Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Australia's Free Speech Disgrace

In Australia, the Labor Government and Greens have been unhappy with the press coverage they've been receiving in various newspapers, mainly those owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Fair enough, you might say, on a number of grounds.

The government has done a dismal job of running the country, passing ruinous mining and carbon taxes, harassing businesses with excessive labor regulation, and generally doing their damndest to choke off the economic success story that is modern Australia

Meanwhile, they've received fawning coverage from other papers, notably the Sydney Morning Herald and Age. Not to mention the taxpayer funded ABC, whose reporters opinions range from 'left of centre' to 'crush the bourgeois capitalist pigs!'

And in the marketplace of ideas, News Corp papers compete for scarce advertising dollars and reader eyeballs. If they're unfair or too biased, then other papers will step into the breach. Perhaps Murdoch papers succeed because they air viewpoints that are of interest to readers, or are just more entertaining.

In addition, Australia already has an intrusive self-regulatory body, which does things like forcing opinion piece writers phrases like 'illegal entrants' to be changed to 'irregular entrants' without their knowledge or consent.

But that's not enough for the Labor government - apparently fawning political coverage is their right as the government, and those naughty newspaper editors aren't falling into line.

As a result, they conducted an inquiry into setting up a government regulatory body of media outlets, both print and online. The results are in.

Let's listen to the hilariously self-serving summary from censorious d***head, The Honorable Ray Finkelstein, QC. From page 8:
I therefore recommend that a new body, a News Media Council, be established to set
journalistic standards for the news media in consultation with the industry, and handle
complaints made by the public when those standards are breached. Those standards will likely be substantially the same as those that presently apply and which all profess to embrace.
Got that? The things you were doing before voluntarily will now be mandatory! But since the standard will "likely be substantially the same" (that's a guarantee you can take to the bank), and "all profess to embrace" the current rules, what's the difference?

Except, you know, the difference between a volunteer army and conscription, or the difference between going on a diet and being chained to a treadmill, or the difference between working on a cotton farm and being a plantation slave.

The 'voluntary' bit is kind of important in the sphere of human liberty.

And what role will the government have in all of this? Page 9:
The News Media Council should have secure funding from government and its decisions made binding, but beyond that government should have no role. The establishment of a council is not about increasing the power of government or about imposing some form of censorship. It is about making the news media more accountable to those covered in the news, and to the public generally.  
Oh, well that's a relief! At best,  it will be a court that makes up its own laws. In middle case scenario, it will be a puppet of whoever is in power. At worst, it will be another permanent bastion of the left, deciding what constitutes appropriate speech in Australia.

Nothing to worry about there!

Who will be regulated? From page 295:
If a publisher distributes more than 3000 copies of print per issue or a news internet site has a minimum of 15,000 hits per annum it should be subject to the jurisdiction of the News Media Council, but not otherwise. 
Paging Doctor Evil! We need a payment of one million dollars!

Let's put this in perspective. This site is read by nobody. Really, it's true. And yet it gets a couple of thousand hits a month. Some of these are spam sites. Some of them are links to images. Doesn't matter - this website will be under the jurisdiction of these clowns.

If I'm regulated, everyone is regulated. And with the Australian courts absurd view that writing anything anywhere on the planet makes you subject to Australian defamation law, who knows how many sites they'll be trying to regulate.
An important change to the status quo is that, in appropriate cases, the News Media Council should have power to require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction, or afford a person a right to reply. This is in line with the ideals contained in existing ethical codes but in practice often difficult to obtain. 
I would delete every trace of this blog and eat the contempt of court order before I would publish anything at the demand of the Australian government. I would set up a thousand mirror sites before I would remove one word at the request of the News Media Council.

Why do we need to do this anyway?
These proposals are made at a time when polls consistently reveal low levels of trust in the media, when there is declining newspaper circulation, and when there are frequent controversies about media performance.
Have you looked at the approval rating of the current government recently? Have you looked at the approval rating of lefty academics that would populate such a council? Have you looked at the approval rating of speech-censoring government suck-ups like the Honorable Ray Finkelstein, QC? Give me Rupert Murdoch any day.

Do you think that right-wing speech disliked by the government is more likely to get censored? Andrew Bolt makes a great case that it will - when citing examples of biased coverage, what does he turn to but ... News Limited Coverage of global warming! Nothing about unbalanced coverage in favor of the global warming position in The Age (let alone the ABC).

And why, pray tell, is that a problem?

The Honorable Ray Finkelstein, QC, would do well to take heed of Ken at Popehat's "Chicago Manual of Style For Censorious Dipshits". As Ken notes:
The obligatory “we believe in freedom of expression” paragraph in the standard defend-our-censorship communique is simply embarrassing. That’s why the Chicago Manual of Style For Censorious Dipshits (“CMSCD”) recommends eschewing it and launching straight into the meat of your uninformed and conclusory stomping on First Amendment law.
Back to Finkelstein, sure enough first we get the fig leaf...:
It is worth pausing at this point to affirm that there is nothing wrong with newspapers having an opinion and advocating a position, even mounting a campaign. Those are the natural and generally expected functions of newspapers....
and then the inevitable 'but shut up and say things I like':
However, to have an opinion and campaign for it is one thing; reporting is another, and in news reporting it is expected by the public, as well as by professional journalists, that the coverage will be fair and accurate.
Nonetheless, there is a widely-held public view that, despite industry-developed codes of practice that state this, the reporting of news is not fair, accurate and balanced.
I reserve my right to make my reporting exactly as unfair and unbalanced as my heart desires, and not one whit less. Whether what I write about the world is "fair and balanced" is absolutely none of the business of the Australian Government, and only a tyrant would think otherwise.

I have a long-running dispute with Papa Holmes about the appropriateness of swearing on this site. So it takes a large amount of self-control to limit my remarks to these:

Ray Finkelstein, your snivelling and disgusting appeal for for government censorship over the Australian press makes you unworthy of the common law traditions of liberty bequeathed to you by men much better than yourself. Your views on government censorship of papers should make you far more at home in countries that do believe in this kind of censorship, such as China, Cuba, or North Korea.

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