Following the scandals in the UK surrounding the News of the World newspaper and its subsequent demise, plus the publicity surrounding the activities of the Murdoch empire, here in Australia there has been discussion of the right to free speech.
This has been taken up by the Greens Party, Rob Oakshott, independent member for Lyne in NSW, and some Federal Labor leaders. The reality for these is that they aren’t losing anything by taking pot shots at Murdoch’s News Ltd’s operations in Australia because it’s outlets – covering 70% of the print media in Australia – are rabidly anti-Federal Government and just as rabidly pro the Federal Opposition and its leader, Abbott. The latter refused to support an inquiry which is understandable – why would you bite the Murdoch hand that feeds you?
Since the formation of a coalition government between Federal Labor, the Greens party and two Independent MPs, the Murdoch stable has threatened to destroy the Greens Party, has tried to dish out the dirt about the two Independent MPs, and has been rabidly any legislation which attempts to increase taxes on billionaire mining operations or bring in a relatively weak piece of legislation to take action towards a more climate-friendly economy. This is, supposedly, holding the Federal ALP-Greens-Independent coalition to account, but it’s quite different if the blowtorch is directed towards the Murdoch print media monopoly in Australia. Double standards, indeed.
It is interesting, however, to see how the media in general reacts to the idea of any limits on their right to free speech and how journalists are so quick to band together to defend themselves. They are full of integrity, well-trained, and adhering to the strictest editorial standards. Just don’t have an inquiry to check this out.
Some of them may be ethical, many of them aren’t, whether in the print of television media.
Years ago I was the organiser in Western Australia for the Australian Union of Students. I’d organised and taken part in anti-apartheid protests where I was the spokesperson. I was contacted by Channel Seven who asked me to be interviewed about a new organisation called CARE – Campaign for Racial Equality. I actually wasn’t a member but knew the people involved and they were happy for me to be interviewed on the basis I’d been involved in anti-apartheid action and supported equal rights for Aboriginal people.
When I fronted up for the interview, there was nothing – zip, nada, zilch – about CARE. Instead I was interrogated about my anti-apartheid activities and every attempt was made to browbeat and denigrate me. My attempts to explain my position were shouted down by a hectoring interviewer who was obviously after sensation rather than truth.
I lost my temper completely but luckily just sat there speechless with a polite smile on my face. And the interview backfired on Channel Seven. Their switchboard was flooded with complaints about my treatment and I got some letters telling me that people had thought I was pretty awful until they saw how nice I was on TV. Given that I was apoplectic with rage, I was rather amused at the outcome.
But how many times has this happened to others who front up in all innocence and believe they are going to tell their side of the situation, only to find their comments edited to suit the agenda of the newspaper/radio or TV channel? So-called “current affairs” programmes do this all the time and they always pick on individuals or small business owners who do not have the means to understand what is happening or take action if they are victimised or vilified. I can remember a programme years ago by one of the commercial channels where some young people were suckered into a programme supposedly about youth unemployment, only for them to find themselves pilloried, ridiculed and subjected to threatening and vicious abuse from people around the country. All for ratings!
So when we talk of the “free media”, we’re actually talking about wealthy, powerful media organisations who exercise their power of free speech in whatever way it suits them, but it’s the “truth” filtered through their own, personal viewpoint not that of the general population. Moving overseas for example, how could you possibly describe the rabidly right-wing Fox media, again a Murdoch creation, as exercising free speech when the only ones allowed the right to speech are those who support the right-wing views of Murdoch himself? Murdoch supported the illegal second Gulf War and all his media outlets obediently fell into line to spruik his point of view.
The reality is nowadays that the only free speech is on the internet where people can communicate via blogs, their own websites and social media. The explosion of global communication networks has really revolutionised the whole idea of free speech because ordinary folk have the right to express their views and publicise them without going through the filter of media owned by media barons or financial conglomerates.
No wonder, then, that governments in the West went spare when Wikileaks burst into prominence. Suddenly all the cosy stuff kept hidden between governments was exposed to the light of day. And much of it wasn’t very pretty at all. Likewise, in the Middle East, the people’s activity there against tyrants was fuelled by the free speech on social media allowing people to organise and express their free speech against those who wanted to keep them down and out.
We really do living in interesting times because so many things are being turned on their head. Avaaz, for example, was able to prevent a nice little deal Murdoch hoped to set up on the sly in Canada. It has been able to mobilise tens of thousands, even millions of people in support of causes which governments previously were able to ignore or sweep under the carpet.
So when we talk of “free speech”, let’s remember that free speech belongs to the people – not governments, media monopolies, military-industrial complexes “embedding” journalists (read: sanitising war reports) – and make sure free speech stays with the people. We need to exercise our own judgement in what we listen to or watch. It is indeed easy to condemn the News of The World, for example, but we need to acknowledge that millions of people bought the rag and pored over all its salacious contents. Now is the time to fire up our own integrity, be responsible for our own ethical choices, and refuse to support those who actually abuse the whole concept of free speech.
My own feeling is that we live in times where we’re going to see even greater innovations in communication and we need to remain alert to ensure that we, the people, control our own right to free speech, however the outlets manifest in the future.