Former News Limited CEO  John Hartigan liked to explain that the idea for the Australia’s Right To Know Coalition came to him like a biblical revelation. In 2007 he’d become increasingly depressed about what he felt were the growing restrictions on press reporting. “We shall rise up,” thought Harto, “and together we shall smite the enemies of free speech.”

Quicker than you could say “Moguls on a Mission”, News put together a coalition of media groups including the ABC, Fairfax, AAP, the MEAA, SBS and Sky News. Their inaugural joint statement verged on the parsonical:

“We have joined together because we are deeply troubled by the state of free speech in Australia. Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental pillars of a free and open society. It is as important as parliamentary democracy and the rule of law in guaranteeing the freedom and rights of all Australians.”

That first fine flush of Right To Know enthusiasm included a pompous ARTK logo to accompany a string of special features in News outlets, the commissioning of a lofty (and very expensive) 300-page Independent Audit into the State of Free Speech in Australia, high-minded conferences featuring industry and political heavyweights, and a grand $150-a-seat black tie Right To Know dinner at a posh Sydney hotel where keynote speaker Geoffrey Robertson QC divided the room by observing that Rupert Murdoch was, indeed, a great media proprietor — “much like Attila was a great Hun”. (Embarrassed coughing at the News Limited table.)

To be fair, a lot of good work was done in the early days (2007-09). The coalition generated a steady flow of useful submissions to governments and related authorities. There were 18 such submissions in 2009 alone, covering the familiar reporting issues: suppression orders, FOI, shield laws, uniform defamation, etc.

But lately, Australia’s Right To Know has gone decidedly quiet. Its last media release was in May 2010.  The website looks like an unweeded garden — click on the “About Us” button and you’ll get a blank screen with a The requested page could not be found message. Apparently the public’s right to know doesn’t extend to letting the public know much about the Australian Right To Know Coalition.

ARTK was a News Limited stunt from the start, and still is. Its listed address is 2 Holt Street, Sydney — Murdoch’s antipodean HQ. The only contact person cited is Creina Chapman, a fast-talking lawyer who works there in corporate affairs. She concedes that the coalition’s current profile is pretty low.

“We haven’t had a huge number of issues on the table for the past 12 to 18 months,” Chapman told Crikey, describing the Coalition’s current program as “fairly cautious”.

“We are quiet, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing things. A lot of what we set out to do has been done.”

Maybe. Like many new pressure groups, ARTK tended to make splashy submissions in “hot” policy areas and then claim credit for achieving legislative reforms, some of which were already in the pipeline. Still, it would be ungracious not to recognise that they’ve made a contribution.

Less certain is the coalition’s future. These days when they meet they do so by phone hook-up. The ARTK cash kitty is down to about $10,000 (which can’t go very far when taking independent legal opinion from learned counsel).

Why the slide? Well, after the initial warm inner glow of collegial and cross-corporate media solidarity it may now be dawning on the quieter partners in what’s left of the ARTK campaign that a few uncomfortable inconsistencies have begun to poke through.

How, for example, can the coalition demand that journalists should not be required by the courts to reveal their sources when those same courts are an expression of the public’s right to know?

Similarly, how can a newspaper group such as News Limited consistently editorialise against a bill of rights for individuals but, at the same time, claim a collective “right” when it suits their agenda? (There is, of course, no real “right to know”, just as there is no legal right to privacy in Australia — another awkward ethical area for the ARTK, who’d like us to believe that freedom of the press should trump individual freedoms.)

More broadly, the looming extinction-by-neglect of the whole Right to Know campaign reflects a huge cultural shift within the managerial ranks of its main champion, News Limited.

Hartigan’s standpoint was that of a seasoned tabloid journalist who loved mixing with the troops and stripping down to his boxer shorts to punch the heavy bag in the company gym. He instinctively bridled against the restrictions on free reporting represented by suppression orders and the raft of other legal impedimenta.

His successor, Kim Williams, is an entirely different breed of News Limited boss. He was never a journalist and his feel for the trade is essentially intellectual. He must shudder whenever he sees the front pages of the Herald Sun or Daily Telegraph in full tabloid cry.

There’s little doubt Williams sees the major priorities of his job as to protect the Murdoch profits centres, staunch any bleeding in underperforming enterprises and sniff out commercial opportunities in new media.

In principle the Right to Know may be a noble quest, but it doesn’t turn a buck.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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