Press council strikes blow for free speech
WHEN Professor David Weisbrot took over as chairman of the Australian Press Council a year ago, he promised the body would play a more active role in defence of freedom of speech, an area that went largely ignored under previous administrations.
It was a timely pronouncement in the wake of restraints placed on publishers by national security legislation and provisions of anti-discrimination law.
It was also prescient, because of the growth of third party complaints and internet petitions to the press council over treatment of stories, in many cases simply because the complainants disagreed with it or wanted to shut down the views of opponents.
Offence, the word that has proved so contentious in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, has become the favoured weapon in these censorious actions.
Under Prof Weisbrot, the press council has drawn a line in this area with two important rulings in the space of four weeks late last year.
One ruling involved a complaint against The Daily Ad
vertiser in Wagga Wagga NSW over two articles that opposed same-sex marriage. The first was a letter to the editor headed “Maccas’ ads in bad taste, just like gay marriage”. The second article was a column, headed “Gay marriage is not all it seems”.
There is no doubt the content under the headings could cause offence to a number of people, in particular over the comparisons made by the authors. However, the council concluded that the articles “were not so offensive as to outweigh the public interest in allowing robust expressions of opinion on issues of national debate”.
The second complaint was over an online article published by the NT News on May 12 headlined “Overly keen motorist roots car’s exhaust pipe” and a homepage item linking to the article headlined “Keen motorist exhausted after root”. The article contained an embedded video featuring a clothed man kneeling behind a car apparently engaged in a sex act with the car’s exhaust pipe. The article was taken down after the complaint.
‘ Care was needed to ensure the council was dealing with media standards, not the resolution of some contentious public debates’
The NT News is renowned for its out-there coverage and story treatments, a point the council took into consideration. In its adjudication, the council ruled that the level of offence must be assessed in the overall context of the publication, its style and its readership. In the circumstances, the council concluded that the article was not substantially of- fensive and did not breach the council’s general principles.
Both rulings are significant in terms of protection of freedom of speech, but the NT
News adjudication establishes a precedent of the right of a publisher to target a specific audience in its own style. In other words, if you don’t like it, don’t buy it – the ultimate rule of the marketplace.
Prof Weisbrot made his views known on complaints that had the potential to shut down debates in an interview with The Newspaper Works shortly after taking up his appointment. “I don’t think the council should be asked to become involved in general political fights,” he said. “Things that are being contested in the political realm should be kept to that realm.”
He said care was needed to ensure the council was dealing with media standards, not the resolution of some contentious public debates. The press council would look to these parameters to determine whether or not to proceed with a particular complaint.
In terms of third party complaints, Prof Weisbrot said the council should have a mechanism for dealing with these, “but generally, I’d prefer to be dealing with the person that has been reflected upon in the contentious article”.
These are sound positions and the council should be commended for them.
In a further demonstration of the council’s commitment to free speech, it is staging a two-day press freedom conference in May to mark its 40th anniversary.
Some of the themes to be discussed include obstructions to press freedom, defamation law reform and the effect of technological change on journalism.
A range of Australian and international speakers, including Russian investigative journalist and Putin critic Anna Nemtsova, will give presentations.