There were plenty of headlines and favorable commentary last month when a coalition of Australian media organisations launched “Australia’s Right to Know”, saying “We have joined together because we are deeply troubled by the state of free speech in Australia”, and reminding us that “Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental pillars of a free and open society.”

Participants in the campaign include News Limited, Fairfax, the ABC, SBS, AAP and others.

So it was a remarkable sign of split personality yesterday when The Australian editorialised against free speech concerns, telling us that “the marketplace of ideas has never been so crowded”, and we enjoy “a confident, mature democracy in which informed debate flourishes.”

Arguments to the contrary, as made by Clive Hamilton and David Marr, are dismissed by The Oz as a “parallel universe inhabited by disaffected intellectuals”: “The silencing of dissent thesis tells us more about the current health of the cultural Left than it does about the health of the nation.”

Yet it’s less than two weeks since a News Ltd executive gave a very different picture to the ABC’s Media Report:

[W]e’re now facing 500 legal prohibitions on what we can publish and what we can say, and together those form a very dangerous picture for Australia, that has put us in a very poor state compared to other nations. … It is not an exaggeration to say that it is more difficult to be a journalist and to get information now than it has ever been; even in wartime, we have never been as censored as we are at the moment.

Now, I’m all in favor of the separation of management and editorial; it’s not impossible that News Ltd as a business finds it necessary to support free speech even though its editorialists regard it as a crock.

But that separation, to put it mildly, is not something Uncle Rupert’s papers are renowned for.

More likely the editorial writer just wanted a stick with which to beat the left, and grabbed the one nearest to hand.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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