Press coun­cil strikes blow for free speech

The Bulletin - - Editorial - › IAN MOORE info@press­coun­cil.org.au

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.

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