Labor’s shameful attack on free speech

Silencing critics in seven illiberal stepsJanet Albrechtson via Bolt

WHEN you think about it, these are truly extraordinary times.

Julia Gillard has instructed Labor MPs to spend this winter recess from parliament warming up their electorates about the need for government regulation of the media.

In fact, senior members of the Gillard-Greens government have been trying to soften us up for much longer. If former prime minister John Howard had struck out at the media in this way, there would have been protests in the streets with burning effigies and signs attacking “the fascist PM” and that sort of thing.

Liberal MPs would find their offices picketed by inner-city university academics and students, who we now know to be opportunistic in their freedom-loving tendencies.

Their silence now, as Gillard tries to muzzle the media, is deafening. And the rest of us? Are we also at fault for sleepwalking towards an illiberal Australia? The absence of a wider and louder uproar from ordinary Australians over the government’s clearly articulated agenda to punish those in the media with whom they disagree is deeply concerning.

Wake up, Australia. Each step that has brought us to where we are now, facing government intervention in editorial standards of the media, has been deplorably illiberal. The government’s seven-step program to regulate the media is a depressing read for anyone who cherishes the progress delivered by two centuries of Western liberalism.

What happens in the final chapter will depend on whether we are duped into believing that we, the people, need specially appointed guardians to protect us from a media deemed by the government to be malicious or incompetent. The conclusion also depends on us believing that government regulation will improve our media without infringing free speech. Surely we understand liberal values enough to realise this is a non sequitur. It is as illogical as calling those on the Left “progressives” when it has become clear that so many of their views are regressive and, worse, the antithesis of freedom.

But let us start at the start. For political reasons, Labor is now trying to distance itself from the Greens. But the two parties share a determination to regulate the media. In step one, then Greens leader Bob Brown laid down his anti-freedom card when he described News Limited newspapers as the “hate media”. Our crime? To analyse, scrutinise and critique Greens policies. Even our national broadcaster, which for years had given the Greens an easy ride in the media, has started asking questions about their policies.

Step two of the warming up process involved Brown calling for an inquiry into the media. He demanded new licensing requirements for newspapers, a new “fit and proper” character test for newspaper owners, new curbs on foreign entrants and a wide-ranging review of media ownership “in light of the domination of News Limited in print media”.

Let’s be frank. The real targets of the Greens are centre-right newspapers that dare to expose the cant of left-wing policies.

Step three: at the first opportunity, the Prime Minister followed the playbook of Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to US President Barack Obama.

Emanuel once said progressives should never waste a crisis. Hence, the phone-hacking scandal in Britain became a politically convenient catalyst for the Gillard government and the Greens to heighten the tempo of calls for greater regulation of the media.

Never mind that there was zero evidence of phone hacking here. The PM said News Limited, publisher of The Australian, had “hard questions to answer”. Except that she could not elaborate on those questions. Meanwhile, her senior ministers kept ploughing the ground, attacking various News Limited newspapers, particularly The Daily Telegraph, for their coverage of government policies.

Caving in to the Greens, Gillard convened an inquiry into media regulation. The result, step four, was another step towards illiberalism. In the Finkelstein report, a retired judge and an academic tabled a report that concluded the Australian media was failing the public interest.

Largely based on opinion surveys, it recommended a new body, the News Media Council, to license the press and censor news reporting and political commentary. Under its recommendations, there would be no appeal from council findings. And those who disobey the council findings would face fines or imprisonment.

This super-regulator would also have power over online sites that get 15,000 hits a year. This report eschewed John Stuart Mill and embraced a Putin-style push where people on the street are treated as too dumb to be left to read newspapers without Big Brother having the power to censor what they read.

John Roskam, the head of freedom-loving think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, identified the real problem when he wrote that the Left no longer wants free speech. Progressives talk only about fair and balanced speech, whatever that means. They talk about those in the media having a “social licence” to operate, whatever that means. And these lofty guardians of media morality get to define and apply these terms.

Step five: the Gillard government has started talking openly about imposing a new test of public interest where mergers and acquisitions would be judged against tests of editorial independence, free and fair expression of opinion, and a larger number of owners. In the process of softening us up, senior ministers are not averse to using dubious tactics. They have pointed to the Slipper affair as reason enough for regulation of the media. And as this newspaper reported last week, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy tried to bolster his agenda using a 10-year-old Productivity Commission report that advocated a “public interest” test. Conroy, who must surely think we are stupid enough to fall for his tricks, failed to mention that he took this recommendation out of context.

Step six: another effort to plough the ground for media regulation came when the Gillard government started attacking Gina Rinehart for buying almost 19 per cent of Fairfax. Rinehart’s move was labelled a danger to our democracy. The emotional, hyperbolic language from Labor ministers and MPs was deliberate. Gillard and co are betting on us believing that these dangers to democracy warrant government intervention.

Step seven: happily for the Gillard government, its campaign has been aided and abetted by some of The Sydney Morning Herald’s most senior journalists who have howled day and night against Rinehart’s move on Fairfax. When SMH journalist Ross Gittins was asked whether it was better to have a newspaper thriving under Rinehart or no Fairfax at all, he replied: “that would be a difficult choice”. Gittins is a business journalist. Go figure.

It helps, but it is not enough, that lawyers and regulators, familiar with the misuse of subjective tests such as “public interest”, have spoken out. Likewise, it is revealing but not sufficient that the author of the Productivity Commission report has exposed Conroy’s misleading use of that report.

It helps that the Coalition plans to campaign on free speech. Let’s repeat that slowly. We have reached the point where one side of politics needs to campaign in favour of liberal values such as free speech. To this end,opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis is doing a fine job of reminding us just how extraordinary it is to see the government of the day launch a campaign against a free press.

Still, more heft is required. If we are to beat back the spectre of illiberalism, the conclusion rests with us. Our interest, after all, is clear enough: only a genuinely free press can hold our governments of whatever political persuasion to account. The final chapter must therefore record how we, the people, reaffirmed our commitment to the central tenet of liberalism that is freedom of speech. Over to you.

6 thoughts on “Labor’s shameful attack on free speech”

  1. I can tell you now that at least some of gizzards labor MPs are actively working to prevent normal Australians from openly commenting on any government related issue, for example the Christmas Island problem. I can also tell you that the labour politicians involved will react violently when challenged.

  2. Guardian publishes “a see-through attempt to demonise certain political ideas by branding them racist”

    The Guardian is execrable, of course, but it isn’t just the Guardian: Islamic supremacists and their media stooges in the U.S. have been branding legitimate and accurate criticism of the human rights abuses sanctioned by Islamic law as “racist” and “Islamophobic” for years. Just days ago the New York Daily News published a piece by a demonstrable and unrepentant liar, Nathan Lean, demanding that criticism of Islamic jihad terrorism be driven out acceptable public discourse. Totalitarian thugs like Lean and Useful Idiots like Jonathan Freedland will dance on the grave of free speech in the West, and bow down before the tyrants they enabled come to power.

    “The liberal media’s war on ‘trolling’ is becoming increasingly intolerant and censorious,” by Brendan O’Neill in the Telegraph, July 11 (thanks to JW):

    Jonathan Freedland has written an article for the Guardian about Islamophobic trolling on the internet. It contains an extraordinary line. Freedland says Muslim journalists are frequently subjected to vile racist abuse by some of the crankier commenters who lurk on the world wide web, including being branded “goatf**kers”. But there are also “subtler” forms of racism, he says, such as when trolls “dress up in progressive, Guardian-friendly garb… slamming Islam as oppressive of gay and women’s rights, for example”. “Call it progressives’ prejudice”, says Freedland.
    What is extraordinary about this is that it represents an explicit conflation of racial prejudice and political opinion, a mashing together of what we can all agree is irrational hatred of Muslims with what is surely just criticism of Islam. Now, you may agree or disagree with the idea that Islam is repressive of women and gays, but it is an idea nonetheless, a view some individuals have arrived at after thinking about various issues. To lump such an outlook together with abusive terms like “goatf**ker”, as if they both come from the same spectrum of racial hatred, is a see-through attempt to demonise certain political ideas by branding them racist.

    According to Freedland, racism and Islamophobia consist not only of expressions of irrational prejudice but also expressions of unacceptable (in his view) political ideas. Criticising a religion and its practices comes to be equated with slating an individual on the basis of his perceived ethnic background. Maybe someone should tell Freedland that the right to ridicule and blaspheme against religion is a hard-won liberty, fought for over centuries by free-speech warriors, and it has nothing to do with racism….

    One is forced to ask: who is really being intolerant here? Web-surfers who criticise Islam and don’t like the ideology of feminism, or respectable media outlets that now denounce pretty much everything they disagree with as “trolling”? The war on trolling is starting to look less like a demand for civility, and more like a demand for conformism.

  3. Quote: Now, you may agree or disagree with the idea that Islam is repressive of women and gays..

    This statement is designed to put forth the idea that the retrogressive nature of Islam is merely a matter of perspective and thus debate. In fact, it is not a matter of debate but “Islam is repressive of women and gays” is a fact. There is nothing to debate here. It has always been so since the time of Mohammed, and will be so until Islam remains no longer.

    From a much quoted Churchill statement – “The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men”.

    Jonathan Freedland is not just a Quisling but a retarded one at that. No one but a retarded mind could fail to see the depraved and barbaric nature of Islam.

  4. Hitler would have had an even easier accession to power here with the Green-Labor government than he had in Germany.

    I am soooo disgusted with the willful destruction of Australia, that I could only come up with cliches at the moment. So I leave it at that.

Comments are closed.