Time to embrace free speech

Stephen Conroy

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is currently considering recommendations to increase media regulation. IMAGE: News Limited

Ironic, but not surprising, because governments (including Australia’s) see this as a potential threat to their viability.

Communication Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy’s recently unveiled package of media restrictions dressed up as “reforms” is a clear demonstration of this.

You can ignore all the comforting assurances that this government intervention is necessary to ensure that Australia has a fair and diverse media.

That is not the role of government in a democracy – in the end the market has and always will determine this.

No, the government simply wants more control over the media, and in particular the print media led by News Limited, which has been highly critical of its performance. It also wants to be seen by the left, the Greens and the independents on whom it relies for policy support, to be doing something in this area of censorship.

This latest example of “public interest” media censorship follows a lengthy (failed) campaign by Senator Conroy for a compulsory internet filter to counter the distribution of material such as child pornography.

The federal Labor government, for example, would have us believe that it is compelled to act in a censorial way to protect the community from the evils of this new technology. Senator Conroy has argued assiduously for a compulsory internet filter to counter the distribution of material such as child pornography.

‘The scope for legal action would be a lawyer’s dream. As far as the media is concerned journalists and editors would have an obligation to avoid implications in material which might offend people with different views and specific social backgrounds’

The issue, in itself, is a motherhood one because no respectable person would support child pornography, which is illegal anyway.

In the wake of the UK phone hacking scandal which focused on the now defunct News of the World, the government effectively pointed the finger at News Ltd to prove that it was not engaged in similar antics.

News Ltd conducted an internal review of its Australian operations which found no evidence of any impropriety.

However, the government was already moving to set up its own inquiry into the media under former judge, Ray Finkelstein. In a nutshell, the upshot of this inquiry focused on the role of the Australian Press Council and whether this should be strengthen in its ability to deal with complaints or replaced by another body.

Alongside this the government had set up another inquiry, the Convergence Review, which was looking at the regulatory framework for the future media communications world.

With the recommendations from these inquiries simmering away the government turned its attention to anti-discrimination laws which it said it planned to make simpler and fairer.

The government may have thought that such a benign approach would be warmly received by minority interest groups in particular and the broader electorate in general, but instead it was met with a hail of criticism.

If implemented these laws would open a Pandora’s box of potential actions significantly limiting freedom of speech. Under the proposed changes discrimination would have included conduct that offends, insults or intimidates.

For example, if someone took offence over a political opinion expressed in the workplace they could take the matter to court where the person who made the comments would effectively have to prove they had not breached the law.

The scope for legal action would be a lawyer’s dream. As far as the media is concerned journalists and editors would have an obligation to avoid implications in material which might offend people with different views and specific social backgrounds.

Malcolm Colless is a former senior executive at News Ltd.

He can be contacted at facebook/malcolm.colless

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