Government MP imposes a “social licence” on the media … whatever that is

This is how far down the rabbit hole we’ve travelled. Steve Gibbons, a government MP for the electorate of Bendigo, told parliament on Tuesday that the media “has lost its social licence to operate”. His reasons: “socially unacceptable standards of factuality and veracity” and “a failure to distinguish between factual news reporting and editorial opinion”. Gibbons even thinks “falling circulations” are a reason that this “social licence” has expired.

So what on earth is a social licence? The concept of a social licence began as an attack on mining companies but is now used to criticise any industry some people don’t like. It has the added benefit of being completely vague and indeterminate. We don’t have newspaper licencing in Australia, but Gibbons reckons there’s a more ephemeral, communal, otherworldly form of “licencing” with conditions that include the separation of fact from opinion and strong circulation. It is, simply, nonsense. A society that believes freedom of speech and freedom of the press are values worth defending does not condition those values on whether circulation is going up or down.

Nonetheless, Gibbons has decided that the licence has been breached. His proposed sanction is unsurprising. He calls for a regulator to control “news media behaviour” – in other words, the Finkelstein media inquiry proposal. He’s not the only member of the government who has called for the same. Joel Fitzgibbon – the government’s chief whip – wrote in the Australian in March that “Letting our media police themselves has been a mistake.”

The Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is yet to respond to the Finkelstein Inquiry, but says a response is imminent. The upheaval in the print media of the last week will throw that response into flux. While the winds of technological change are altering the press forever, it’s hard to fathom that the government is considering whether to impose one of the most archaic attacks on freedom of the press seen in recent decades.


Should Voting Be Compulsory?

In the Herald Sun on Sunday, the IPA’s Lydia Bevege made the case for voluntary voting:

Australian democracy is not enhanced by forcing these people to express an opinion on parties and candidates they dislike.

Rejecting all candidates on the ballot paper and staying at home on election day is a legitimate democratic expression that Australians do not have the right to exercise. We are all forced to vote because other people have decided that we ought to be involved in the political process.

Read the whole thing here.


Racist on a train

In The Drum in April I talked about a 21-year-old British student who was sentenced to 56 days jail for a few racist tweets. Well, now a London woman has been sentenced to 21 weeks jail for being racist on a train.

What these two people said was disgusting, no doubt about it. They were both extremely drunk. But the idea that you can be sent to jail – and for such a long time – simply for being offensive is repugnant to the rule of law and freedom of speech. It is excessive and illiberal.

And with the rise of the racial and religious vilification laws in Australia we’re travelling in that direction. The right not to be offending is trampling our right to freedom of speech.


Ricketson on the Finkelstein report

Ray Finkelstein, who led the Indepedent Media Inquiry, has said he will not talk to the media about his proposal for a statutory authority to regulate the news and opinion. You can see his statement to that effect here.

But in the last few weeks, his co-author, the University of Canberra academic Matthew Ricketson has come out swinging, with a speech at Melbourne University and a column in the Age over the weekend. And he thinks the reporting has been unfair.

Yet it’s not clear Ricketson understands the significance of the proposals in the report he helped write. How else to explain this claim, in his Age column, that his proposal “differs from the existing system in only one key aspect, namely government would fund the News Media Council”?

That’s not true. Not at all.

Yes, the News Media Council would be government funded. But it would also be compulsory. It would have the power to censor. It would regulate every website and newspaper and email. Even FreedomWatch would fall within its regulatory arms. It would have the power to force publication of its own orders – and if anybody refused, they could go to jail. These powers are all new: the Australian Press Council has none of them. If a newspaper disagrees with a Press Council ruling, it can leave. Sure, it might be costly to do so (in reputation, and by increasing the risk of heavier-handed government regulation) but it is not legally compulsory to comply with the council’s decisions.

In his Melbourne University address, Ricketson claimed that the report “categorically ruled out any return to a licensing regime”. That’s not quite true either. As I pointed out in a briefing paper published days after the report was released, Finkelstein doesn’t appear to understand what a licensing regime actually is. In the report, he provides a definition of “licensing” which matches his proposals almost exactly. There is a great deal of conceptual confusion in his report, and licensing is one of the key confusions.


Obama Beats Bush In Assault On Civil Rights

My Sunday Age and Sun-Herald column today discusses how the left have gone silent on Obama’s atrocious civil liberties record.

Obama has undermined more individual rights, and hoarded more presidential power, than Bush ever did. It’s not that he has simply failed to roll back Bush’s anti-terror excesses. Although that is true, as well. It’s that Obama has trumped them. More than 10 years after the September 11 attacks, the White House is still amassing extra security powers.


Convergence: dangerously workable

In the ABC’s Drum, I look at the troubling freedom of speech issues raised by the Convergence Review:

One pregnant sentence in the Convergence Review says, “It is important to note that the current Australian Press Council regime where members can opt out or reduce funding is not an acceptable situation.”

When the review’s draft terms of reference were released in 2010, nobody expected proposals to regulate ‘fairness’ in newspapers would form a core part of the review’s final report.

And that sentence’s claim – that voluntary press regulation is unacceptable, and regulation is necessary – undercuts the review’s repeated assertions that its “underlying approach [is] in favour of deregulation”.

Read more here.


Self-censorship and the press

In the Sydney Morning Herald, the IPA’s James Paterson answers the question: should the media censor the trial of Anders Breivik?

The government certainly shouldn’t. If we value the principle of freedom of speech then it should not be illegal to air Breivik’s trial. But that principle says nothing about what private media companies should do.

The media – like everybody – has a moral duty to exercise restraint, particularly when it comes to relaying views as disgusting as Breivik’s. It is understandable that many people would not want to see Breivik granted a platform for his views. Ultimately, whether to cover Breivik’s trial is an editorial judgement to be made by individual news outlets.

Yet it is not clear what would be gained if the media did decide to collectively suppress the broadcast of his trial.

Read the whole thing here.


Finkelstein recommendations must be rejected completely


“The government and opposition must reject the outrageous attack on freedom of speech recommended by the Chair of the Independent Media Inquiry, Ray Finkelstein,” said Chris Berg, a Research Fellow with free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Mr Berg appeared before the inquiry in November 2011 and is the author of a forthcoming book on freedom of speech.

“The proposals are an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech in Australia.

“The practical effect of Finkelstein’s proposals is to licence newspapers, magazines, and blogs. This is a massive intrusion on what we can read and write.

“His proposed ‘News Media Council’ would be empowered to censor – to force media outlets to remove material from the internet.

“Finkelstein recommends that the print media be regulated in the same way as broadcasting. But similar broadcasting regulations have been used as weapons to try to censor political speech,” said Mr Berg.

“It is shameful that the Media Inquiry has recommended such a massive expansion of regulation. Even ‘news’ websites that have as few as forty visitors a day would have their freedom of speech regulated.

“The government must reject Finkelstein’s proposals out of hand,” said Mr Berg.

The Institute of Public Affairs made a submission to the inquiry.


Coalition’s free speech reform welcome but needs to go further

The Coalition’s announcement that it would reform the Racial Discrimination Act is an important and necessary step towards restoring freedom of speech, but should go further, said Chris Berg, Research Fellow with free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Mr Berg is the author of a forthcoming book on threats to freedom of speech.

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” because of a person’s race, colour or national or ethnic origin. Opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis announced that an Abbott government would remove the words “offend” and “insult” from the Act.

“Freedom of speech is our most basic and fundamental right”, said Mr Berg.

“The Coalition’s proposal is welcome but restrictions on opinions which ‘humiliate’ or ‘intimidate’ would remain. Only a full repeal of Section 18C will ensure that a case like Andrew Bolt’s will never occur again in Australia,” said Mr Berg.

The Institute of Public Affairs this week launched the Repeal 18C campaign, which seeks the abolition of this restriction on freedom of speech entirely –

“The Andrew Bolt case shows that Australians’ freedom to express their sincerely held opinions has been severely limited by Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

“In a free and open society we will sometimes be offended, embarrassed, even humiliated by the opinions of others, but that should never be an excuse to use the law to shut them up,” said Mr Berg.

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