[This is an archived version of the original article. The updated article is here]
One of the pillars of an open, democratic society is a free Press, however that freedom has two parts: the freedom to investigate has to be matched by an obligation to publish. Otherwise it’s not a free Press, it’s an organ for personal, corporate or state propaganda.
The Press is talking loudly at the moment about #RightToKnow, but that’s not really the core issue, it’s a red herring to make us uncritically support their cause. What’s more, it’s not the cause we should be fighting. Just as freedom of the Press is critical for a free society, so are a number of other freedoms that have been under assault recently, and #RightToKnow only addresses one, the one the Press cares about.
Leaving aside for the moment whether there is a “right” to know, something that doesn’t figure in other countries’ Bills of Rights, the Press assures us that this right belongs to us, the public.
So if we have a #RightToKnow, and the Press knows but we don’t, then it follows that the Press also has an #ObligationToTellUs.
Think about it. The government has an obligation to disclose, otherwise nobody except the government will know. If the government tells the Press or the Press finds out, then the Press knows, but we still don’t. The only way we achieve our Right To Know is if the Press fulfils its Obligation To Tell Us.
The Press is claiming that it needs all kinds of special legal exemptions, even the ability to challenge warrants, on the grounds that this is necessary for our Right To Know.
But all that these exemptions guarantee is that the Press has the means to know. It also guarantees that the Press will escape the consequences for behaviour that will land any member of the public in jail. That’s nice for them. How does that help us?
There’s a very important step missing from the argument, and that is that, having found out for themselves, the Press then tells us.
All of their special pleading for exemptions, and all of the arguments about the importance of a free Press are predicated on the unspoken assumption that, having found something out, they pass that information on to us.
Otherwise, why not just grant all those exemptions and special powers to everybody, to guarantee our #RightToKnow?
I think that’s a fair question.
Let’s assume for a moment that there are good reasons not to do that, and that only the Press should get powers that are denied to everyone else.
Surely that means that there should be matching responsibilities? As the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” In this case, it’s obvious what that should be.
Having found something out, the Press has a moral obligation to pass that information on to the public to fulfil our Right To Know—the grounds on which all the special treatment is predicated. Otherwise the Press is no different to the government, knowing things and arbitrarily deciding what will and won’t be disclosed. The difference is that we don’t elect the Press and they’re not directly accountable to us.
So why should we campaign for special treatment for the Press if they won’t fulfil the bargain and pass on the information?
The problem, as everyone keeps pointing out and the Press keeps doggedly not understanding, is that the Press has a pretty poor track record of honouring that contract.
Examples abound of selective reporting, biased reporting, failure to report, failure to investigate, failure to provide balance, and the list goes on. The Press more often than not appears to be operating as a Public Relations extension to the government, at best simply stenographers for every government statement, and at worst active propagandists for the government.
For example, and this is just one example out of hundreds, in the most recent election campaign who remembers seeing daily vision and reporting of Scott Morrison wearing his array of baseball caps, and pulling up carrots or wearing hi-vis? Everybody? Now who remembers seeing coverage of Bill Shorten giving over eighty town hall meetings around the country? Not so much? Hardly at all? Should he have pulled up more carrots—a fundamental plank in Morrison’s policies—to get better or more equitable Press coverage?
I think the point is obvious.
We don’t want to give up our Right To Know in order to cede it to a small group of privileged people who then renege on the bargain and keep us in the dark anyway. As has been pointed out at length, the Liberal government has passed over twenty pieces of legislation that restrict or erode various of our rights or freedoms, but the Press was not nearly as vociferous about those, or running front-page campaigns defending all our other rights.
The blatant self-interest underlying the current campaign is obvious.
The cruel irony for us, the general public, is that we must defend the freedom of the Press despite that betrayal. The reason why there is so much anger and resentment right now is because we all know that the Press hasn’t reciprocated.
They owe us, and while it’s clear this campaign may stop things getting worse, it’s not a recipe to make them better.
That’s what we need, and what we want, and there is a way to do it which I’ll discuss in a moment. First, let’s dispose of a couple of other red herrings.
Not All Journalists
One of the consequences of this boiling over of resentment and backlash against the Press, in general, has been plaintive bleating from individual journalists who keep saying “Not all journalists”.
This has strong, unfortunate echoes of the cries of “Not all men” in the wake of #MeToo, and it deserves the same response: this isn’t about you, and nobody is so naive as to believe that every man is a rapist, or that every journalist abrogates their responsibilities. The point in both cases is that overall, as a group, you are responsible, and turning the conversation from the general to the specific does everyone a disservice.
Yes, there are good journalists. If all journalists are good, why is everyone upset? It follows there must be some bad journalists, and judging from the anger out there, it must be at the very least a significant minority. That is the problem we’re trying to address.
Not all Publishers
One of the elephants in the room—and there are several—is the important distinction between journalist and publisher. Many of the aggrieved journalists saying “Not all journalists” work for publishers with a very poor track record for balanced or unbiased publication.
Yes, we understand that the editors and publishers control which stories run, but as members of the general public trying to exercise our Right To Know that problem amounts to the same thing. A good journalist with a bad publisher produces the same result as a bad journalist—we don’t know.
So remind us again why it’s better for us to fight for your rights, rather than ours?
Charter of Rights — #AllOurRights
All of which brings me to the conclusion, which is that a real solution to this problem is not carving out some niche privileges for an unelected clique to then abuse and fritter away without any sanction or consequence.
The real source of the problem is not the specific threat to one specific group, but rather the complete lack of any protection for any of the rights that have been successively eroded by those twenty pieces of legislation, and which will continue to be eroded without notice because the Press as a whole has repeatedly failed us and there is no other guardian.
We need #AllOurRights codified and protected by law. Only then can their constant erosion be challenged and stopped, and with those rights in place the “freedom of the Press” will be a great deal safer than it will when surrounded by a lack of freedom for everybody else.
What we should be seeing is the Press reporting on the need for every Australian’s rights, and not just the vague “right to know”, a right that doesn’t figure in any Bill of Rights anywhere, but all of the basic rights that most countries have enshrined in their Constitution or legislation.
We shouldn’t be seeing the Press suddenly galvanised into concerted and unifying action to protect their own privilege, purportedly on our behalf, an action that has generated justifiable outrage. We should be seeing the Press taking a principled stand for every Australian’s rights, and for #AllOurRights, not just theirs.
They owe us.