hand when it comes to such things. The government needs the support of the Greens & some independents in order to stay in government. It is a minority government. They will do as they are asked/told in matters like this.
All politicians like to claim that the media does not give them "a fair go". The present government is particularly critical despite having been granted an extended honeymoon and a largely sympathetic press. It is apparently even worse for the Greens. They dislike having their policies scrutinised and criticised to a point where they are prepared to see press freedoms curbed.
So, on the back of the furore over 'phone tapping in the UK, the government has set up an "inquiry". The Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy, announced it as if there was nothing in it really. There is nothing to suppose there is anything wrong in the Australian media. There was no need for it. It is "just an inquiry".
It is a very dangerous inquiry. The outcomes are a foregone conclusion. They have already announced plans to replace the Press Council with a body that "has teeth". That alone will be enough to curb freedom of expression. We do not need it. There are already checks and balances in place. Adding to these will not help journalists do their job. It will hinder them. It will not protect those individuals who need it most. It will protect government from the sort of investigative scrutiny it sometimes needs the most.
We already have checks and balances in place and they are already under attack. They are being abused with a view to stifling debate.
Yesterday there was a Federal Court ruling that a right wing columnist, Andrew Bolt, had breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act by implying that a number of "light-skinned" people who identify as "aboriginal" were using that identification to advance their own careers. The full impact of the judgment has yet to be worked out. It will almost certainly be appealed. The matter may yet end in the High Court. Whatever the outcome neither side will "win" and we will all be the losers. We will lose simply because "freedom of speech" will have been eroded.
Journalists will need to be far more cautious about raising certain issues. People like Paul Toohey and Philip Adams will no longer be able to safely write an article designed to make people think. "Talkback" radio, which I personally detest but many people like, will be a thing of the past and the interviewing of politicians, personalities and the public will become bland and boring. Live interviews may become a thing of the past. They will need to be pre-recorded so that anything controversial can be cut from them.
Nobody has the right to incite hatred or violence. Nobody has the right to ridicule others or bring them into contempt. That is why we have laws relating to libel. The media must abide by those laws. That should not however prevent the media from raising issues which need to be explored and discussed. Yesterday's Federal Court ruling may prevent that. The government inquiry into the media will only compound the problem.
The Minister apparently also believes these issues can be extended to the blogosphere. No doubt I, and others, will be hearing from the blog-police.


JO said...

It's such a fine balance, isn't it? Without the press doing its investigative job, we'd never have known (in the UK) just how many MPs were fiddling their expenses.

But when journalists think they are immune from scrutiny they, too, become immoral and hack into the phone a young woman when she is dying.

I suspect the privacy v intrusion pendulum will swing backwards and forwards forever!

Anonymous said...

It is an appalling judgment and to be condemned. If those people named felt offended they should have gone for defamation - but they would have lost a defamation case! Chris

Frances said...

Without having an opinion yay or nay, I would agree that as a journalist he should have had his facts correct, which he didn't.

I respect the fact that they didn't go for damages, but for retraction.

Anonymous said...

Which is why they should not have used the RDA. If the facts really were incorrect they could have asked, and would have been given, the opportunity to set the record straight. This was always about "getting Bolt" and "getting the media" and stirring up trouble. It has done immeasurable harm and caused far greater division. Micah (who found this while trawling for something else.)

catdownunder said...

I am not sure they would have got damages for that under the Racial Discrimination Act Frances - and they have not really got a retraction either. The material has not had to be removed from the 'net - merely added to.
The use of that particular Act bothers me. They did not seek defamation proceedings - which would have been the most logical route if they believed they were defamed or insulted. (The test for defamation is "hatred, ridicule or contempt".) By using the RDA they have effectively tried to silence any debate about a range of issues.