Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A-G Roxon set to recast idea of freedom of speech

I guess this is what happens when you complain too much. Rupert Murdoch's flagship broadsheet, the Australian, has long been at loggerheads with the government over concerns that changes to media laws stemming from the Finkelstein enquiry, which played out publicly last year, would impinge on media freedom. The newspaper recaps those gripes at the end of this story on its website today. But it's what comes earlier in the piece that should worry all Australians, not just media moguls and their minions. Personally, I agree with the ideas about independent oversight that Finkelstein recommended, because there is clearly bias in some parts of the media, notably in the pages of the Australian. But what attorney-general Nicola Roxon has in mind with new anti-discrimination laws - to make it an offense to offend someone - is not just tinkering at the edges, but in fact is a wholesale redrafting of the laws in this country that enable anyone - not just the media - to perform public speech.
[Media companies] argue that satirical material, political commentary and informative programming on matters of historical or religious sensitivity might be offensive or insulting to some but are part of the national conversation that is "essential for fostering robust social and political debate, and therefore to ensuring a healthy democracy".
"Whilst these and similar topics may be offensive or insulting to some viewers, this does not make them discriminatory," the joint submission says. "No other liberal democracy has a human rights or anti-discrimination statute proscribing conduct which merely offends or insults."
This is from earlier in the Australian's story, and it's dead right. In the new age of social media, where practically everyone can publish their own speech, the ramifications stemming from this ridiculous and anti-liberal draft law will materially impact on millions. It is simply an unmitigated disaster. So, good on Roxon for poneying up to the bar and taking on the campaigning editors working in the media of the Right, but rack off Roxon if you want to overturn hundreds of years of social progress that has enabled people to speak freely and without fear - the chill factor - in public. It's no joke.
Media companies say in their submission they support the overall objectives of the plan to simplify anti-discrimination legislation, but parts of the exposure draft provide cause for significant concern, including because in defining discrimination the bill appears to use a subjective test of whether someone feels offended or insulted by published and broadcast content.
While SBS was able to successfully defend a 2006 claim under the Racial Discrimination Act that a documentary on the Armenian genocide in the early years of the 20th century was offensive to Turkish people, under the proposed new anti-discrimination laws the outcome would have been "dramatically different".
SBS had demonstrated that academic and historical experts believe the former Ottoman Empire was engaged in genocide.
How on earth Roxon thinks that this kind of law is good for anyone, I cannot fathom. Let's reintroduce the Inquisition, then, as a further step in this draconianisation put forward by the Labor Party. If it's a crime to offend someone in print then it must be a crime to even think of offending someone in private. Roxon cannot see that, if the new law passes through Parliament in its present form, not only the tone of debate will change in Australia but also the content that is allowed to emerge in public. Editors and journalists will be routinely terrified that a simple statement of fact - the Turks killed hundreds of thousands of Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century - can be twisted around and turned into a weapon for the purpose of attacking the publication that made the statement.

And this would affect everyone, not just media companies. Media companies have resources that allow them to defend themselves in court, but not so for the millions of people using Twitter, Facebook or a blog, like this one, to engage in the public debate.

Our ancestors fought long and hard for the right to speak the truth. It's simply irresponsible of the A-G to want to overturn reasonable laws that have been tested in the community for generations, and put in their place a law that would stifle the public conversation and protect individuals, organisations and institutions that a reasonable person would want to see are able to be challenged in public.

No comments: