Australian Civil Liberties Union

Free speech developments in 1999 - An overview


The merger of Time-Warner with America On Line demonstrated the growing concentration of control and "vertical integration" of sources of international information (page 92). The increasing concentration of control of the media in Australia with its concomitant threat to freedom of speech continued unabated. This concentration of control facilitated a biased coverage by the media of the referendum on the republic in 1999 (page 88). The "Cash for Comment" inquiry by the Australian Broadcasting Authority found that 2UE had failed to enforce its own code of conduct and that John Laws and Allan Jones had passed off "advertorials" for their sponsors as their own views.

The ABC's Media Watch which triggered the ABA "Cash for Comment" inquiry and which has exposed the hypocrisy, double standards, and use of "advertorials" in the print and electronic media has been more effective as a media watch dog than the relatively "tame cat" Press Council. The former presenter of Media Watch, Richard Ackland, and the current presenter, Paul Barry, are to be commended for their independence and courage, traits somewhat uncommon in the media.

The prosecution of four critics of the Family Court for contempt of court drew attention to the threat to freedom of speech posed by the use of the contempt power, and to the possibility of using an implied right to freedom of speech in the constitution as a possible defence in some cases. The threat of legal action under the Trade Practices Act to prevent the distribution of printed material, a threat used by the ABC to prevent the distribution of Your Rights, and by the Timber industry, to prevent the distribution of an anti-logging book, remains, and inhibits public discussion of important issues.

The arbitrary nature of film censorship in Australia, which was discussed in Your Rights 1999 in relation to Lolita and Salo was reflected in the initial decision to ban Romance, which was eventually released. The failure of a libel action by the former Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett against The Australian indicated the difficulty of using libel laws to inhibit comment by the media. The attempt by the Kennett government to gag the State Auditor General backfired, when the Auditor General made a strong widely reported speech at a meeting sponsored by the Free Speech Committee supporting free speech and the public's right to know. The speech, made a few weeks before the cliffhanger State election in 1999, may have tipped the balance against the Kennett government.

The failure of the Herald Sun to publish the results of a "Voteline" telephone survey of its readers in response to the question whether readers agreed with David Irving's views on the Holocaust was an example of pressure "behind the scenes" to curb the public's right to know. It was the first time since the daily Voteline was introduced several years ago that the result of a phone in was not published. Similar pressure behind the scenes by the same pressure group led the Law Institute Journal to apologise for running a "rave" review of Your Rights 1999 (see back cover). The continuing refusal of the Australian government to grant a visa to the UK Historian David Irving to visit Australia and the imprisonment of Dr Fredrick Toben in Germany in 1999, shows the limited nature of freedom of speech in some Western countries (pages 79-86). The failure of Amnesty International to support freedom of speech for Historical Revisionists seems to be due to pressure been placed upon it to withhold support for some whistleblowers (page 99).

The failure of The Age to report that it had paid Raymond Hoser $10,000 for breach of copyright after it had used his material without acknowledgment to expose police corruption, showed that sections of the media can "dish it out but can't take it". The poor record of The Age in defending freedom of speech and the right of the public to be informed has been documented in previous editions of Your Rights. Censorship of the views of whistleblowers has been documented in Deadly Disclosures by William De Maria (pages 94-96). In 1999 and early in 2000 several whistleblowers dobbed in nursing homes where they worked because of their treatment of elderly patients and were then penalised. The Bracks Labor Government indicated in February 2000 that it intended to introduce legislation to provide greater protection for whistleblowers in the State public service. The Racial Vilification Legislation proposed by the Bracks Government will further inhibit freedom of speech on controversial issues (page 93). The proposed legislation has been opposed by the Free Speech Committee (membership $20 - P.O. Box 93, Forest Hill, Vic., 3131) which has also been active in opposing arbitrary film censorship and the use of the Trade Practices Act by big corporations to squash dissident writers.

Threats to Freedom of Speech

The laws relating to libel, contempt of court and racial vilification continue to inhibit freedom of speech. People who speak out may receive death threats, may be threatened with loss of employment, may be expelled from organizations, and may be subject to often effective pressure from their friends, family and fellow employees. Distributors of books and magazine have sometimes refused to distribute books with unpopular ideas especially books which challenge what Orwell called control of the past. The high cost of posting letters discourages freedom of communication. A well founded belief that phone tapping is widespread inhibits freedom of speech. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission has discouraged freedom of speech on some issues.

But the main threat to freedom of speech in Australia is the reluctance of most people to seek and find the truth (or some approximation thereof) and to express their views in private and in public. Many people are especially fearful of expressing their views in the media by letters to the editor etc. because of a fear of ridicule and of peer group pressure. Media commentators such as print and radio journalists who are described as fearless and outspoken by their employers, often impose self censorship on themselves and are easily pulled into line through pressure from advertisers, their employers or the media monitoring agencies of pressure groups. The Free Speech Committee has played an important role in exposing censorship by the mainstream media and in fighting for more liberal censorship laws. The arguments for freedom of speech are set out on page 79.



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Australian Civil Liberties Union