The job of government is to foster free speech, not to suppress it

by: Tony Abbott From:The Australian August 06, 2012

THIS is not a government that argues its case. Mostly, it howls down its critics using the megaphone of incumbency. There’s the jihad against mining magnates for daring to question the government’s investment-sapping mining tax.

There’s the claim that Gina Rinehart is a “danger to democracy” because she dared to buy an interest in a newspaper group and refused to endorse the Fairfax group’s existing editorial culture. Late last year, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy accused the Sydney Daily Telegraph of a deliberate campaign to “bring the government down.” Julia Gillard had a screaming match with former News Limited boss John Hartigan over an article about her dealings prior to entering parliament with a union official. The Greens have been consistently critical of those former senator Bob Brown tagged the “hate media.” The Prime Minister personally insisted that News Limited in Australia had “questions to answer” in the wake of the British phone hacking scandal. It seems obvious that her real concern was not Fleet Street-style illegality but News Limited’s coverage of her government.

To Ray Finkelstein’s credit, there’s no specific “get News Limited” vendetta evident in the report of his Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation. Still, his recommendation that a powerful News Media Council should “set journalistic standards,” “enforce news standards” and “have power to require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction, or retraction” looks like an attempt to warn off News Limited from pursuing anti-government stories.

The “community, industry and professional representatives” that Finkelstein wants appointed to the new regulator are unlikely to be truly independent of the government that will fund it. We know the present government’s attitude to fearless reporting because it is constantly complaining about it. Perhaps the most shameless example was Doug Cameron accusing the “Murdoch press” of actually “fabricating stories” about the prospect of a Rudd challenge for which he was one of the numbers men!

Any new watchdog could become a political correctness enforcement agency. It’s easy to imagine the fate of Andrew Bolt or Alan Jones at the hands of such thought police. Their demise, you understand, wouldn’t be because the government didn’t like them but because they’d persistently breached “standards”.

In response to a strongly worded critique of the Finkelstein recommendations, the government has replied to seven media chief executives saying it might not proceed with a new regulator if the media were to establish more effective forms of self-regulation. In other words, “censor yourselves or we will do it for you”. Any government that demands changed behaviour from the media under circumstances like these is not trying to raise journalistic standards but to lower them.

The Coalition rejects the Finkelstein proposals, it rejects any additional regulation for the print media and it rejects calls for the introduction of a public interest test or any test to determine who might be suitable to have a stake in Australia’s media. It calls on the government to do likewise.

Australia does not need more regulation of the media, it needs a debate about freedom of speech.

A hung parliament has brought out the government’s authoritarian streak. It is not the role of government to manage the day-to-day practices of journalism; to “mark” commentary and media against unavoidably subjective standards of fairness. The job of government is to foster free speech, not stifle it. It’s to increase the number and the range of people who can participate in public debate, not to reduce it.

Another threat to freedom of speech in Australia is the operation of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits statements that “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” another person or a group of people on grounds of race or ethnicity.

At the time of its introduction, oblivious to its Orwellian overtones, the then minister, Nick Bolkus, said that it was designed to prohibit “speechcrime” over and above the traditional tort of defamation.

Making the likelihood of causing offence to a group the test of acceptable behaviour is a much more onerous restriction than bringing a particular victim into hatred, ridicule or contempt.

Let’s be clear: insulting, humiliating or intimidating others on any grounds, racial or otherwise, is deplorable but a “hurt feelings” test is impossible to comply with while maintaining the fearless pursuit of truth which should be the hallmark of a society such as ours.

As Robert Menzies declared: “The whole essence of freedom (of speech) is that it is freedom for others as well as (for) ourselves. (It is) a conception which is not born with us, but which we must painfully acquire. Most of us have no instinct at all to preserve the right of the other fellow to think what he likes about our beliefs and to say what he likes about our opinions. (But) if truth is to emerge, and in the long run be triumphant, the process of free debate – the untrammelled clash of opinion – must go on.”

The article for which Bolt was prosecuted under this legislation was almost certainly not his finest. Still, if free speech is to mean anything, it’s the freedom to write badly and rudely. Speech that has to be inoffensive is not free, just unerringly politically correct.

If it’s all right for David Marr to upset conservative Christians, why is it not all right for Bolt to upset activist Aborigines?

The Coalition will repeal section 18C in its present form. We would be prepared to maintain a prohibition on inciting hatred against or intimidation of particular racial groups, akin to the ancient common law offences of incitement and causing fear. Expression or advocacy should never be unlawful merely because it is offensive. It ought to be inconceivable that a commentator offering an opinion should fall foul of the law just because offence was taken or might be expected to be taken. This is not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with Bolt. It’s a matter of an expansive or a repressive view of the right to free speech.

It’s not just the present government which will be put to the test in the debate over new restrictions on free speech, although its authoritarian tendencies are likely to be on display. It will be all the commentators and organisations that have ever thundered in defence of free speech but find their indignation highly selective when it’s News Limited or Bolt that are in the dock.

The Australian Left has long cited the Menzies government’s attempt to ban the Communist Party as an egregious assault on freedom. What will they make of any Gillard government legislation to restrict freedom of speech? Menzies sought to restrict freedom in order to defend the country. The Gillard government, by contrast, seeks to restrict freedom in order to defend itself.

Tony Abbott is Leader of the Opposition.