Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are two foundational components of a free, liberal democratic nation like Australia. Never has this been truer than in the current debate over the COVID-19 lockdown measures. There is a diversity of views across the country about the measures – whether the international borders should have closed sooner; if the lockdown has gone on for too long; and how to balance the health concerns with the associated economic and social fallout. All of these views deserve to be heard because that is the only way we can get to good public policy.
More to the point, it is the inherited right of every citizen of Australia to be able to freely speak their mind without fear of censorship and government reprisal. The inheritance, as I mentioned in my email last month, goes back at least to Magna Carta of 1215.
It is unfortunate that so few bureaucrats in Canberra think the same way.
In the March edition of this newsletter I mentioned that the IPA was submitting a research paper to an inquiry being undertaken by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (AMCA) on impartiality and conflicts of interest in news broadcasting. The ACMA is investigating “whether current regulatory arrangements are working effectively to safeguard the integrity of broadcast news and current affairs”. Given the ACMA’s track record, it would be reasonable to read into this statement that the ACMA believes more regulation of commercial broadcasting is required.
As the IPA’s Director of Communications Gideon Rozner outlined in his research report More News is Good News: The Case Against Restricting Broadcast Journalism there are very deep methodological and ethical flaws in the ACMA’s inquiry.
Gideon makes several very important points. Firstly, Gideon argues the supposed ‘problem’ that AMCA has outlined does not appear to be supported by much evidence other than a series of polls with questionable methodology and focus groups with leading questions designed to deliver the answer AMCA wants – more regulation.
Secondly, ACMA approvingly cites a diagnosis by the competition regulator, the ACCC, who argued that “the imbalance in the regulatory treatment of content delivered via traditional broadcasting, as compared to digital platforms, is distortionary and should be addressed”. Yet at the same time the AMCA is contemplating yet another layer of regulation for the one segment of the news landscape that is within its jurisdiction.
And, thirdly, Gideon argues that calls for more regulation of Australia’s media market are fundamentally undemocratic, illiberal, paternalistic, and counter-productive:
“The only way to achieve true balance in Australia’s media landscape is to allow for as many voices and perspectives as possible, and to give consumers the widest choice available. As we have established, Australian news consumers are smart, discerning and media literate. The best thing policy-makers could do for democratic debate is allow them to make up their own mind.”
Mainstream Australians, in other words, are far smarter and more discerning that unelected bureaucrats in Canberra think.
It is difficult to understate how big of a threat the ACMA is to freedom of speech in Australia. Alan Jones, who announced his retirement from radio earlier this month but will thankfully continue his show on Sky News Australia and his commentary for the Daily Telegraph, was methodically targeted by the ACMA who wanted to get Jones off the airwaves for years. Over the past decade, Jones had more complaints upheld by the ACMA than any other radio broadcaster. This is simply unconscionable in a free society like Australia’s.
It is fundamentally illiberal and undemocratic for private broadcast media and journalism to be regulated by unelected bureaucrats. That is why in 2013 the IPA recommended abolishing the ACMA in our Be Like Gough: 75 Radical Ideas to Transform Australia (it was idea number 14), and which I elaborated on in this Parliamentary Research Brief in 2017 which was sent to all federal parliamentarians.