Last week the advertising vetting arm of the commercial television oligopoly’s peak body, Free TV Australia, banned an advertisement calling for euthanasia reform made by Exit International on the basis that ad “promoted suicide”. In fact, the ad contrasts the strong levels of public support for euthanasia with its lack of support by the government.

According to Exit International’s founder Dr Philip Nitschke, ad maker Kevin McMillan undertook the normal script approval process for the ad, which features an actor discussing his life choices, his terminal illness and the fact that the Government won’t listen to him about his (unidentified) choice.  The only issue raised by Free TV when script approval was sought, says Nitschke, was to seek a source for a statement made at the end of the ad that 70% of Australians supported voluntary euthanasia.

Exit International checked its figures and then amended the figure up to 85%, based on updated data. The script received approval from Free TV’s Commercial Advice lawyer, Alison Lee — without which, Nitschke said, they would never have spent money making the ad.

McMillan subsequently received post-production approval for the completed ad, only to be told on Friday that Free TV was withdrawing its approval because the ad was “a promotion or encouragement of suicide as voluntary euthanasia would be considered to be a subset of suicide.”

Luckily there’s a powerful media industry group prepared to pitch in for free speech and fight against attempts to regulate what we can see and hear. According to that group, “free speech and media freedom are being whittled away through a set of official and unofficial practices”. Australians must, the group said when it joined with other groups to push for greater transparency in government, “be properly free to make up their own minds about the processes and decisions that affect them. To do this, they need information.”

The group has a strong record of fighting to prevent the banning or regulation of what we can see and hear on TV in areas such as alcohol and junk food advertising and the reporting of crime and court proceedings. That group is… Free TV Australia.

Free TV, the Sydney-based outfit funded by the commercial TV oligopoly to represent its interests, is a staunch guardian of free speech — when that speech makes a lot of money for the commercial television networks. Calls to ban or curtail advertising aimed at children, junk food ads and alcohol advertising have all faced strong opposition from Free TV, which fired off flurries of submissions to Senate inquiries and taskforces attacking any proposals for greater regulation.

According to Free TV, there was no point imposing more regulation on them because there was no evidence banning ads achieves anything, the community isn’t concerned about issues like advertising aimed at children, and banning ads from TV simply means the advertising moved to other media.

Free TV joined a push to water down NSW’s tight restrictions on identifying children involved in crime as either victims or perpetrators to enable TV networks to report crime more easily.

They’re also part of the “Australia’s Right To Know” media coalition aimed at increasing transparency and access to information at government level.

But if it doesn’t make money for the TV networks, Free TV’s commitment to free speech mysteriously evaporates. The banning of Exit International’s ad is only the latest of several decisions. In 2005, it banned the Timor Sea Justice Campaign’s ads calling for a fair go for East Timor in its dispute with the Howard Government over oil and gas reserves. In 2006, Crikey reported that it banned a solar energy ad for containing the Tim Flannery statement “climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity today”.

Nitschke says a replacement ad in which most of the character’s comments are replaced with a blank screen and a statement that they can’t be discussed on commercial television is being produced. It’s not yet clear if Free TV will try to censor that ad as well. As of deadline, Free TV’s Commercial Advice unit had yet to respond to Crikey.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey