Two aspects of the banning of the Chaser’s coverage on the ABC of the royal wedding deserve consideration. The first is to see the matter in the context of freedom of speech and how our politicians and the ABC would react if say China imposed a similar ban on coverage of big event. The second is a concerning interference by the royal family in the legal process.
Freedom of speech in a democracy has always included the right to lampoon and to satirise. It was the English who were among the earliest to give licence to cartoonists, writers and comedians to take the Mickey out of anyone including the royal family. By forcing the ABC to take the Chaser team off air, the British monarchy and its agents in the BBC have offended that very principle.
This very direct undermining of freedom of speech by the family of our head of state should have our politicians and the ABC loudly protesting and in the case of the latter simply replacing the royal wedding tomorrow evening with alternative programming as a protest.
Let us say that the Chinese government heavied the ABC not to allow the Chaser team to satirise a key event that was being beamed live across the globe. Our Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott would send a clear message to Beijing that Australia, as a democracy, will not be cowered by threats and bullying because freedom of speech was something held dear in our country. And the ABC would look at ways of subverting any coverage difficulties.
So why the silence by our political leadership over what appears to be an exercise in the doctrine of lese majeste — a law which supposedly petered out in the UK with the end of the absolute monarchy in the 17th century? Only Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has weighed in to the issue, rightly telling the BBC and the royals to “lighten up”.
The ABC too seems to be on the receiving end of the sort of legal manoeuvring that one expects in countries where contractual obligations are taken less seriously. The UK, like Australia, is a country where contractual obligations are not subjected generally to political interference, which has the effect of undermining them and leaving one party exposed to economic loss.
But here we have a case of direct undermining of contractual obligations the BBC, the official broadcaster of the wedding, owes to the ABC and other rebroadcasters. This is extraordinary conduct when one considers that the British royal family is meant to be completely above politics, and certainly well above interfering in the law.
It should be noted however that the royals, particularly Charles, has form for this sort of interference. He has used his office to get planning decisions overturned when he objects to the type of architecture proposed for a particular project. One of the world’s great architects Richard Rogers was subjected to Charles’ political lobbying over the Chelsea Barracks site in 2009.
*Greg Barns was chair of the Australian Republican Movement from 2000-02 and ran the 1999 Republican Campaign.