Election 2013 media panel

Fixing the fulcrum on the freedom of speech seesaw: the government’s work is cut out

Coalition leader Tony Abbott, in an eleventh-hour election campaign pitch, pledged to “roll back Labor’s laws that limit free speech” and to require the Australian Human Rights Commission to champion, instead of restrict, the right of free speech in Australia. Mr Abbott said:

Any suggestion you can have free speech as long as it doesn’t hurt people’s feelings is ridiculous. If we are going to be a robust democracy, if we are going to be a strong civil society, if we are going to maintain that great spirit of inquiry, which is the spark that has made our civilisation so strong, then we’ve got to allow people to say things that are unsayable in polite company.

Freedom of speech took centre-stage from Day One of the campaign with the Daily Telegraph’s front-page editorial bluntly exhorting voters to consign Kevin Rudd “to the bin of history”. Freedom of speech has hogged centre-stage since then, occasionally fanned by vitriolic attacks despite professions of kinder, gentler polity by both sides of politics.

The Coalition’s freedom of speech posture gained some credence before the election campaign with its stout opposition to the Labor’s media reforms. It stole the march on Labor. Flush with the idealism accompanying its 2007 election victory, Labor committed itself to new initiatives following the 2020 Summit.

Among the “top ideas” selected for prosecution following that summit were a proposed Charter of Free Speech under the banner of “open and accountable government”. That charter would enshrine protections for journalists’ confidential sources and whistleblowers, strengthen the journalists’ code of ethics, and feature a “national commitment to protecting journalists or media producers”.

While Labor made some progress on protecting journalists’ confidential sources and whistleblowers, the commitments to strengthening the journalists’ code of ethics and to improving media accountability faltered, culminating in the government’s withdrawal of major media regulation reform Bills.

While Tony Abbott says he is committed to championing freedom of speech, he must know that balancing the fulcrum on the freedom of speech seesaw is fraught with difficulty. One person’s freedom can be another’s vilification. One person’s right to criticise can be another’s affront. One person’s legitimate concern can be another’s privacy intrusion. The red line of demarcation is sometimes not readily identifiable or enforceable.

Labor’s written policy on freedom of speech is apparently set out in its December 2011 National Platform document following the party’s 46th National Conference. In that policy Labor commits to various ideals, for example, in the areas of protection against fear of violence or the threat of it, sedition, confidential sources, homophobic harassment, defamation and inappropriate content. Those commitments clearly evince the balancing imperative.

The major parties’ media regulation agendas have been largely missing in this campaign. While the media has a vested interest in regulations impacting on its ability to transmit information and ideas no one seriously claims that media regulation reform is unwarranted. The nation’s peak media alliance, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, for instance, stated in response to the holding of the Independent Media Inquiry:

[I]t is a welcome opportunity for us to take stock of self-regulation and ask how it might be enhanced. We should consider if there is a need to reform the Australian Press Council or if there is anything the government might do to support the health of the news industry in this country. We believe the answer to both these questions is yes.

The struggle to find the proper middle ground between control and freedom is universal and enduring. Free nations are grappling with complex speech regulation dilemmas. This election campaign has reignited the media regulation debate. The incoming government cannot escape having to confront the groundswell of public expectation for action. Many of the rules governing the areas identified above have taken decades to shape. And they are still far from perfect. Achieving enlightened reform consensus won’t be easy.

Disclosure: The author was one of the participants at the 2020 Summit in the Future of Australian Governance stream.