Is the Right To Know Coalition, launched with such a fanfare by our major media companies just three years ago, now running dead?

That’s the question asked here by Freedom of Information specialist Peter Timmins, who in turn quotes Richard Ackland’s National Times piece from last week, who in turn quotes Media Watch’s report on attempts by The Australian to censor a report apparently critical of its conduct.

The Right to Know Coalition, readers might remember, was founded with a great beating of drums in May 2007 to:

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“Establish new policy and best practice to improve Australian’s relatively poor world ranking for freedom of speech.”

It is a coalition of all the big media groups, although the lead party is certainly News Limited and its boss, John Hartigan, who as a result got  Walkley recognition for industry leadership.

But the cracks have began to show. Look at the Right to Know Coalition website, and you will see that the home page is still displaying ads for a conference that took place in March last year.

And it was at that conference that differences began to emerge between the coalition partners.  ABC boss Mark Scott’s speech, for example, included qualified support for laws to protect privacy — despite the vehemently anti stance taken by Hartigan and others.

A little later, Fairfax Media broke with another cross media group, the Newspaper Works, by deciding to stick with Roy Morgan for its readership research figures, rather than putting the job out to tender as News Limited wanted to do.

Meanwhile, the bona fides of the Right to Know Coalition came under attack. When the chair of the Australian Press Council, Ken McKinnon, retired late last year, he accused the industry of trying to replace the council’s research and advocacy arm with the coalition. McKinnon rightly pointed out that an industry group without independent representation would never be taken as seriously by governments and the public as the Press Council could be — if it had the funds. Said McKinnon:

So after all that the Right to Know Coalition is looking a bit moth-eared. And, of course, it doesn’t help that News Limited has kicked so many own goals and lost the moral high ground, if I may mix metaphors, with embarrassments such as the publication of the so-called Pauline Hanson photos.

The point Timmins  makes is more serious. The Right to Know Coalition is failing to muster the troops where it really matters — on the Freedom of Information reform Bills now before parliament. Timmins says:

“A vigorous campaign would have involved enlisting allies to the cause, seeking to better inform the public about the importance of this issue, and  mounting a collective professional effort to go for gold on the reform front. The few voices that spoke up were all over the place, leading the Senate Committee to observe recently that there were many suggestions for changes to the reform bills, but no agreement on what should be changed, therefore there was no point in or time to consider them seriously, including most of those put forward by ARTK.  And of course many didn’t speak up at all. ARTK three years after it formed has no web presence, no publicly available collection of submissions, no scorecard of performance, no coalition partners. There has been no movement on reform  in Victoria, SA or WA  and NSW has stalled since the departure of Premier Rees.”

So what’s going on with The Right to Know? Two days ago I  sent an email to the coalition spokeswoman — News Limited’s Lucinda Duckett. Was the Right to Know Coalition active, I asked? And if so, what was it doing?

I have yet to receive a reply.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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