Is the Right to Know coalition running dead? Absolutely not. It just isn’t a priority to let the rest of us know what is going on. There is an obvious irony.
Regular readers will know that last week I wrote a piece quoting FOI activist Peter Timmins suggesting the Right to Know coalition, that brave collaboration between the nation’s media groups founded to combat limitations on freedom of speech, was looking a bit moth-eared, and in particular failing to engage the wider community.
Lucinda Duckett, manager of editorial communications for News Limited, responded last Friday.
Saying that a great deal is going on behind the scenes, and that the organisation should not be judged by its website — which has not been updated since early last year.
So over the past few days, I rang some of the coalition’s partners for chats on and off the record. All are agreed that there is a great deal of work going on. As the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance’s Jonathan Este put it, on freedom of speech issues “there has been a change of pace from a couple of years ago. We are beginning to see results”.
Channel Seven’s Freedom of Information specialist Michael McKinnon, who has been working virtually full-time on law reform at state and federal level, argues that the coalition is achieving more behind closed doors through being a “very effective lobby group with a formidable potential to inform public debate, of which governments are keenly aware”.
Reading between the lines of McKinnon’s words, we catch a glimpse of how things are actually working, and it is somewhere between impressive and a little bit worrying.
The picture that emerged is that, apart from a bevy of submission writing to public inquiries, the coalition also engages in good cop-bad cop negotiations in which the media is not frightened to use its pulling power, its contacts and the implicit and sometimes explicit threat of media campaigning.
On the credit roll, the coalition partners list submissions on whistleblowers, FoI reforms either in place or about to take place at state and federal level, as well as action on suppression orders, sedition, secrecy laws and so forth. As Duckett acknowledged, it is a “slow, painstaking process”. McKinnon claims the coalition should take credit for spotting major problems in the Queensland FoI Act at the eleventh hour before it went through Parliament. His work in spotting another problem in the draft federal Bill has previously been reported on Crikey.
A core group keeps up the good fight. News Limited’s manager of corporate affairs, Creina Chapman, convenes monthly catch-up meetings at which the players get together.
The core comprises the ABC, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, News Limited and Fairfax. Fairfax is less active since its director for corporate affairs, Bruce Wolpe, left last year. Gail Hambly is now Fairfax’s front person, and is actively engaged while having many other preoccupations. Este fronts for the alliance, and at the ABC, Mark Scott’s right-hand man, director of communications Mick Millett, is the face of the effort, with work being done quietly by director of editorial policies Paul Chadwick, who in earlier lives was Victorian Privacy Commissioner and a specialist in journalistic uses of FoI.
McKinnon’s nearly full-time effort is the contribution of commercial free-to-air television, although in fact his salary is paid by Channel Seven exclusively. McKinnon gets to work virtually full-time on FoI lobbying activities thanks to his “very understanding boss” Peter Meakin, head of news and current affairs at Channel Seven.
Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes is harnessed to the effort at times, using his extraordinary contacts to bend the ear of politicians.
Of course, with fire power such as this, there is always the implicit threat of cross-media campaigning. It is not only an effort in favour of open information, but also a very serious and continuing power play.
There are gaps in the Right to Know Coalition’s power. On privacy laws, for example, there is something of a fracture, with the ABC not against some laws in the area, while News Limited opposes them.
While one can only be glad that the work is being done — and grateful to those who are doing it, one still has to wonder whether the failure to engage more widely will emerge as a long-term political weakness, as the strength of the corporate media declines.
This is Timmins’ argument. He criticises Right to Know for failing to engage civil libertarians, the business community and unions. “No need to mention disarray and virtual silence on issues like media standards, privacy, and the proposed cause of action. It’s good to know the coalition is alive. Let’s hope they keep kicking using all the tools of the trade to bring public opinion and government thinking along on these issues — in the public not just media interest.”
McKinnon responds to criticisms such as these by saying that the coalition is, quite explicitly, representing the interests of the media — and that these are not the same as the interest of the lawyers who tend to dominate civil liberties groups.
But a point remains. Who will campaign on issues such as privacy at a time when the media partners involved in the coalition are kicking own goals?
And who will campaign on issues such as media standards, particularly when, as departing Press Council chairman Ken McKinnon (no relation to Michael, so far as I know) protested late last year, the industry is cutting back on the research budget and capacities of its main self-regulation body?
Ken McKinnon called for a review of the accountability of editors in the wake of the supposed Pauline Hanson affair and the Gordon Grech Utegate scandal. Even within the Right to Know coalition club there is a fair bit of unease about the conduct of other members — particularly News Limited’s recent moves to suppress a report critical of its conduct, as reported on Media Watch recently.
Michael McKinnon comments that what critics such as Timmins want is “the sort of big effort that might have been funded 30 years ago, and probably would have been funded 30 years ago, but the media has never faced financial challenges on the scale that it is now, and budgets are tight”.
There seems to be little doubt that the Right to Know coalition has contributed to a change of climate and some real legislative action on freedom-of-speech issues. Only time will tell whether its narrow focus and unashamed self-interest will be a long-term weakness.