Media Watch: Everyone Loves It Until They Advocate Censorship

On last week’s Media Watch, host Jonathan Holmes called for the government to use a practically defunct regulation to restrict free speech because he disagreed with the content of that speech.

Two days later, GetUp – the useful idiots of Australian politics – responded to this call to action, launching proceedings with the government regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

That the speech in question was about climate change and the speakers were Alan Jones and Chris Smith is absolutely beside the point.

Media Watch conclusively demonstrated that, on the right to free speech, it’s one of the bad guys – asking for the legal system to intervene in a vigorous public debate.

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.

Completely within Media Watch’s brief, sure, and completely banal. It’s hardly news some radio commentators prefer to interview certain guests more than others. “Opinion maker has biased view” would not stop even the smallest press.

Yet Holmes went one step further. He argued the shock-jocks 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.

Defending his stance on Twitter, Holmes said on Wednesday that “if you check you’ll see I said stations shouldn’t need to be told by [the] regulator”. The key word there is “need” – Holmes believes that broadcasters do, currently, need to have their speech regulated; their freedom of expression limited.

The host of Media Watch would not respond to further questions.

Don’t just read the transcript – watch the show. Smugness has always been part of the appeal of Media Watch. But when tackling subjects with more weightiness than the NT News or an ABC 24 production error, complacent insinuation and innuendo are increasingly a substitute, rather than a complement, for argument.

Nevertheless, if Holmes believes that GetUp or his audience have misinterpreted his meaning and intent – or simply if he thinks the government regulating public debate is a bad thing – then he could say so on air.

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 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.

Monday’s 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 Holmes 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.

When not actively hostile to free speech, Media Watch is just missing in action.

Take, for instance, the most prominent and disturbing violation of free speech in recent years: the class action lawsuit against Andrew Bolt under the Racial Vilification Act is as clear cut an attempt to silence a critic of public policy as this country has seen in many years.

So, unsurprisingly, the lawsuit has not been mentioned once on what is supposed to be the ABC’s flagship program of media analysis.

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.