News Limited CEO Kim Williams is a civil, intelligent and cautious man. If he didn’t actually write his speech last Friday to the Press Club in Adelaide, then he would certainly have vetted the draft closely to make sure he was comfortable with its arguments and rhetoric. Which is why it’s so surprising that the sections of his speech dealing with media regulation were so utterly cack-handed.
Logic and rational thought went out the window. As a starting point for his attack on the Finkelstein inquiry and the Convergence Review proposals (none of which are yet in a bill before Parliament), Williams ran the specious line that while government regulation of the electronic media may be justified because “scarce public spectrum is involved”, it is not appropriate for the press.
This is nonsense. Spectrum regulation is a purely technical matter, yet the Australian radio and television industries have also accepted legislated regulation of their program content for more the 80 years. Have their precious editorial freedoms been trampled upon by government? Of course not, and there is no valid argument why the press could not keep going about their daily business under parallel regulation.
Next, Williams asserted that by accepting a government-backed complaints body we would be “in danger of limiting the freedom of speech we cherish and which keeps our democracy on its toes”. It’s a fine-sounding sentiment, but it has nothing to do with the reality of seeking to give media complaints mechanisms some teeth. The vast majority of complaints about the press are concerned with accuracy — errors of fact or willful distortions. Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to be harmfully wrong (as Andrew Bolt now knows).
But, undeterred, the News Limited boss then proceeded to wildly over-egg his “threat to democracy” omelet: “Having a statutory, government-funded and therefore politically vulnerable body limiting the freedom of our journalists has real implications for the standards of democratic accountability.”
There are two false premises in that single sentence. First, it does not follow that government funding automatically makes a body “politically vulnerable”, even in the media. It would, for example, be difficult to think of a body more independent of politics than the ABC, yet it derives 100% of its funding from government. Ditto the justice system.
Second — and this where Williams muddles his argument entirely — it is enforceable media accountability that the proponents of government-backed regulation are seeking. The press keep trumpeting their divine democratic right to make everyone else accountable, yet reject any suggestion that the same standards should apply to them.
Williams tripped over this inconsistency again later in the same speech when he claimed News Limited supports a “beefed-up” Australian Press Council because press regulation “must be … through a body independent of us”. Yet who is the largest single corporate contributor of funds to the APC? News Limited. So, government-funded regulation is a threat to free speech and democracy but Murdoch-backed regulation is fine. Some independence. Williams and his claqueurs might like to give some thought to resolving these flaws in their argument if they intend making good on his threat to challenge any legislation in the High Court.
Meanwhile — and most tellingly — the only major print media group apparently not willing to add their name to News Limited’s rush to the legal barricades is Fairfax. To help explain its position The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday enlisted another Williams — law professor and constitutional expert George Williams — to point out that any legal challenge would have “little chance of success”.
The reasons? Primarily, because if federal regulation of radio and television is valid, then it would be difficult to argue that newspapers are in a different class or that they have “a higher claim to freedom of speech”.
But there would be another, more galling hurdle for the News Limited lawyers to clear. In its 2006 decision upholding the Howard-era WorkChoices legislation, the High Court gave a very wide reading to the government’s power to make laws that apply to “trading corporations”. At the time, the Murdoch press were united in their support for that ruling. Six years later, the precedent they so applauded may stop them in their tracks.