Nov 29, 2010

Keane: a partisan paper now wants to silence dissenters

The Australian's lack of interest in intellectual substance and quality debate has now become an effort to silence them elsewhere. The editor-in-chief's decision to sue for comments on Twitter is a new low.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

"My lawyers started work on this yesterday."
Those are the words for which Chris Mitchell will forever be known. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper that dubs itself "the heart of the nation", the only national broadsheet, the newspaper the raison d'être of which is to influence public debate, a man who talks of how prime ministers praise his editorship -- boasting of getting the lawyers onto a journalism academic over a tweet. Several years ago, The Australian began a slide from being one of the country’s best newspapers to a Liberal propaganda outlet. It has always been a conservative paper, but it was, under previous editors, a paper of ideas, engagement and debate as well. No longer. During the Howard government, its idea of balance in political coverage was to have in its press gallery bureau commentators supporting both John Howard and Peter Costello. But the partisanship reached its nadir over the last three years with Labor in power. The Australian’s Fox News-like shift from a conservative quality broadsheet to a partisan outlet has undermined the quality of national debate and, therefore, of public life. Fewer voices are now heard (for example, there's a disappointing lack of any credible libertarian voices in The Australian’s op-ed columns), and its political coverage is nothing more than the prosecution of self-declared wars against Labor initiatives. It has also provided highly valuable editorial space to interests bent on either deleteriously influencing public policy -- in the case of the CPRS -- or of removing Labor from power, over the mining tax, where News Ltd joined forces with several other foreign transnationals to campaign against Kevin Rudd. It has also provided a strong voice for climate denialism -- although, to be fair, not much worse than the ABC. In recent months the newspaper has exacerbated its degradation of public debate by adopting a clear pattern of repressive behaviour: if it doesn't like what you say, it will do whatever is necessary to silence you. Not dispute or destroy your ideas, but simply prevent their articulation. If you’re a blogger who appears influential, The Australian tries to wreck your professional career. The newspaper -- an enthusiastic proponent of the 'Australia’s Right To Know' campaign -- uses the courts to silence government agencies that criticise it. An editorial calls for the "destruction" of the Greens. Now its editor is threatening defamation proceedings against a journalism academic reporting via Twitter from a conference. Whether the defamation writ proceeds or not is, in this context, irrelevant (as is the Streisand Effect of promoting remarks that otherwise would have received minimal coverage). The mere threat has a chilling effect. The Australian has no interest in a genuine contest of ideas, or quality debate. But worse, it has now gone from offering no intellectual substance of its own to attempting to repress material it disagrees with. For a newspaper that criticises the 'echo chamber' of online media, its goal is an echo chamber for its own views right across all media. Moreover, it is seeking to 'normalise' this ongoing attack on free speech. Sally Jackson’s quite bizarre article today about how "unremarkable" such a writ would be is a rather blatant effort to dress an extraordinary attack on free speech up as a run-of-the-mill defamation case. The goal of The Australian, as evidenced by Jackson's piece, is public acceptance of the circumscription of freedom of expression in ways convenient to it. There's also a repeated attempt to claim that it is The Australian itself that is the real victim in this campaign. Mitchell claimed, ludicrously, that they were being bullied by the Greens. It was darkly suggested the writer responsible for the attack on Grog's Gamut was being victimised by online critics. And now a defamation writ. Those who write for The Australian have a simple -- though admittedly not easy -- choice on this matter. It is no longer good enough, as Australian journalists from gallery figures down to junior IT writers have done, to apologise privately that they are 'just doing what they’re told' or that their stories shouldn’t be taken seriously because they’ve been rewritten. A failure to publicly question this ongoing attack on free speech can only be construed as support for it. In this case, silence indeed indicates consent. Less explicably, the non-reaction of the rest of the mainstream media has been remarkable. Apart from coverage by the ABC, there has been dead silence as The Australian sets about assailing freedom of expression. The newspaper’s own propagandising apart, it has been left to online media to cover the assault and explain its meaning, almost as if the MSM wanted to demonstrate its irrelevance. But its failure to focus on this assault will have consequences, none of them good. Free speech in Australia is already under considerable pressure due to litigant-friendly defamation laws, creeping government regulation, the use of 'human rights' laws to attack commentary, and risk-averse commercial media. Failure to speak out will further embolden those who wish to silence informed debate, not further it.

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37 thoughts on “Keane: a partisan paper now wants to silence dissenters

  1. Michael R James

    BK wrote:
    [ “Less explicably, the non-reaction of the rest of the mainstream media has been remarkable.”]

    Quite, and it struck me that one way the rest of the media could strike back is to repeat the original Tweet in print in their own journal (because Mitchell has threatened he would sue anyone repeating the “slander”). Which would either generate so many independent defamation cases that it would surely collapse, and/or shame Mitchell into retreat.

    I had thought to do it myself in this post but that would be inappropriate as a guest blogger on an essentially unmoderated site of one of the few bits of independent journalism in Australia.
    Talking of defamation and by the by, ex-Crikey Christian Kerr has certainly gone completely over to the dark side. During the (federal) election his columns were so absurd (literally Reds under the Beds headers) about the Greens that one began to look forward to seeing him outdo himself (does he really want to be in comparisons with Barnaby Joyce?). Any attempt to highlight this, in Fairfax National Times, or ABC Drum or indeed Crikey, met with suppression. The latter two possibly because of editorial conflicts of interest (editors having been appointed by friends-of-Kerr) or simple gutlessness for the former.
    Here is Kerr in Saturday’s The Australian.
    “Marilyn Shepherd is one of the country’s most prolific writers of letters to newspapers, a ceaseless emailer of politicians, journalists and opinion makers on the subject of asylum-seekers. Columnist Piers Akerman christened her “Australia’s leading moonbat”….”]
    I encourage Marilyn (frequent lively contributor to Crikey’s discussions) to sue for defamation; ideally one of those high profile lawyers who also write here will help. Not only was Kerr’s remark casually defamatory but he provided no reason or convincing example to back it up, combining gutlessness with defamation and, in fact, atrocious journalism.

  2. Norman Hanscombe

    Perhaps, Michael, moonbats have an even stronger case — and mightn’t need such a high-powered lawyer to succeed? Christan Kerr may have once worked for the Liberal Party, and thus have a dark past; but at least he seems able to write with less emotive blindness than so many of the Tooth Fairy Brigade — all noble people — are ever able to manage.

    Besides, James, they’ve shown in the past that they don’t need your encouragement before they’ll threaten (if not carry out?) legal action.

  3. klewso

    It’s strange the way it – and the rest of “The Sun Kings Fleet (Street) of “Men o’ War” – carries on sailing under that altruistic “your Right to know” flag of convenience – all the while operating like some armada of privateers, with their “(your) Need to Know” modi operandi?

  4. zut alors

    Michael RJ,

    Bravo, I agree with all your comments. What a pity about poor Kerr considering he once penned so entertainingly for Crikey as Hilary Bray.

  5. Meski

    Interesting that you and the Australian need to resort to analogy to imaginary creatures, Norman. Piers himself oft-times hides behind editorial rather than signing his columns. But I guess that’s ok with you.

  6. SusieQ

    How much discussion can there be of this whole issue when so much of the other media is owned and run by the same mob who own and run the Oz?

    I simply refuse to buy the paper and if a whole lot of other people did too, they might get the message. Its very disappointing that a national newspaper is so biased and narrow-minded.

  7. zut alors

    @ SusieQ You wrote: ‘ I simply refuse to buy the paper…’

    Not only have I refused, for a long time now, to purchase any Murdoch publication but whenever neighbours bequeath me their subscribed ‘Australian’ while they are away on holidays I give it away without even bothering to remove the clingwrap.

    The way to impact News Ltd, Murdoch, Chris Mitchell et al is to withdraw their funding. It is the ONLY way.

  8. Lucy

    What I fail to understand is the apparent depth of the feeling of victimisation at the Oz. News Ltd is the most powerful media organisation in the country, and News Corps is one of the most powerful in the world. It hardly seems probable that Mitchell & co really do think there is some kind of leftist conspiracy against the Australian; even if they do, I cannot believe that they would think Labor, the Greens, or for that matter a journalism academic pose an actual threat to its dominance. (Twitter, lazily construed as a representative of new media, may very well pose an existential threat to the Oz; but that doesn’t seem to be the main consideration here, since the Oz is attacking the messenger, not the medium.) So why are they so hypersensitive these days? Why so oblivious to how appalling it must look for a national broadsheet to sue a lowly tweeter? And why are their troops such loyal footsoldiers? It’s really beyond me.

  9. Norman Hanscombe

    1. What’s interesting anonymous ME SKI, is that you have the hide to criticise others for SOMETIMES not writing under their own names, while you’re sniping from anonymity yourself. Your behaviour isn’t “disappointing”, of course, because there’s no reason to have expected you to practise what you preach.

    As for me comment on the imaginary creatures which upset you so much, quite apart from it not being me who introduced them into the thread, surely that’s not as bad as your imaginary bravado criticising others for allegedly doing what YOU do whenever you post anonymously?

    2. LUCY, if you think OZ NEWS is hypersensitive, what adjective would you apply to some of the emotively distraught posters on this website?

  10. Gavin Moodie

    I agree with Keane that The Australian has lost credibility. It will soon lose authority, when thankfully its rubbish will be ignored.

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