Free speech in the climate debate

You’d think that climate sceptics deserve free speech as much as everybody else.

That, however, isn’t the view of the ABC’s media criticism program, Media Watch. In an episode this March, Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes called for the government to use a practically defunct regulation to restrict the free speech of climate sceptics because he disagreed with the content of that speech.

Two days later, GetUp! — the ‘progressive’ membership based lobby group — responded to this call to action, launching proceedings with the government regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

GetUp! are being predictably self-aggrandising. What’s much more concerning is that Media Watch called for this attack on free speech in the first place. Broadcast weekly for just fifteen minutes at a time, Media Watch is one of the ABC’s flagship programs — a self-appointed press watchdog, dedicated to exposing media perfidy, ethics breaches and bias.

To do so, it is handsomely supported. According to a report, this quarter of an hour show received $1.4 million in funding to broadcast in 2003. Media Watch may be a short program, but (squeezed in between the national broadcaster’s other mass-market political fare of Australian Story, Four Corners, and Q&A on Monday nights) it is at the heart of the ABC’s self-identity as a countervailing force against the commercial media. In short: Media Watch is the ABC’s official arbiter of press ethics.

So it was quite a big deal when Media Watch conclusively demonstrated that, on the right to free speech, it’s one of the bad guys — asking for the legal system to step in and manage the vigorous public debate about climate change.

The program opened with an extended discussion about the number of climate change sceptics hosting AM radio shows, their take on climate science, and the fact that they interview more sceptical scientists than non-sceptical ones.

Of course, it’s hardly news some radio commentators prefer to interview certain guests more than others. ‘Opinion maker has strong opinion’ would not stop even the smallest press. And this is not the first time Holmes has been concerned about sceptic success. On The Drum in February 2010, he bemoaned that climate sceptics are winning because they’re the ones with ‘the passion, and the commitment.’ It’s an old tune, and clearly one which he is personally passionate about. That’s fine.

Yet on this particular Media Watch episode, Holmes went one step further. He argued the radio hosts are in breach of the Code of Practice governing commercial broadcasters which mandates ‘reasonable efforts are made … to present significant viewpoints when dealing with controversial issues of public importance’.

And the reason the regulator hasn’t enforced the code against Alan Jones and his fellow sceptics? ACMA ‘won’t or can’t enforce the Code unless someone complains it’s being flouted.’ Nudge nudge, wink wink.

When I raised Media Watch’s seeming hostility to freedom of speech on The Drum , Holmes was indignant, writing:

So Media Watch suggested they should do what the Code requires, and ensure that ‘reasonable efforts are made … to present significant viewpoints when dealing with controversial issues of public importance’. Such as, just occasionally, interviewing scientists who maintain that the evidence points to dangerous, man-made global warming — scientists who represent by far the majority scientific view — as well as (not instead of) scientists who disagree. And I said that it shouldn’t need complaints to the ACMA to make that happen. How ‘chilling’! How restrictive! What an enemy of free speech I must be!

Well, yes.Genuine supporters of free speech reject the idea that speech which is in any way objectionable — as climate scepticism clearly is for Holmes — has a regulatory solution.Someone who combs regulations (and the Codes of Practice are regulations, even if they are developed in consultation with the broadcasters) looking for ways to alter another’s speech cannot ever be described as a friend of freedom of expression.

On Twitter a week later, he dug himself deeper, arguing that ‘Chris Berg reckons requiring tv radio to be fair = assault on freedom’. In his eagerness to have the government’s regulator step in to manage the speech of climate sceptics, Holmes has completely failed to think deeply about the free speech implications of what he suggests.

The right to freedom of speech is meaningless without the right to choose that speech. No-one should be forced to say something they do not believe as a condition of saying something they do.

In the United States between 1949 and 1987, the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ obliged broadcasters to do exactly that. The regulation compelled contrasting views to be presented whenever an issue was raised on the air.

And certainly, the doctrine resulted in balanced and civil broadcasting environment. But it did so by exclusion. It was easier to avoid controversial topics than risk a regulatory penalty for being perceived unfair.

Testifying in 1984, the broadcaster Dan Rather argued that ‘Once a newsperson has to stop and consider what a Government agency will think of something he or she wants to put on the air, an invaluable element of freedom has been lost.’

The Fairness Doctrine quickly became a political weapon. During the Kennedy Administration, the Democratic National Committee produced activist kits teaching party members ‘how to demand time under the Fairness Doctrine’.

The Nixon administration also used the Fairness Doctrine to threaten the licenses of hostile broadcasters. Angered by The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage, Richard Nixon is on record saying that ‘the Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems … They have a television station … and they’re going to have to get it renewed.’ The Fairness Doctrine is now widely recognised as having had a ‘chilling effect’ on speech.

Compared to the Fairness Doctrine, the Commercial Broadcasters’ Code of Practice is a model of restraint. But, as Media Watch helpfully demonstrated, that is because it is largely defunct — it has been interpreted benignly, and wielded rarely. Media Watch advocated that this free speech status quo be overturned, and the Code of Practice be used as a political weapon. After all, I doubt Media Watch would argue that gay broadcasters should be compelled to air the views of homophobes, or Christian broadcasters to air the view of anti-theists. Instead he called for the Code to be used solely against those discussing Australia’s biggest, most controversial, political issue — the carbon price.

Some claim a Code of Practice is the price broadcasters pay for using public spectrum; that the rest of the media is free to do what it likes but there must be special rules for those using the airwaves. The history of the Fairness Doctrine, and the egregious actions of GetUp and Media Watch, show just how slippery a slope that view is. ‘Public interest’ rationales easily become political interest rationales.

Considering how central the climate change debate is to contemporary Australia politics, it is striking how fast and loose Holmes is willing to play with the principles of free speech.

In column after column, speech after speech, proponents of climate change action argue that science has a communications problem. The government has now hired a climate communicator, Tim Flannery, who is profiled elsewhere in this issue of the IPA Review. As Media Watch demonstrates, that ‘communications problem’ is starting to become a cause for regulatory action itself.

Holmes’s regret in February 2010 that sceptics are winning the debate has become Holmes’ declaration in March 2011 that the government should step in to forcibly ‘balance’ it.

Referring to George Bush’s 2003 declaration to the Australian parliament that he loved free speech, Holmes’ predecessor David Marr lamented to the Media Watch audience ‘If only more Australian commentators shared his view.’ Indeed. And if only Media Watch did as well.