“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.
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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.