Extinction Rebellion protesters block Melbourne's King Street (Image: AAP/Erik Anderson)

It’s only a little over four months since Australia’s traditional media was waving the banner of freedom of expression in response to the AFP raids on journalists at News Corp and the ABC. Now, too many in the media are happy to sit back and watch while that same banner is hurriedly pulled down in the attack on Extinction Rebellion.

One minute, freedom of expression is fundamental. Next minute, well, free movement of traffic is much more important.

Some media commentators have gone further, using their platforms to deny the right of climate change demonstrators to use peaceful assembly as their own platform for free speech. Most spectacular was Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s suggestion — “in jest” apparently — that the demonstrators be treated as speedbumps or put in jail and not fed.

Of course, trolling to whip up outrage — both for and against something — is central to the business model of old media. But shrugging off the Extinction Rebellion demonstrators’ rights to freedom of expression directly undermines the demand for freedom of expression for journalists. It transforms “freedom of the press” from a fundamental human right to a self-serving professional privilege. Given public attitudes to journalists, it’s impossible to build public support for change on such a narrow foundation.

Although the traditional outrage media has led the charge against Extinction Rebellion, not all journalists have joined in. For example, The Advertiser’s Tory Shepherd suggested the government might want to crack down on an upcoming neo-Nazi gig before going after climate change activists. Even The Daily Telegraph’s “undercover bee” couldn’t find much more to be outraged about; their main criticism was that the mock die-in felt like a Year 9 drama class.

This kind of media response to disruptive demonstrations is not new. Back in 1970, The Age editorialised over the anti-Vietnam moratorium sit-down in Bourke Street with what now reads as hilarious pompous spluttering: “It obstructs people in pursuit of their own, private, problems; it interferes with traffic; it places on the police force the very serious responsibility for defining the fine distinction between lawful and unlawful demonstration”.

It goes on, verging on 21st century concern-trolling: “ Indeed, it is just possible that the main impact of the Moratorium, and the technique of dissent it dignified, has hardened community opinion against the political bias of the dissenters. It is certainly true that political issues are being forgotten in the growing controversy over law and order. Governments now feel sufficiently alarmed, and sufficiently confident of public support, to instigate new laws with undertones of repression”.

Notoriously, eight years later, The Sydney Morning Herald doxxed gay-rights demonstrators arrested in Sydney in the founding Mardi Gras protest, publishing their names, addresses and occupations. In 2016, the masthead’s editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir apologised.

Right down to the demand to prioritise traffic flow, The Age’s words from almost half a century ago could just as easily be found across Australia’s traditional media last week. Even Kennerley’s “speedbumps” crack had its roots in NSW premier Robert Askin’s quip to US president Lyndon Johnson about anti-war protesters: “run the bastards over”.

There’s a certain wilful blindness in demanding the right to say whatever you like if you’re being paid as a professional reporter or commentator, while dismissing or denying that very same right to people who volunteer to march in the street with theatrical expressions about climate change. It’s a blindness that sees too many in the media treat freedom of the press as though it were the only right that matters, as an all-encompassing stand-in for — rather than a subset of — freedom of expression.

Perhaps it needs a return to basics. The underpinning principle in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media”.

Too often, journalists forget that article 20 is just as important: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association”.

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