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Name: Antony Loewenstein
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Friday, April 29, 2005

Freedom wanes

Attacks on public broadcasters around the world have increased in the last years. Murdoch has been a longtime critic of the BBC, ABC and PBS. His media cheerleaders talk about ingrained left-wing bias and lack of accountability in these institutions but their true aim is more sinister - the eradication of any credible competition to the corporate agenda. Who can forget Murdoch crony Tony Ball talking about the public's supposed dissatisfaction with the BBC? His plan, of course, was to split up the national broadcaster and lessen its overall reach across Britain and the world. It matters little to Murdoch and his ilk that in survey and survey the public express strong support in the independence of the BBC. Likewise with the ABC in Australia.

Take this 2003 survey conducted by British public relations company Weber Shandwick in relation to Iraq's WMD. The results speak for themselves: "The public is two times more likely to trust the BBC over the Government on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. More than half (54%) of the respondents are much more likely (28%) or somewhat more likely (26%) to believe the BBC on the issue of WMDs. Only one in five (21%) are much more likely (9%) or somewhat more likely (12%) to believe the government.

The European Federation of Journalists reports that journalists across Europe are banding together to voice their concern over the crisis in public broadcasting. Arne König, the Chairman of the EFJ, says that aside from worker's rights being questioned, political pressure is attempting to silence dissenting viewpoints. "More than ever, these values need to be defended," says König.

The state of Australia's public broadcasters, ABC and SBS, is worrying. Governmental pressure is resulting in increasingly reluctant staff tackling the hard issues or asking the tough questions. We now have to rely on comedy to provide the most incisive political comment:

INTERVIEWER: Mr Howard, I wondered if the meaning of Anzac Day has somehow changed?

JOHN HOWARD: Anzac Day is a day of great importance in the Australian calendar, Graham.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think that importance is?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I think the essential lessons and characters of Anzac Day are as they have always been, Bryan.

INTERVIEWER: And what are they?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, it celebrates that very important time when the Australian Government made a very significant decision, Bryan to

INTERVIEWER: To do as it was told by an imperial power.

JOHN HOWARD: -- to assemble a very, very impressive body of young men, very talented, very resourceful young men and to send them away to

INTERVIEWER: Invade another country.

JOHN HOWARD: -- to defend Britain.

INTERVIEWER: By invading Turkey.

***

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) is holding the annual Orwell Awards - "the gong for the annual tongue-in-cheek anti-press freedom awards." Aimed at those in power who actively discourage press freedom, including the majority of the ministers in the Howard government. One note of advice to the MEAA. Holding an Inaugural World Press Freedom Dinner tomorrow night is a noble idea, and speakers include shit-stirrers David Marr, Richard Neville and John Birmingham. But how the hell did the NSW Premier Bob Carr score an invitation? He has more press secretaries than John Howard and is the master of spin. His press secretary Walt Secord won an award in 2003 for best spinner in the state.

***

A final warning to those who believe in retaining the current state of affairs regarding Australian defamation laws. This report by the University of Melbourne proves that our freedom of speech, compared to the US, is being seriously eroded:

"This article reports on a comparative content analysis of more than 1,400 Australian and US newspaper articles. The study suggests that in the US - where defamation plaintiffs face much heavier burdens than under Australian law - defamatory allegations are made more frequently against both political and corporate actors than in Australia. The US articles contained apparently defamatory allegations at nearly three times the rate of the Australian sample. In particular, the Australian media appeared to be less comfortable making allegations in relation to corporate affairs than its US counterpart. In addition, some US articles included far more extreme commentary than the Australian sample, which suggests a less restrained style of public debate may be fostered under US law. Through introducing comparative content analysis to Australian media law research, the article supports the idea that Anglo-Australian defamation law has a chilling effect media speech."

Reform is essential, as online magazine Crikey have been saying for years.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Meanwhile the Beeb extorts - under pain of jail (er, sorry, "gaol") - a licensing fee for the simple privilige of watching any TV, and goes out handing mics to people to heckle the conservative candidate.

"Public" broadcasting is nothing more than taxpayer-financed propaganda, and is a holdover from the Soviet Union.

Saturday, April 30, 2005 8:15:00 am  
Anonymous Glenn Condell said...

Busy little nameless bee, aren't we? Up til late and then at sparrowfart, casting your McCarthy-ite gaze over Antony's musings, just bursting to jump in and ignore the common sense on offer in favour of an agenda you're only dimly aware of carrying water for. It would be fascinating to watch and ponder on the Pavlovian responses involved if you had the stomach for it, or the time.

There's a team of mice over at Surfdom doing the same thing. Beaten senseless in every encounter, on they trundle like robots, doing their unquestioning duty, unnoticed by their principals but sufficiently warmed by belonging to continue cheerfully on.

I don't know whether there's several of you anonymii, or if it's just the one. It's impossible to tell.

Saturday, April 30, 2005 12:18:00 pm  
Anonymous michael said...

I think Chris Dent and Andrew Kenyon have taken too much of what Australian reporters tell them on faith when they finger the defamation laws for the amazing gutlessness of the Australian media.

While there is probably *some* truth to the suggestion that the media is sometimes intimidated by defamation laws I think that they are all too often used as a figleaf by the press for their own lack of courage in the face of their corporate paymasters and political chookfeeders.

The Lange case established a solid precedent for qualified privilege as a defence against defamation when reporting in good faith on matters of public interest. But rather than use that precedent - or try to build on it to include public figures in business and the media as well as politics - the Aus media have become even more sycophantic and cowardly in their reporting.

When they do show a bit of 'courage' - by attacking the powerless, such as dead victims of police shootings or chases, black bureaucrats, working class Muslims, etc - the press also invoke defamation laws as justification for their own bastardry (i.e. "if the reporting was unfair or untrue they can sue us"). As John Marsden discovered, even the most legally empowered members of our society seeking redress for an open and shut case of false reporting face an uphill battle trying to sue the media (he was eventually successful - at great personal cost).

If the media is really concerned about defamation laws, why don't they do something about them. They are in an excellent position to seek public support for law reform and they could also come together to mount test cases to extend the Lange decision.

I think I know why. Because the defamation laws are just a too convenient excuse for covering up their own failures as journalists.

Sunday, May 01, 2005 3:38:00 pm  
Anonymous michael said...

Checking the Crikey webpage linked here tends to prove my point.

In the early 1980s it seemed that everyone in Sydney had a story about Peter Abeles and corruption.

After the National Times named Costigan's 'Goanna' as Kerry Packer a friend of mine who worked in TNT and the TWU claimed that the fact Abeles was never named in the media was proof of how effectively he deployed bribery and threats.

But Abeles is now dead. He cannot bring defamation suits. Yet the Sydney media has still kept mum on his decades of corruption and criminality.

So its not the defamation laws that stops the Aus media from doing its job. Its something even less savoury.

Stephen Mayne is the exception that proves the rule. He was successfully sued - by an Australian journalist of course - but continued to stick his neck out until someone came along with a big cheque and a suggestion that he should retire. Sort of 'cash for no comment'. He wasn't gagged by an unhappy judge but by a happy bank manager.

Funny about the timing too. Crikey was the only one reporting on the way Fairfax editors (particularly Michael Gawenda) had been heavied by the ownership to refuse to back the ALP in the last Federal election. Not even MediaWatch would touch the story. And who bought Crikey? A former Fairfax editor.

Apart from Antony's excellent - if belated - piece in Online Opinion there are still no Australian journos with the guts to touch that story, even though it goes right to the heart of the standard of journalism in this country.

Oh well, the next time you hear a Fairfax journo demanding support for their 'independent' outlet against weakened cross-media ownership laws and the depredations of Rupert Murdoch you can just have a little laugh and send them on their way.

Sunday, May 01, 2005 7:29:00 pm  
Blogger Antony Loewenstein said...

Sadly, I agree. The deafening silence of the mainstream media, especially Fairfax journos, on the current state of gutlessness in our media, is sickening. And mark my words. The cross media will change soon enough post July 1 and journos will wonder how it all happened. Wanting to keep a job is a legitimate concern, especially if you've got family, mortgage etc, but why the hell aren't people talking about that infamous election stuff come last year, as just one example?
As for Crikey, I'm gonna wait and see what happens. Eric Beecher being the new owner inspires little faith, but thus far post takeover, it's still been ok. So far, mind you...

Monday, May 02, 2005 10:41:00 am  
Blogger mobias said...

I agree the defo laws are in dire need of reform but I'm concerned that we could end up with an amalgam of the worst of the state laws, rather than the best. It appears that Ruddock is going to insist on giving corporations the right to sue for defamation for example. Which means we could see more cases like this.

Monday, May 02, 2005 5:31:00 pm  

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