Australia is a nation where freedom of speech has appeared as solidly established as anywhere in the world.
Today, however, it is under a massive threat. This is all the more shocking because it is as head-on assault on Australia's entire political culture of liberty and democracy.
In the latest development, the governing alliance of the leftist Australian Labor Party and the extreme leftist Greens have received an official report into media regulation recommending draconian controls.
The 470-page report, commissioned as part of the government's vendetta against the Murdoch press, demands that the media be made more "accountable," and that the government have the power to impose "professional standards." The chairman of the inquiry that made the report, retired Federal Court Judge Roy Finkelstein, recommends a News Media Council be set up to license the press and to censor news reporting and political commentary.
Licensing the media has always been abhorrent in the English-speaking world. It was not contemplated even in Australia's first days as a penal colony.
It is recommended that the council -- presumably to be called the Ministry of Truth -- should have a judge or lawyer as its chairman, appointed by the government, and 20 members, a large portion of whom would be nominated by the Labor-affiliated journalists' union.
The council would have power to alter or permanently ban articles. Disobedience would result in a fine or imprisonment for contempt of court, and there would be no appeal. As well as having the power to ban articles, the council would have the power to compel media to publish responses to stories.
Now get this: its jurisdiction would extend not merely to newspapers -- which would be outrageous enough -- but also to any website. Perhaps even if it was visited by only one or two people a day. Finkelstein says its jurisdiction should cover websites which get more than 15,000 hits a year, or an average of 41 a day, that is, practically every website that could be described as publishing "news, information and opinion of current value."
It would also, it is recommended, cover every magazine with a print run of 3,000 copies -- it is uncertain by what process of obscene delicacy the figure of 3,000 copiers was arrived at, but plainly this would catch virtually the entire magazine-publishing industry. At a rough guess, 10,000 copies is a break-even point in terms of attracting advertising.
In paragraph 4.10 of the Finkelstein report it is stated that the council should control speech in Australia because the people are too stupid to be allowed free access to news.
When the representative of Murdoch's News Ltd. claimed readers were "capable of making up their own minds," Finkelstein stated: "Often, however, readers are not in a position to make a properly informed judgement." John Roskam, of the think tank the Institute for Public Affairs, has commented of this that:
This is intellectual arrogance at its most breath-taking. And it's a great argument against democracy. If, as Finkelstein claims, people aren't smart enough to decide for themselves the merits of what they see in the media, then they're certainly not smart enough to decide who to vote for.… Finkelstein and the Greens believe access to the media should be restricted to those who are "balanced and responsible."
To make matters worse, the opposition Liberal Party's media spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull, instead of rejecting the proposal out of hand, as he should have done, has been ambiguous and equivocal, claiming that "It has been said that the legal arrangements at present" (that is, ordinary freedom of speech) "do not adequately advance the public interest."
The report, says author Chris Berg, represents a reversal of the whole principle that it is not the role of the government to judge public debate, and that "The media inquiry was obviously political retribution against critical journalism."
Critiques of the government's and Greens' policy of a tax on carbon emissions are specifically mentioned in the report. Meanwhile, Government Senator Doug Cameron has attacked the Murdoch press -- "an absolute disgrace… we should absolutely be having a look at them" -- for having published news of a leadership struggle within the Labor Party that turned out to be true.
I said at the beginning that this was contrary to Australian traditions of freedom of expression.
In fact, in the last couple of years there have been ominous foreshadowings of press control.
Broadcaster Alan Jones was hauled before the Australian Communications and Media Authority because after one incident he described New South Wales bureaucrats as "scumbags that run around preying on productive people." In response to a complaint from Get Up, one of those murky foundations associated with George Soros. the "Authority" is holding a formal investigation into whether Jones interviews too many climate-change skeptics. In another particularly disgraceful episode, commentator Andrew Bolt was hauled before the court for questioning the Aboriginality of some light-skinned Aboriginal spokespeople.
Keith Windschuttle, editor of the conservative magazine Quadrant, has written defiantly:
If this oppressive scheme is ever implemented, we would feel compelled to defend the long tradition of press freedom by engaging in civil disobedience. While ever I am editor, Quadrant would not recognize the News Media Council's authority, we would not observe its restrictions, and we would not obey its instructions, whatever the price. We hope other publishers will take a similar stand.
Poet A. D. Hope once wrote of Australia:
The men are independent but you would not call them free…
It seems that that may be about to be tested.