Freedom of Speech is a Responsibility

13 Mar 2013

Proposed new media laws announced today have triggered an acrimonious debate between commercial news bosses and the Government, with the Daily Telegraph's front page comparing Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to dictators like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.


The debate over freedom of the press has been raging for millennia. Socrates of ancient Athens believed that education and public information should be restricted and moulded to encourage the development of compliance and virtue among the populace (Plato, The Republic). The Roman Catholic Church forbad scientific discoveries from becoming known and labelled anything that disagreed with Church dogma as heresy. Modern dictators have used censorship as a means of controlling dissent with notable authors such as Russian Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn and more recently Chinese Chen Guangchen ( ) attracting global support in their efforts to criticise their respective Governments.

Here at home, the issue has been concerned with abuses of journalist freedom with radio and tabloid press coming in for much of the criticism for biased reporting, and even rabble rousing/dog whistling. 2GB’s Alan Jones has attracted the ire of politicians and even the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) (; ).

Jonathan Holmes of the ABC Media Watch has repeatedly analysed the debate and made comments which are even handed yet strongly supportive of journalistic freedom and editorial management of ethical reporting standards under the established voluntary Code of Conduct (

And yet the debate rages on….

Yesterday the Federal Communications Minister Mr Conroy tabled legislation for debate and ratification strengthening oversight of the ACMA among other items. His terse delivery laid out the ultimatum that such legislation should be enacted without modification. His haste was evident and all this provoked an angry storm and recriminations (

Freedom of Speech and Journalism are highly valued rights most notably evident in robust democracies – and most notably absent in nations with despotic leaders. It involves the ability to speak ones mind and to present an attempt to persuade others to ones perspective. This seems a benign enough right and implies the right to abuse, tell lies, distort or delete truths from an argument, bend others words to suit and so on. But when does speech become too dangerous? When is it objectionable and contrary to the public good? How can offence be given unless it is taken by listeners? And finally, does supervision of a voluntary self-regulating authority with little power to control journalistic freedom become censorship?

I have no answers to these questions and I consider these scenarios to be largely rhetorical. I consider the real debate to centre on the integrity of the speaker/writer. It is a natural human need to persuade others to ones own view. Without this we would have no new ideas, no debate, no democracy. But I also believe that there are necessarily limits to such freedom. Should we have the right to openly abuse others? There are laws pertaining to slander and vilification which have been deemed necessary for the orderly conduct of society. Yet news media seem to be able to evade repercussions of abuse of this right. The Daily Telegraph has today likened Mr Conroy’s reforms to the censorship of Stalin et al  (! Are they so afraid of tighter regulation and enforcement of their voluntary Code of Conduct that they stoop to such absurd comparisons? And of course Mr Abbott has weighed in their defence.

We live in a dysfunctional and combative world. We are fortunate to have the freedoms with which we are blessed and must guard them carefully. As an analogy, when raising a child we keep a tight rein on impulsive or dangerous behaviours. We teach good manners and recognition of, and respect for, the rights of others as well as teaching how to live within our rights. We encourage rules and boundaries to be accepted and educate our child to thrive within these so that they might live an untroubled life.

Is this so different from what Mr Conroy is trying to achieve? Without rules and boundaries some in our society take advantage of others who are less able. These need and deserve the protections that laws, rules and boundaries provide so that abuses may be limited and growth/development might be enabled.

Within this debate is the recognition of the Power of the Press to influence the public. Newspaper owners have been labelled “Kingmakers” at times in recognition of this influence. The principle reason behind the Code of Conduct is to maximise the information to which the general has access so that debate might be based upon knowledge rather than ideology or simple belief. I believe that it is time that the Code had some reinforcement to ensure good public education and debate.

Last modified on Wednesday, 13 March 2013 23:14
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