They call themselves “Free TV Australia,” but the organisation
representing commercial television networks yesterday demonstrated a
peculiar approach to free speech. The TV cartel has rejected the latest
round of ads in businessman Ian Melrose’s campaign to raise awareness
of the Timor Sea dispute. The ads feature World War II veterans who
fought in East Timor attacking John Howard over his government’s
tough-guy stance on negotiating the future of the Timor Sea gas and oil
fields with our northern neighbour.

Marvin “Doc” Wheetly, who served in the 2/2 Independent Company tells
viewers he owed his life to the East Timorese people: “John Howard you
are making me ashamed”, is his message. The veterans say East Timorese
children are dying due to a lack of health care, while the Australian
government seizes over $2 billion in contested gas and oil royalties
from East Timor.

Free TV’s “commercial advice division” yesterday expressed concerns
that the ads may be defamatory and refused to issue them with a CAD
number that would allow commercial networks to air them. Last night,
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told ABC TV that he had not seen the
ads, but took the time to declare them “abusive and misleading.”
Attacking the diggers, Downer said: “They make the most amazingly
dishonest claims about the government.”

Downer added: “We haven’t rung the TV stations and told them not to run
these ads.” But that’s hardly the point. The government
hands out the TV licences, and the networks aren’t stupid: they
know which way the wind’s blowing on this issue.

While the networks try to protect their investment, Crikey subscribers
can check out the ads for themselves online. Judge for yourself
how “abusive and misleading” they are here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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