“In some of the public debate there has been an overemphasis on coverage that some people believe is egregious with little comment (other than from some media commentators) on the important principle which is at stake here. This principle is: press freedom and the need for an independent press to hold all Governments, institutions, business, regulators and others in power to account.”

There are certain principles that unite our media companies. The CEOs of Nine, Seven, Foxtel, Sky, News Ltd, AAP and APN wrote of them in their letter to the Prime Minister early this month rejecting a media-specific public interest test and further regulation in the name of free speech. “Since the time of Magna Carta,” the CEOs majestically declared, “there has been a progressive empowerment of the citizenry in making those in power accountable, accessible and addressable. Central to that process over the last three centuries has been the operation of the media.”

The CEOs were content to put their faith in the citizenry, “in the abundant good sense of Australians to make up their own minds”.

But all that talk of empowerment of the citizenry and holding all to account vanishes when free speech clashes with commercial self-interest. GetUp!’s ad campaign against Coles and Woolies is the most recent case in point. I’m a serial critic of GetUp! and disagree with its stance on gambling, but the rejection of both of its ads by all the commercial television networks and SBS is another demonstration of the networks’ bare-faced free speech hypocrisy.

According to a Fairfax article today, the Nine Network is concerned about the “tone” of GetUp!’s latest ad, including a reference to suicide. But according to GetUp!’s communications director Rohan Wenn both ads (the first one, in which a checkout somewhat unsubtly turns into poker machine; the second, a straightforward but moving interview of the wife of a gambling addict who took his own life) were cleared by FreeTV’s Commercial Advice process, which vets ads for suitability.

The CAD process was used to block an ad by Philip Nitschke’s Exit International in 2010 on the basis that it discussed suicide (the ad was approved but then, mysteriously, approval was withdrawn at the last minute), but in this case, the second GetUp! ad had been fully cleared; Nine’s concern about the “tone” is disproven by the very process the commercial networks have set up to vet ads.

In May, Nine was more forthcoming about refusing to air the first ad, with Peter Wiltshire of Nine telling Fairfax’s Richard Willingham “someone new coming along who chooses to use their own gritty tactics to foster their own business at the expense of ours, and our relationships with our existing client base does not make any sense to me.”

Nick Xenophon — for whom Wenn used to work as media adviser — has now proposed an amendment to the Broadcasting Services Act reducing broadcasters’s discretion to reject ads.

What about SBS’ refusal? SBS loves to portray itself as a key addition to Australia’s media diversity. Among SBS’ charter responsibilities is the the requirement to present “many points of view and using innovative forms of expression”. In a submission to the Convergence Review, SBS called for “greater emphasis to the objective of supporting successful civil and democratic institutions”. “The public interest,” SBS insisted, “is served by inclusive, participatory media which facilitate democratic culture.”

Well, not so much. In its refusal to screen the GetUp! ad, SBS seems to have confirmed every paranoid fear ever expressed by public broadcasting advocates who claimed a public broadcaster showing ads would lose its independence.

As the Exit International example shows, this is hardly the first time the networks have conveniently lost their enthusiasm for free speech. FreeTV has also previously banned the Timor Sea Justice Campaign’s “fair go for East Timor” ad because it criticised the Howard government and tried to stop an ad because its use of the phrase “Climate Change is the greatest threat facing humanity today” was “problematic”.

When it comes to television broadcasters, free speech is the last resort of the self-interested (Jim Parker has a good piece on the wider implications of this at his Failed Estate blog). And they want to have it both ways. They reject the idea that they should be regulated like other industries on the basis that they have a higher responsibility to free speech and holding the powerful to account. In effect, they’re saying they’re not just any corporations, but special ones with a critical democratic role. Come time to fulfil that role in a way that might harm their commercial interests, the “Magna Carta” stuff goes out the window and they’re back to standard corporate logic — why should they act in a way that will harm themselves?

For television broadcasters, free speech means something different to what the rest of us think it means. For them, it’s the freedom to run only what serves their interests. And if that’s their justification for resisting regulation, they demolish it every time they knock back an ad that might offend a corporate mate or a government.

Peter Fray

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