We hear a lot of grand rhetoric about free speech and freedom of the press in Australia, but in reality, we can be pretty rubbish at defending these basic liberties.
Quick to outrage, we confuse dissenting opinions with disloyalty to the nation, and abuse with freedom of speech.
Only a year ago, Tony Abbott was the media’s great defender, thundering about Julia Gillard’s ultimately doomed flirtation with media regulation.
”It is not, repeat not, the role of government to manage the day-to-day practices of journalism, to dictate who can and who can’t control Australian media outlets or to ‘score’ media coverage against unavoidably subjective standards of fairness,” he said.
”The job of government is to foster free speech, not stifle it.”
We in the media cheered, but on Wednesday, Abbott, a former journalist himself, sought to impose his own scorecard on the ABC. He sympathised when Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley complained that there was a double standard between the complaints levelled at Hadley’s on-air comments, and what the ABC broadcast.
Hadley, who described himself as ”a bit to the right”, grizzled that he kept getting ”belted over the head” by the government’s media regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority – incidentally, for broadcasting claims that were factually incorrect.
Meanwhile, Hadley griped, ABC journalists were ”left to their own devices”.
”I can understand the frustration that you feel,” Abbott commiserated. ”I think that there is quite an issue of double standards … I think it dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but our own … You shouldn’t leap to be critical of your own country.”
As the Prime Minister knows full well, it’s not the ABC’s role to be a cheerleader for Australia’s national interest. It’s the organisation’s job to broadcast news in the public interest.
The next day, the Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, announced that the government would launch an ”efficiency study” of the ABC and SBS.
Turnbull assured there was ”no assault on the ABC” and the government’s terms of reference emphasise that the study is ”not a study of the quality of the national broadcaster’s programs, products and services”.
But the announcement of a cost-cutting review after an extraordinary attack by the Prime Minister on the ABC sent shudders through supporters of independent journalism. This was compounded by the news on the same day that The Global Mail financier Graeme Wood was withdrawing support for the publication.
Running battles against media reporting often take a pernicious path. Last week, over a series of days, I was accused in online forums of being a traitor to my country after reporting that Defence was investigating members who joined an online anti-Muslim group, the Australian Defence League.
Discussion quickly turned to how I would better understand the issues if I were raped, my daughter raped and my husband beheaded by Muslims.
It’s a dreary reflection of the nature of political debate these days that when a woman journalist writes or broadcasts something that someone, somewhere doesn’t like (surely the definition of journalism), some keyboard warrior throws the spectre of rape at her.
It’s a base method of trying to control women, but it’s a diversion: the goal is simply to shut down debate.
In no way am I suggesting the Prime Minister’s comments on the ABC are similar to the ravings of an online extremist group, but in a democracy like Australia, freedom of speech should involve having the maturity to debate ideas on merit, and defend the right of our media to air them, rather than resorting to appeals to patriotism or cheap abuse.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.