Journalists Want Free Speech For Them, Censorship For The Rest Of Us

The self-importance and self-interest of the Canberra bubble of journalists and the media has been on full display this week. Blacking out the front pages of newspapers across the country was an effective way of saying: “Look at me, look at me”.

Media companies, the ABC, SBS, and the journalists’ trade union have formed the Right to Know Coalition to lobby for a number of legal and regulatory changes to protect “public-interest journalism”. Some of those changes are worthwhile and long overdue. For example, the coalition is right to argue for reform to defamation law – and in fact the right to sue for defamation in all but the most egregious cases should be abolished anyway. Similarly, the coalition is correct to say that governments are far too quick to classify information as “secret” and that freedom of information laws are now largely ineffective.

These are the good bits among what the media companies and journalists want.

But, unfortunately, they want a lot of very bad things, too. Which is why this particular campaign will, hopefully, end up going nowhere.

At the heart of the demands of the Right to Know Coalition is that there should be one law for journalists and another for everyone else. For instance, the coalition wants journalists to be exempted from prosecution under certain national security laws and for media outlets to have special rights to challenge search warrants. Scott Morrison has been absolutely right to hold the campaign at arm’s length. As the Prime Minister says, said “no-one is above it [the law], including me or anyone else, any journalist or anyone else”.

The coalition’s justification for these special privileges for the media is that freedom of the press is essential to a well-functioning democracy. That’s true, of course, but it is subject to an important qualification. “Freedom of the press” is actually the freedom to print and publish – for anyone, not just the press.

In a democracy, governments, media companies, and journalists’ trade unions don’t have, and should never have, the right to decide who is or isn’t “a journalist” and who qualifies as “the press”, so they can get special rights. To do so would be to create an “official media”, so effectively license and censor the media – yet, bizarrely, this is what the coalition seems to want.

In 2012, when the Labor government-appointed Finkelstein inquiry into media regulation recommended a de facto scheme for licensing the press, much of the media welcomed such an initiative.

At the moment, the Right to Know Coalition can too easily be portrayed as wanting to run a protection racket for the established media companies against interloping bloggers sitting in their pyjamas at their dining room table, publishing political commentary on the internet at 2am.

No doubt some supporters of the coalition are acting from the purest of motives. But it’s very easy to sense a degree of hypocrisy from at least some of those who are lending their name to the campaign, as in the case of Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young. Yet it was the Greens who went to the last federal election with a policy to censor commentators whose opinions they disagreed with. Admittedly the coalition can’t be held responsible for winning the support of the Greens, but the it would be taken a lot more seriously if it disassociated itself from people who believe in “freedom of the press we agree with”.

‘Culture wars’

The campaign of the Right to Know Coalition has also uncovered the double standards of some in the Canberra press gallery.

In 2014 the efforts of the Liberal government to reform section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (which makes insults based on someone’s race unlawful) were dismissed by many journalists as merely a part of the “culture wars”, and the idea of freedom of speech was portrayed as irrelevant to most Australians.

Now, five years later, those same journalists are proclaiming freedom of the press as a basic principle of democracy.

An unfair cynic would say that this reveals that too many in the media start caring about freedom only when it affects them. And when their complaints can be used as a stick to beat a conservative government.