The Australian media recently kicked up a stink about the government’s proposed new media regulations, even though all the proposed regulations called for, in effect, was a stronger form of self regulation. The Murdoch press was particularly scathing of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, with the Sydney paper The Daily Telegraph running a front page picture depicting Conroy as the Russian communist dictator Joseph Stalin. If you believe the shrill hysteria of the Australian media, then the government’s proposed reforms were an attack on free speech. But do the accusations of the media really stand up to scrutiny?
To answer this question, I’d like to examine the historical context of the idea of freedom of speech. One of the fundamental ideas behind the notion of free speech is that, in a society where citizens are allowed to express their opinions freely, the truth will naturally prevail. Complementing this idea is the idea that when citizens are allowed to express their ideas freely, the best ideas will eventually come to the fore, whilst the worst ideas will, after being debated, be left by the wayside.
If you think of free speech in this regard, then the oft promoted rhetoric of the media, that governments are the biggest threat to freedom of speech, begins to look a bit shaky. In fact, in this light, it is private corporations and wealthy individuals, most notably the mass media themselves, who are the biggest enemies of freedom of speech.
There are several examples of this, the most notable at the moment being the efforts of that champion of the giant hole in the ground, Gina Rinehart, in taking legal action against Fairfax journalists Adele Ferguson and Steve Pennells. These journalists have used their freedom of speech to write articles that are critical of Rinehart, most notably articles about her public court battle with her children. The journalists have an inside source, someone who is close to the Rinehart family, feeding them insider information. In an attempt to get the journalists to disclose their source, Rinehart has subpoenaed them to appear in court in an effort to bully them into disclosing their sources.
This is one of the ways that corporations and wealthy individuals can ride roughshod over freedom of speech. Rinehart, as we all know, is fabulously wealthy. She can afford to hire the most expensive lawyers and keep her case going for as long as she wants to. The journalists, however, do not have access to such funds. The journalists, who have every right to express their freedom of speech, and use it to criticise Rinehart, are being unfairly punished by her for doing so. In modern society, corporations and wealthy individuals have the power to bring legal actions against people for using their right to free speech. It does not matter whether the person who speaks out is right or wrong, because the corporation or wealthy individual has the financial resources to outlast the hapless journalist or blogger in the courts. Of course, this shouldn’t be confused with liable. Everyone should have the right to sue for liable if they believe someone has unfairly defamed them. But liable is often abused by the rich to bully or threaten others into not speaking out, thereby curtailing their freedom of speech.
Another example of this is the case of Empire Oil and Gas company. An individual Empire Oil and Gas shareholder, not happy with the way that Empire Oil and Gas is being run, has criticised the company board on an internet chat site. The board has responded by suing the outspoken shareholder for liable. The board has even had the audacity to use company money to finance their vicious legal action, leading to a situation where an individual shareholder, who has every right to state their opinion on the way the company is run, is being sued by the board, and the board is using the company’s money to finance the action. While the hapless shareholder is losing their life savings trying to defend themselves in court, the already rich company directors are using company money to effectively bankrupt their own shareholder for nothing more than voicing their opinion. So much for freedom of speech when it comes to the mining industry.
The press, particularly the Murdoch press, is also very good at using its money and influence to trample over the freedom of speech of others. A case in point is the way the Australian newspaper has taken upon itself to run a relentless campaign against climate science and climate scientists. The Australian has long been a vocal mouthpiece of the climate change denial movement. This has been highlighted in a recent study by the Independent Centre for Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney. The centre studied the coverage of the carbon tax debate and found that 84% of the Australian’s articles on the carbon tax were negative. This is despite the fact that 97% of climate scientists agree that human induced climate change is a significant problem that needs to be addressed, and despite also that the majority of economists agree that a carbon price is the best mechanism to reduce carbon pollution. So much for freedom speech if you are a climate scientist or economist that advocates climate action.
This example highlights that newspapers often have an agenda. With their great power and resources, media outlets and media owners can often use their power to push an agenda that is against the long-term public interest. This goes against the very principle behind the concept of freedom of speech. The principle that says that when everyone is allowed an equal say, the ideas that are best for society as a whole will always win out. The media and other unscrupulous corporations, or wealthy individuals, can often distort the debate. They can use their power and financial clout to silence the most rational voices in the debate, or to shout louder than the most rational voices, in an effort to further their own interests. In this way they are more a danger to freedom of speech than governments, because they promote lies and invective over the truth.
Free speech is indeed a noble concept, and one worth defending. But we must also be wary of those who seek to distort the truth in the name of free speech in order to further their own narrow interests, for this is to the detriment of society as a whole.