Liberty Gets The Chop

Where are our great public intellectuals on new threats to freedom of the press? Under the Howard government, there was a minor genre of books and essays condemning the prime minister’s apparent antipathy to public debate. With titles like Silencing Dissent, academics and activists lined up to say John Howard was cracking down on his opponents. David Marr argued in a 2007 essay that Howard was ”corrupting public debate”. Howard had ”cowed his critics” and ”muffled the press”.

So the silence on the inquiry into media bias is jarring. Yesterday the Greens proposed an inquiry to look at ”whether the current media ownership landscape in Australia is serving the public interest”. Those are weasel words. The inquiry – also supported by some independents and many within the government – is obviously intended to influence what the media publishes.

After all, Rob Oakeshott supports an inquiry because he thinks ”complete rubbish” is being written about him. Labor MP Steve Gibbons spoke of the need for an inquiry because of ”vendettas of hate” being waged against the government. Greens senator Christine Milne has said ”bias is certainly one of the things which is going to be looked at”. Bob Brown talks of the anti-Green ”hate media”.

The federal cabinet reportedly held lengthy discussions several weeks ago about ”going to war” with News Ltd and The Australian newspaper. Along with an inquiry, the cabinet also canvassed a government advertising boycott, because it wasn’t happy with coverage of the Craig Thomson affair and journalist Glenn Milne’s airing of old allegations that Julia Gillard had been tangentially associated with similar things.

But recall: in his Howard-era essay, David Marr described the government’s reluctance to use taxpayer money on objectionable artistic grants as ”censorship by poverty”.

Many agreed. Surely by this loose standard, the Gillard government’s threat of withdrawing advertising from a media company it objects to is ”censorship” as well? Where’s the outcry?

In 2007, Robert Manne wrote the foreword of Silencing Dissent. But in a Quarterly Essayreleased last week, Manne complains the ”real and present danger to the health of Australian democracy” is actually Rupert Murdoch and The Australian.

It couldn’t be that the ”health of our democracy” has been hurt by this government’s unfathomably low popularity. Or how it dumped a prime minister, reversed a core election promise and fouled up its refugee policy beyond belief.

No, more concerning is the The Australian‘s ”jihad” against the Greens. In his essay, Manne praises the Greens as ”the most important left-wing party in Australian history”. The Labor Party – Australia’s oldest political party and the first labour party to hold government on the planet – might disagree.

Well, perhaps Manne is using ”left wing” as a synonym for ”authoritarian”. Surely there’s no other word to describe Bob Brown’s recent suggestion the government should impose newspaper licences.

The only reason you’d impose a licence is so you have the power to take the licence away. That’s why in the English-speaking world, newspaper licensing was abandoned nearly four centuries ago. It was tyrannical.

Certainly, the proposed media inquiry may be limited to studying things like privacy or media ownership. Or it may not go ahead at all. The government has enough on its plate. And it is a legitimate question whether the law has set correct limits on media ownership concentration. (Or whether any limits should exist. The press is under extreme commercial pressure from the internet. At no time in history have media moguls been less powerful.)

Still, there’s a comprehensive review going on right now into every facet of media regulation – the convergence review. Few seem to care about that.

The idea that a government might regulate a media organisation specifically because it didn’t like an editorial line is an obvious attack on free speech. Should companies be broken up, their ownership divested, as punishment for being critical, fairly or unfairly, of a government?

Indeed, the fact the government is talking about an inquiry gives it leverage over critics. Surely few genuine supporters of free expression are comfortable with that. Imagine the furore if John Howard had done – or suggested – anything similar.

The Gillard government is one of the most shambolic in history. No surprise then that some people want to talk about failings of the press. Fixating on unfair media coverage must be comforting for those let down by Labor’s performance in government.

In his recent book, Sideshow, former finance minister Lindsay Tanner argued the media was too easily distracted by the frills of public life, to the detriment of policy analysis.

This might be a fair point. But his publicity tour was revealing. Tanner was the fourth most powerful person in the Rudd government. He retired just as it imploded. He’d know some things of public interest. Yet in interviews, Tanner refused to be drawn on the inside workings of that government. He just wanted to speak about media perfidy. Complaining about the media sideshow is just another sideshow.

Predictably, the News of the World scandal in Britain was used by Australian politicians to embarrass their press critics. Months later there’s still no evidence to suggest phone hacking of any kind has occurred Australia. Yet cries for a media inquiry have only gotten louder.

Silencing Dissent asked readers to ”judge for themselves whether the erosion of democratic institutions described in this book is the accidental result of a particular leadership style or part of a more insidious attempt to reshape democracy”.

The question was shrill then. But many nodded along at the time. And for those who did, that same question should now be asked of the politicians clamouring for legislative solutions to negative media coverage.