Liberal democracy

Stephen Conroy not a fan of the IPA Review

You may remember last month the IPA inadvertently exposed a Department of Broadband and Communications plot to place ghost-written pro-NBN propaganda in the media.

Senator Simon Birmingham followed up in Senate estimates this week, which resulted in this story in The Australian on Wednesday ($):

“This follows revelations that the department’s media team also sent an article to the Institute of Public Affairs Review’s editor James Paterson offering a “meticulously researched” article “gratis” — and suggesting the article run under the byline of one of the review’s journalists.

The department’s acting deputy secretary, Ian Robinson, said the email sent to Mr Paterson had been a mistake but he confirmed the public figures recruited by the government to trumpet the NBN have also been offered articles to run under their own names.”

The transcript of the Senate committee hearing is now available, and includes this amusing comment from Stephen Conroy on the quality of articles in the IPA Review!:

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It was sent by Mr Dennis Godfrey, a senior communication adviser in the Media and Public Affairs Communication Branch in the department on 7 September at 10.51 am to James Paterson. It said:

Dear James,

I have just written an article about how the National Broadband Network currently being rolled out across Australia will in many ways be of particular interest to women.

It is meticulously researched and would be quite gratis—no fee of course.

Please let me now if you are interested. I’d be happy to send it to you for consideration.


Dennis Godfrey

Senator Conroy: It would make a huge improvement on the rubbish they normally print but, as I have said publicly—

Read more of the exchange below:

Continue Reading →


Spin State getting out of control

The Australian reports this morning on a very strange email we received last week ($):

PUBLIC relations staff from the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy are hawking articles praising the NBN to publications, telling editors they are free to run the stories under the names of their own journalists.

James Paterson, editor of the Institute of Public Affairs Review, which has been fiercely critical of the NBN, was startled to receive an offer of an article from an adviser at DBCDE on Friday offering a “meticulously researched” article on the NBN and women “quite gratis”. A follow-up email explained “the article is overly long — but deliberately so, to give you more choice if you cut”, while asking Mr Paterson to retain references in it to the Broadband Champions program launched last year by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

A third told Mr Paterson: “I have no problems with you by-lining it from your team.”

Where to begin?

It’s disturbing enough that taxpayers are employing public servants to write pro-government spin (which has sadly been going on for a long time). Next time the CPSU or one of their state-based equivalents says we can’t possibly cut the public service without hurting hospitals and schools, remember this.

But it’s even more disturbing that at least one government department thinks it is ok to ghost-write articles praising government policy and then encourages editors to pretend it was written by independent journalists. That’s government-directed plagiarism, and it is coming from the department of a minister who thinks that journalists can’t be trusted to behave ethically.

This episode shows we certainly can’t trust the government to behave ethically when it comes to the media. It is yet another reason why we should oppose the recommendations of the Finkelstein review to give the government more power over the press.

UPDATE: If you are not a subscriber to The Australian, you can read this report on the incident.


IPA says ‘no secret deals’ on free speech


Media executives and the federal government have no right to secretly negotiate and agree to curbs on free speech, according to the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

“Freedom of speech is a right that belongs to all Australians. It is not something that should be negotiated away in a secret political compromise between the Prime Minister and a handful of media bosses,” says Chris Berg, director of policy at the IPA and the author of a recent book on freedom of speech, In Defence of Freedom of Speech: From Ancient Greece to Andrew Bolt.

“The Prime Minister should not have sent a private letter to media companies offering to negotiate more regulation of the media. It should have been immediately released to the Australian public because it is their rights the government is proposing to curtail.

“Freedom of speech is not just an individual’s right to express themselves, but also their right to hear other views. Any new restrictions on the media are as much of an attack on ordinary Australians as it is on media companies.

“This is just another chapter in the Gillard government’s awful track regard on freedom of speech which has included five simultaneous government inquiries into news media organisations and seen Australia fall to 30th on the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

“The case has not been made that the Australian media needs more regulation. In fact, following the Andrew Bolt case and numerous spurious ACMA investigations, it is clear that the media actually needs less regulation,” concludes Mr Berg.


Freeing the executive to spend our money

Great piece by IPA research fellow Simon Breheny in the Sydney Morning Herald today, on the federal government’s Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill, which gives the executive extraordinary new spending powers:

It is a basic tenet of parliamentary democracy that the decision to spend public money is made by the parliament.

The English Civil War and the French Revolution were sparked by this fundamental principle: when the executive wants money, it needs the consent of representatives of the governed.

But an obscure bill passed by the Federal Parliament turns this principle on its head.

The most depressing part is this: the bill was passed with support across the parliament. As Simon writes,

One after another our elected representatives got up to raise serious concerns with a bill they knew to be flawed. And one after another they voted for its passage.

But the most bizarre player in all of this is the Greens. One can at least understand the positions of the ALP and the Coalition, who both support the school chaplaincy program. But the Greens completely object to the idea of school chaplains, have never supported the program and still passed legislation purportedly designed to save it.

One can only assume they are in favour of executive overreach, no matter the issue.

Read the whole thing here.


Leveson, democracy and free speech

The UK’s Leveson Inquiry started as a serious investigation into phone hacking and police corruption. Sure, it was always something of a show-trial. The actual investigation is being conducted by real police who have laid real charges. But Leveson has now completely descended into farce, as I wrote in the Drum earlier this week:

what was a serious inquiry has devolved into a strange sort of puritanism. Participants are being judged against ethical rules unheard of before Leveson convened. For a newspaper to back a political party is apparently a breach of these novel rules. And friendship between politician and proprietor is outrageous. The phone-hacking affair no longer has anything to do with phone-hacking. It’s trying to make scandals out of the basic practices of representative democracy.

Brendan O’Neill has an excellent piece on the same issue, also at the Drum, when he writes that the inquiry “become a purveyor of tittle-tattle, a peerer into people’s private lives, a tabloid-style gossip chamber in which journalists and lawyers gather to swap stories about the ‘country suppers’ and text-messaging habits of the rich and powerful.”

But the best statement on the Leveson Inquiry remains this, by Michael Gove, UK Education Secretary, who strongly and passionately asserted the case for freedom of speech against sceptical questioning.

Lord Justice Leveson, it turns out, does not like this critique of his inquiry, as the Daily Mail explains.


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