Speech restrictions in Australia

When you see the North Koreans’ bizarre public grief for their oppressive leader you are watching the extreme end of state control. Whether real, imagined or exaggerated, the locals’ grief must be exhibited for the cameras lest the consequences be grave.

In Australia, this kind of media control is unthinkable. Or so you would think. But I reckon what the authorities seem to be trying to impose here is not cheerleading, not toeing the party line, but rather a kind of compulsory ambivalence.

(I have been to Pyongyang and would love to share some thoughts but there is plenty of that around at the moment, and media regulation in Australia is an increasingly worrying issue.)

Take the case of Adelaide ABC radio hosts Matthew Abraham and David Bevan; found to have lacked impartiality in their interview with [Leftist politician] Kevin Foley. Here is the audio, and for context it starts just after the first question which is “Kevin Foley, do you think a growing number of South Australians and perhaps even your own colleagues are tired of the Kevin Foley soap opera?

Now I know these blokes well enough, and have crossed swords with them on an issue or two. Do they fit neatly into the ABC’s all-too-prevalent “progressive” world view? Not really. But that’s not the point. They are skilled broadcasters and diligent journalists. They are generally well briefed and intelligent, and pursue their quarry with some alacrity when required.

This ruling against them is another example of the over-regulation of the Australian media. Matt and Dave, as they are known, would have interviewed Mr Foley dozens of times over a range of issues. Many exchanges would have been robust, and the one in question was particularly so, because it traversed into personal matters. Mr Foley’s social life and some unfortunate incidents had become significant stories. So the issue of him allegedly being assaulted in a wine bar was legitimate news. Because he had been the treasurer and deputy premier, and was still a senior minister, this was a matter of public interest. The ABC broadcasters were right to pursue the issue. Their questioning was very aggressive. I happened to listen to the interview online from Sydney, wincing and feeling some sympathy for Mr Foley – someone I consider a mate.

We could have a lively debate about the merits of the interview, how it was conducted, Mr Foley’s responses, and whether he should even have agreed to do it. But that is not the point. The point is why a federal government body should, subject to two complaints, rule on the alleged lack of impartiality of the interviewers. That it should find that Matt and Dave both “prejudged” the issue before the interview is quite extraordinary given ACMA never spoke to them about it. That ACMA could get inside the head of one radio interviewer is amazing. But two at once, is simply astonishing. And it found they both had made the same pre-judgement. Matt and Dave are close friends but ACMA has turned them into Siamese twins.

Mr Foley thought the interview was potentially defamatory and he has always had the option of pursuing legal action. Matt and Dave are answerable to their employers at the ABC, who were satisfied that they had done the right thing. More importantly, they are answerable to their audience, who no doubt told them what they thought, and won’t keep listening if they think the hosts are unreasonable.

In a year when Andrew Bolt was taken to court under racial vilification laws for causing offence, Stephen Conroy launched a media inquiry because he thinks the “hate media” are out to get the government, Alan Jones was admonished for not broadcasting all sides of an environmental issue, and the convergence review is suggesting all media might need to be subjected to ACMA-style content regulation, it is time to be afraid, very afraid.

Think about how much information you can get through your phone now. Think about how many television stations you have access to at home. Think about the hansard, transcripts, video links and news sites you can access over the internet. Our choice in media has never been wider. Whatever facts we want, we can get them instantly. Whatever opinions we wish to sample, we just press a few buttons. Yet the nanny state legislators are everywhere, trying to turn every journalist, broadcaster and commentator into some sort of blancmange of information.

No, they will never have us all out on the street cheering or weeping for the Dear Leader. But these regulators, and their political and academic supporters, would love to turn us all into a series of Max Headrooms, spouting a pre-ordained mix of politically correct and legislatively sound information. Matt and Dave, and Kevin and the audience, are all mature enough to work this one out for themselves.

SOURCE (See the original for links)

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