Election 2013 media panel

Commercial TV, Murdoch and censorship

Such an irony: the commercial television channels, which ran a landmark free-speech case in the High Court to protect their advertising revenue during election campaigns, have now censored an advertisement criticising the coverage of the election by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers.

The ad, by the campaigning group Get Up Australia, shows a man opening a copy of Murdoch’s Brisbane Courier-Mail. The front page has a picture of Kevin Rudd’s face and a big headline quoting Tony Abbott: “Does this guy ever shut up?”

GetUp’s anti-Murdoch ad.

The man says to the camera:

It was great when you could pick up a paper and get – well, news. Recently the Courier-Mail and the Daily Tele and have been using their front pages to run a political campaign instead.

Their owner, US billionaire Rupert Murdoch, has an agenda to get rid of our current PM. Fair enough. We all have an opinion. But political bias dressed up as news is – well, misleading crap.

At this point, the man squats down, scoops some dog poo onto the paper and drops it into a wheelie bin, saying, “Thanks Rupert, but Australians can choose their own government.”

Channel Seven refused to run the ad, reportedly on the grounds that it was “distasteful” and “potentially offensive”. Channel Ten, of which Mr Murdoch’s son Lachlan is chairman, gave no reason, and Channel Nine, which initially ran the ad for four days, withdrew it saying there had been a “coding error”.

Fairfax Media refused to run the ad for money, but ran it uncensored as a video in its news coverage. The ABC also ran it in its online news service.

There is a lot of confusion in the media about the difference between editing and censorship. The key test always is motive: why was this published or not published?

There are proper motives – sparing the community genuinely distressing, sickening or grossly offensive material, for example – and there are improper motives – not wishing to offend rich and powerful interests, for example.

Channel Seven claims to be protecting its viewers from “distasteful” or “potentially offensive” material. Neither Channel Ten nor Channel Nine have given a motive.

Given the pallid nature of the so-called “potentially offensive” material – scooping dog poo on to a newspaper – it is difficult to accept Channel Seven’s motive as the real one, unless by “potentially offensive” they mean to Mr Murdoch.

In the absence of any stated motive from the other channels, it is open to conclude that their motive was likewise an improper one: to avoid offending a rich and powerful interest.

Where in all this is their defence of free speech, so evident when their advertising revenue was threatened by restrictions on television election advertising in the early 1990s?

The federal Labor government of the day had passed a law placing limits on television advertising during election campaigns in order to prevent the development in Australia of the extreme fund-raising pressures on political parties that so disfigures the American electoral process.

In what became known as the “TV ad bans” case of 1992, the commercial television industry successfully challenged the law in the High Court. The industry argued that it amounted to an abridgment of what they said was an implicit right in the Constitution to freedom of political speech.

This was the start of a series of what came to be known as the “free speech” cases in the High Court, culminating in 1997 in settled recognition by the Court of an implied right to freedom of communication on matters of government and politics.

This principle was subsequently absorbed into Australia’s defamation laws as an important additional defence to actions for defamation, when those laws were made uniform in 2006.

How ironic then that for what is obviously an improper motive, the commercial television stations are now exercising their market power to censor material of the very kind they fought so strenuously to protect 20 years ago.

Get Up Australia says it will take the matter to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, alleging misuse of market power.