- Sewing shut lips of free speech
- By Mark Day
- The Australian
- Contributed by: admin ( 74 articles in 2003 )
Ask any western-style leader in the world today, and you can back it in they'll agree that free speech is a cornerstone of democracy. So why do so many of them approve of attempts to limit it?
Why do they say one thing, paying lip service to freedom of opinion and expression, while at the same time proposing laws and regulations that intrude on those rights?
This month we had two important reminders that the fight to preserve freedom of speech is never over. At the annual dinner of the Australian Press Council, John Hartigan, the CEO of News Limited, (publisher of The Australian) called for defamation law reform and a reworking of Freedom of Information laws. And at the annual meeting of the Australian section of the Commonwealth Press Union, chairman Warren Beeby warned that public life in Australia was becoming more and more secret.
Hartigan's speech attracted attention because his FoI comments put Treasurer Peter Costello on the spot in Parliament, and because he called for a re-think of the definitions of defamation.
It was a timely call. Two weeks later, Mark Latham settled a defamation writ issued by Malcolm Turnbull for comments made outside the House to the effect that Turnbull was not fit for public office. This happened while the Government's front-line head kickers were lambasting Latham as unfit for public office.
Even given the legal niceties differentiating the two situations, there's a yawning double standard at play here - just like politicians who use defo laws to get rich, rather than to repair reputations. But don't get me started on that old hobby-horse.
It was the unreported elements of both speeches that best illustrate the extent of the attempts to muzzle or regulate the media.
Beeby told the CPU: "The slide (to secrecy) is being fostered by politicians and tort-making judges and self-interested groups, and it comes in many guises - in the form of defamation law, privacy law, surveillance law, health law, security law, court administration law, ASIO law, discrimination law, and many more. This muzzling of journalists is compounded by judges constantly raising the hurdles that must be jumped to be deemed 'reasonable' in researching stories, and by over-use of suppression orders."
Beeby says the Victorian Health Records Bill of 2001 would have forbidden the reporting of, say, an injury to Wayne Carey's knee. In football-mad Melbourne, this might have led to a revolt of the peasants, so the law was changed. But the legislators forgot to make consequential changes to another section which continued to prohibit the communication of this (health) information across state borders. So Victorians could know about Carey's crook knee, but South Australians (where Carey plays for Adelaide) would be denied the information. It's mad.
In NSW, a surveillance law reform proposal is drafted so sweepingly it would declare spectacles and contact lenses as illegal devices intended to enhance surveillance.
In NSW and SA, moves are afoot to ban the publication of the names of people charged with criminal offences until their last avenue of appeal is completed. That would mean a situation such as Pauline Hanson's jailing could not be reported until her release on appeal. Paedophiles could continue their business unimpeded, perhaps, for years.
In Victoria, there are discussions about privacy laws preventing the use, without their permission, of photographs of people taken in public places. This would specifically prevent the media use of surveillance camera pictures of missing people to assist police. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Bit by bit, traditional press freedoms are being chipped away. The Grosse-Purvis case in Queensland made law because a judge decided that if there wasn't a tort covering invasion of privacy, there should be. And so he declared there was - a decision which stands until or unless it is tested in a superior court.
In a recent judgment in the Rodgers case, Sydney's The Daily Telegraph was castigated for relying on a judge's version of the facts, rather than making its own, independent checks - demonstrating a lack of understanding (or interest) about how the media works. There is a total disconnection between the daily realities of journalism and those who ultimately judge it in legal disputes.
There are folk who believe the media is guilty of multiple excesses and deserves to be hobbled. And it is true there have been cases where people have been hurt by media excess.
But there is a wider picture. As the Press Council's charter of a free press says: "In a truly democratic society, open debate, discussion, criticism and dissent are central to the process of generating informed and considered choices. It is the responsibility of the press to protect the people's right to know and to contest encroachments upon that right by governments, groups or individuals."
Sounds like motherhood. But who can argue with that?
By Mark Day