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TV & Radio

Sep 13, 2010

The day Free TV Australia didn't like a bit of free speech

Last week 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.


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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28 thoughts on “The day Free TV Australia didn’t like a bit of free speech

  1. Delerious

    I’m not sure what Free TV is but having some group arbitrarily ban adds because of some personal agenda and which looks to be attacking free speech is interesting. Would like to hear more about this group and who they think they are.

  2. twobob

    The irony is that many of these people who block euthanasia laws will die painful lingering deaths. How smart must a person be to realise that on issues such as this many of their own loved ones and even themselves will suffer needlessly.
    Not that the law will stop me when my turn comes.

  3. sickofitall

    Surely the solution to this would have been to offer the other side an ad at approximately the same time (at their expense, of course).

    Too many idiots run the idiot box. Church attendance in Australia is paltry – yes it grew by 50% over the last decade, but as that took total church attendance to about 2%, and that more than 50% of those churches are of the ‘liberal’ or ‘left wing’ variety, we’re talking about so few people as to not matter.

    I’m not saying euthanasia is a cut and dried issue. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying I have the answer, or even that I necessarily agree with Philip Nitschke. But I believe that these issues need discussion in open and fair environments.

  4. Syd Walker

    Each of these cases that Bernard mentions in this article is quite outrageous.

    Free TV is apparently another bunch of tax-payer funded control freakery that needs root and branch reform.

    Perhaps that could begin with its Orwellian name?

  5. John

    Free TV Australia is an industry body which represents all of Australias commercial free-to-air television licencees.

  6. David Allen

    Righto! I will never, ever, ever make a purchase of anything from Harvey Norman, Joyce Mayne or The Good Guys until voluntary euthanasia laws are passed in Queensland.

    You can believe me, I’m not a politician.

  7. Salamander

    Can’t have people in extremis making rational decisions – it will wreck the advertising industry. God, next thing the plebs will simply be deciding to give up junk food and unsafe levels of drinking.

  8. guytaur

    A preview of what would happen if the internet filter passes.
    Political Advertising which this is should have legal protections against censorship.

  9. freecountry

    What was the reason given for banning the Timor Sea ad?

  10. nicolino

    Free TV Australia is much the same as having the police investigate themselves.You can fool some of the people some of the time but….

  11. Scott

    Not a huge fan of euthanasia myself, but I understand it is an important issue for some. There was a similar ad that was on TV in 1999 funded by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. It ran for a while and got a few complaints but the Advertising Standards Board dismissed the complaints saying that it was “not their role to determine the issue of
    whether or not euthanasia or indeed advertisements for it should be permitted in our society. That is the role of the Parliaments of Australia.”
    Good point I thought. If the ad said “Euthanasia – Just Do it”, then I think it would be close to illegal, but in it’s proposed form, and at the late timeslot, I don’t think there should be a problem. But this is purely a butt covering exercise by the FreeTV legal team. The networks themselves wouldn’t care as long as Exit International paid in full.

  12. Bernard Keane

    Freecountry, Free TV said the East Timor ad was “defamatory” – of whom was not clear.

  13. Elan

    1) I agree with your comment Nicolino. That scenario is one I know well.

    2) I have a file with all Exit international details. Even if that file were in some way removed from me, it would not change my decision. For me the documentary “Mademoiselle and the Doctor” was significant.

    3) I have put this in point form because I’ve no desire to waste words. I’m crushingly sad at this move. As a society though, I have to say that we are controlled from the moment we awake to the moment we sleep. Thankfully we are not consciously aware of this all the time.

    ..thus this hypocritical two-faced group and its decision comes as no surprise. ‘Representative bodies’ that represent only themselves are a dime a dozen.

  14. Syd Walker

    I realise on re-reading Bernard’s article that my earlier comment about ‘taxpayer funded’ was off the mark.

    So we can’t report these clowns to Penny Wong’s razorgang, more’s the pity.

    We’ll just have to reply on appropriate re-regulation of TV advertising driven by Julia Gillard’s technical genius, God help us all.

  15. Ron E. Joggles

    If an industry association like Free TV Australia is concerned primarily with its members financial interests, that’s hardly surprising. But Orwellian? I don’t think so.

    Promoting euthanasia, now that might well be described as Orwellian. I certainly won’t be going gently into that good night, I’d rather rage against the dying of the light, but one things for sure, euthanasia will eventually be legalized, and then we’ll see a procession of dear old grannies who’d like to pop off early, just to save their rellies the expense of caring for them.

  16. Venise Alstergren

    DELERIOUS: “”Would like to hear more about this group and who they think they are.”” I can answer that question.

    It is the Catholic church and its followers who are ‘the group’. The same people who loathe women but still insist upon telling them how to run their reproductive life.

    On the so-called Liberal side of politics there are people like Kevin Andrews, Jesuit trained, who is a rabid anti-euthanasia creature. Ditto anti-abortion. Then there is Tony Abbott, Jesuit trained, anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia. David Clarke aka Ratzinger’s right. Barnaby Joyce (Nat) rabid anti-euthanasia, and anti-euthanasia.
    Peter Ryan (Nat) rabid anti-euthanasia and anti-abortion. Bill Heffernan, Cory Bernardi (born a Catholic, now claims to be an Anglican) anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia.

    Even someone who appeared to be as laid back about interfering in other peoples’ lives such as Maxine McKew (Lab) ex-member for Bennelong, when asked on QandA what her opinion on euthanasia was, quickly slammed the door by saying the legalities involved would be horrendous.

    Perhaps she told the truth. However, as with all Catholics, she straight away mistook her place and assumed she was there to tell people what to do. Wrong, oh so wrong. The voters, the electorate, we are the ones who ideally tell the politicians what we want.

    Once, it was the Labor Party who were riddled with Catholics. Then a dreadful man called Bartholomew Augustine Michael (call me Bob) Santamaria formed the Democratic (isn’t it amazing? All dictatorships love declaring themselves to be democratic. The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea being one odious example) Labor Party which consisted of Catholics. Although the DLP didn’t get into power themselves, they succeeded in keeping the Labor Party out of power for years.

    If you want to do some research about the power of Catholic Parliamentarians, you might start by going back three to four years ago in Victoria. There was a conscience vote as to whether to make abortion legal or not. The Catholics ran their usual hate campaign-including the really bad ones who sent photos of foetuses which had been aborted to anyone perceived to be weak on the matter.

    In Victoria it was a close run thing but the pro-legal abortion Parliamentarians won-by a couple of votes-the conscience vote (just think how close Australia came to having a Tony Abbott, Jesuit trained, led Liberal Party in the last election. How long would it have taken them to overturn the Victorian law? Just as John Howard, when he first got into power, overturned the pro-euthanasia law which had not long been passed by the government of the Northern Territory.

    If you really want to know all about it, look up the Melbourne Age the day after the conscience vote. They printed a list of the parliamentarians who had voted for or against the bill. Look at the names on the ‘against’ the bill list. You will find a rich source of exactly who this amorphous group is.

    I dare say Catholic newspapers would have all the information, but they wouldn’t have it set out accurately.

    Anyway you did ask.

  17. Liz45

    @SCOTT – Not a huge fan of euthanasia myself, That’s not the point. The point is, that as adult people we’re entitled to make up our own mind/s. The script for the ad had been approved prior to it being made. The same body that stopped the ad approved it in the first instance. The question needs to be asked – who made the decision to ban the ad? We all have a right to know! Religious people in the govt/s? Who are they? This is supposed to be a democracy not a dictatorship! They’re dictating to us!

    Nobody is advocating murder – the majority of people (85%)believe in an individual’s right to choose – with adequate safeguards for all persons. It’s not rocket science. It functions in other countries quite well. People who are terminally ill and don’t believe in euthanasia have their rights respected. There’s no problem that can’t be overcome! If I’m terminally ill, in intractable pain and want it to end, I should be able to. We allow it for animals, but not humans. All those who try to stop the individual from ending their agony don’t have the answers to guarantee them a pain free death – so, they should pull their heads in and mind their own business!

  18. Syd Walker


    I described the NAME ‘Free TV Australia’ as ‘Orwellian’. It’s an overused term perhaps, but has come to signify the opposite of the truth.

    Hence in our era, what used to be the Ministry of War has been cannily renamed the Ministery of Defense.

    There are few things less free than commerical TV in Australia, IMO. That’s not, for the most part, because of government regulation. Commercial imperatives, intellectual cowardice and tawdry self-censorship do the trick. It even compares unfavourably with commercial TV in Britain, which is much more creative and risk-taking.

  19. davirob

    Doesn’t Free refer to free to air?

  20. Ron E. Joggles

    Too right, Syd, ditto Police Service (formerly Force), Work Choices, and Freedom of Information. HTL, what seems like a choice may be manipulation, but then I am objective enough to realize that my objection to euthanasia is instinctive and visceral. And once it’s legalized, there will be a chorus of “Oh, I don’t want to be a bother, dear”.

  21. Scott

    I don’t know about the conspiracy theory Liz. This smells like a legal department over reaching to me. A flunky has approved the ad, got cold feet and escalated to management who threw it to legal. The lawyers, as always, decide to err on the side of caution. Happens in corporate life every day.
    By the way, while I personally am against euthanasia, I agree that the ad should have gone ahead. More information is always better than less.

  22. davirob

    Why is it that the main ingredient of the against lobby is always fear? Y’now ‘cos in this case we’ll all end up being put down.

  23. smiley

    Euthenasia will be a Medicare item by the time I’m a potential user. Its just a matter of time …

  24. Fran Barlow

    DaviRob asked:

    [Why is it that the main ingredient of the against lobby is always fear?]

    That was a rhetorical question right?

    Moving people to action in politics is always about either prospective gain or prospective loss. If the action is to prevent something, prospective loss (= fear) is always more powerful.

    Indeed, fear is probably a more powerful motivator in all cases than prospective gain, because on the whole, losses affect things that are tangible (and thus credible) whereas prospective gains are things not yet realised, which at least some people can doubt.

    So even in cases where one favours change, fear is probably germane. e.g The NBN is needed to stop Australia falling behind the rest of the world and becoming uncompetitive, sustainable cities? avoid loss of amenity; action on climate change? avoid catastrophic losses; better education? avoid unemployment and poverty etc …

    This also helps explain why oppositions in most western countries tend to focus on bad-mouthing governments and dreaming up hysterical claims about how dangerously incompetent they are. It’s far easier to get people to agree with you that they shouldn’t lose what they have than that if they agree with you that they will be better off than that they already are.

    Ironically, that the latter claim is a harder sell reflects the success both side have had in persuading most people that they should, as a matter of principle, disbelieve most things politicians in power claim.

    Self-evidently, while this is a successful and well-worn path to office, it’s a very poor basis for good policy, which should really be about identifying problems, ranking them for significance, and devising solutions

  25. davirob

    Thanks Fran,I do understand but it doesn’t stop me from getting p****d off every now and again.Cheers.

  26. Venise Alstergren

    DAVIROB: “”Why is it that the main ingredient of the against lobby is always fear?”” A nice piece of rhetoric. And nothing is worse than someone answering a rhetorical question.

    Just think of a world without fear (and anyone who preaches that it is fear which stops the average person from being despicable is a liar) Without fear man wouldn’t have turned to mendicant preachers who claim to have the ear of God, to begin with. Without fear man wouldn’t have ever gone to war. Etc etc etc.



  27. Elan

    Free Speech. Fear.

    Today my neighbour stood at my gate telling me that ‘we’ are going to war with China.

    I think this was 60 Minutes and its version of free speech.


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