The Press Council’s contortions over opinion

The Australian Press Council believes that its role is not only to monitor straight news stories for balance and fairness, but also to monitor opinion and commentary. The APC says it is less strident – an opinion piece should, by definition, not be “balanced” – but says that “relevant facts must not be misrepresented or suppressed”.

This can make for some bizarre investigations.

For instance, the APC should have dismissed out of hand the complaint against Piers Akerman for writing that “the US, Russia, China, India and Japan and other important economic powers have walked away from the IPCC” – a clearly defensible position, given the failure of those countries to commit to global action on climate change. The APC eventually ruled in Akerman’s favour. But why on earth did it bother hearing the complaint at all?

And it should have dismissed a complaint against Phillip Adams that the Weekend Australian Magazine columnist had unfairly described the founder of the Australian League of Rights, Eric Butler, as a “traitor”. Here’s what Adams wrote:

If the word ‘traitor’ means anything Butler was a traitor, often investigated during World War II by stumblebum security people for his pro-Axis activities. He argued that Churchill, Roosevelt and John Curtin were ‘covert communists’, that then ally the Soviet Union was a ‘Jewish slave state … controlled by international Jewish financiers in New York’.

And here’s the relevant fact which Adams apparently suppressed: he served in the Second AIF during World War II and was described as “loyal to His Majesty the King”. For this, the APC ruled against Adams. (The APC is careful to point out that Butler’s service included “a hazardous overseas posting” – as if it is impossible to imagine how one could be a “traitor”, however broadly defined, and have served overseas.)

In the Australian, Christian Kerr outlines the case against Butler in detail – more detail clearly than the APC went into. Still, maybe a case could be made in Butler’s favour. That’s why we debate things. So why is the APC ruling on such clear and legitimate questions of public debate? Julian Disney, the APC head, said that his job was not to decide “who is right and who is wrong”, but how does this comment read?

I don’t want to get into a debate too much, but the Reed inquiry was done in the heat of war and drew a much more subtle distinction between being a real traitor and being of different views,” he said.

Being an active traitor in times of war is a very, very serious allegation. And many people of impeachable character have been differing in view to their country going into war.

Differing in view, indeed.

Everybody thinks the Press Council is a voluntary organisation. It isn’t. And it may be granted statutory powers, or even replaced by a full-blown regulator. It may have its jurisdiction expanded. The Adams case – like many before it – should warn us against giving any authority the power to judge and adjudicate matters which ought to be the purview of public debate.

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