Freedom! Is there any word more abused than this in the debate about politics and media standards? From Rupert Murdoch, his editors and commentators and the ubiquitous IPA, the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ is now ritually used to forestall any examination of media power.
This American style hand-on-heart eulogising of freedom reached a crescendo recently with the failure of the Gillard government’s media reforms. Having gone as far as sending its own representative to make a submission at the Senate hearing into the legislation, the IPA predictably released a statement welcoming the ditching of the reforms as a “victory for freedom of speech in Australia”.
As always, though, freedom is never clearly defined by the conservative forces mouthing it as a principle. Instead, it serves for them as a useful “feel good” term that no-one in their right mind would ever consider circumscribing. Indeed, it helps the commercial interests of the shady forces they represent to conflate every attempt to improve media standards and public accountability with a threat to freedom.
So what is achieved is a confusion in the public’s mind about freedom of speech, freedom of thought and expression, traditional press freedom and the neo-liberal concept of freedom of the market. It’s deliberately woolly rhetoric and it results in people rallying around somebody else’s flag. Which is why it helps to define terms first.
In the report of Lord Justice Leveson, the man who conducted the UK media inquiry, freedom of the press and freedom of speech are defined as two quite different concepts:
“Freedom for commercial mass media businesses (‘corporate speech’) is a very different proposition from the freedom of individual self-expression (‘personal speech’). The latter….has its roots in a very personal conception of what it is to be human…This argument has no direct relevance to press freedom because, put simply, press organisations are not human beings with a personal need to be able to self-express. In any event, an argument for free speech for the powerless will not make a case for free speech for a powerful organisation.”
So if the principle of defending media freedom does not equate to freedom of speech, what are we defending here? The most common arguments are that the media has a special role in holding the powerful to account, in representing a diverse range of opinions and, at its most essential level, in providing the public with accurate information so it can make fully informed decisions in a democracy.
Yet it is notable that in all their carefully engineered hysteria, the Freedom Squad have steered clear of any examination over whether those important and valid roles of the media are being performed adequately. It is easier to stand on a soapbox, print photoshopped caricatures and chant about threats to freedom than to examine whether the mainstream media is doing its job properly – publishing accurate information, providing a diversity of views and holding power to account, including the power of the media itself.
Woefully unreported in all the recent tennis match coverage of the aborted media reforms (‘how will it play in the opinion polls?’) was the thoughtful testimony of Press Council chair, Professor Julian Disney, to the Senate hearing on the legislation. Disney made the point that press freedom does not exist in isolation and is about much more than “we can say whatever we like”. For freedom to exist, Disney says, people must be given accurate information, a point he reinforced by noting that Australian newspapers could not even be trusted to report his council’s adjudications accurately.
“If people are to have freedom of expression, they need access to reliable information. If they are fed false information, then the views that they form and they might want to express will not be the views that they would form and express if they were well informed. Access to unreliable, distorted information is an attack on freedom of expression.”
In this way, poor media standards – as we have seen in the continuing distorted, deceitful and manipulated coverage of the media reforms in the Murdoch press – are a bigger threat to this society’s freedoms than anything we have seen from the Gillard government.
Meanwhile, real threats to journalistic freedom – as we are seeing now with five Australian journalists facing court action to reveal their confidential sources by Gina Rinehart and others – receive only fleeting coverage in the same newspapers, if at all.
So it seems clear that the fist-pumping editorialising of our media about their service to democracy is really a self-interested device to mask their own untrammeled power, and their role as players pushing the ideological and commercial interests of their proprietors. The ‘freedom’ they espouse is really the freedom of the market, not a civic concept, but one purely related to capitalism.
Nowhere is it countenanced that a highly concentrated media – as we have in Australia – can just as easily be a malevolent influence on democracy by deliberately misinforming its readers to further its own agenda , by using its power to slur and silence its critics and by thwarting attempts to improve accountability.
Ultimately, freedom cannot exist on its own. It requires truth and justice also to prevail. But you won’t see the Murdoch press and the IPA championing those ideals.