In previous blogs I have bemoaned the fact that many public debates are being stifled by the fact that some minority groups with particular vested interests seek to have their particular points of view from being challenged by indulging in pseudo acts of self-suffering which they term “taking offense”. That in itself is a curb, in my belief, on legitimate free speech and informed debate which is a fundamental underpinning of our democracy.
It seems that another underpinning of our democracy might now also be under threat, viz. the freedom of the press. In a cynical response supposedly to the illegal phone tapping episodes by the press in the UK, the Federal Government commissioned the Finklestein media inquiry. There of course is no evidence of such malpractice by the Australian media. My concern is that the inquiry was largely instigated to quell criticism of the government in the press.
The Finklestein report purports to address:
1. “Obsessive attempts to influence government policy by day after day repetition of issues.”
2. “Opposition to government policy which is commercially driven.”
3. “Treating expert and lay opinion as being of equal value or deliberately selecting opinions opposed to government policy while ignoring opposite views.”
The underlying premise of the report is that average Australians have no capacity to judge for themselves and a benevolent and all-knowing government is required to shield us from hearing or seeing that which might be beyond our poor capacity to interpret and understand.
In a telling opinion piece in the Weekend Australian, Brendan O’Neill made the case that a principal tenet of democratisation is providing unfettered information to the citizenship and letting them come to their own conclusions.
He concluded his article with this statement:
“Where you stand on press freedom reveals where you stand on democracy itself, on reason, Enlightenment and progress.
And if the current indifference to press freedom is anything to go by, then it seems our ‘betters’ in the here and now don’t only distrust the tabloids, they also distrust man himself, seeing us as unreasonable creatures who need perhaps a king or at least a QC to govern our lives.”
So here again is another deficit, deficiency or whatever that we require governments to ameliorate for us. (Did George Orwell write this script?)
Is there any wonder that our society is pervaded by victimhood and assumed helplessness?
Cassandra Wilkinson in a recent article quoted Sir Robert Menzies. (Disclaimer here: I am not a particular fan of Robert Gordon Menzies but this is something worth contemplating.)
“The great vice of democracy is that for a generation we have been busy getting ourselves on to the list of beneficiaries.”
Yes sure there are very deserving beneficiaries of government assistance. And I suppose too there might even be some folk who need to be shielded from material that is either beyond their comprehension or could subvert them (like if you were less than eight years old or had an IQ less than 80) but how dare the government constrain what I might read or what I might view on the assumption that I don’t have the intellect to make reasonable judgment about its veracity or be able to ascertain the political motives behind its content.
Perhaps the government can take advice from the People’s Daily and teach Australian newspapers how to write quaint stories about the herculean efforts of our workers and make grateful recognition of the wondrous attributes of our glorious leaders?
Wayne Swan has been particularly vitriolic about the utterances of Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest. Every person with half a brain knows that such folk will argue in favour of the Mining Industry and against the mining resource rental tax. In the same vein we know the Farmer’s Federation will lobby for the maintenance of prime farming land in the face of the efforts of the Coal Seam Gas industry. The Greens will lobby against forestry interests in Tasmania and the Catholic Church will lobby against abortion. This is the nature of a democracy and what has stood it in good stead is that the average citizen understands that many of those raising their voices in public forums have their own axes to grind.
The current government seems unduly sensitive to criticism. Its high office holders have denigrated for example those who don’t agree with them about the carbon tax or the validity of global warming. They have also been particularly sensitive to claims that some of the huge expenditure justified by its response to the GFC might have been wasteful.
In some of these more difficult debates the proponents often believe it is enough to merely denigrate their opponents but not to address their arguments. This to me is an indication of intellectual cowardice. It enables a protagonist to sidestep the argument by belittling their opponent. Oftimes the prime defence is merely to attack the motives of those who disagree with us. How much better might our democracy be if we actually debated the ideas rather than vilify the one who delivers the ideas.
The government is keen to point out the ulterior motives of particular vested interests (as for example the mining magnates mentioned above). Unfortunately they seem to be selective about which vested interest groups should be vilified. There is, for example, no criticism of the union movement. This vested interest group has influenced the government to reregulate the workforce, reducing productivity and flexibility, and taking us back to the dysfunctional industrial relations regime of the seventies – before the Hawke and Keating Governments began removing the stultifying restrictions of awards and instigating enterprise bargaining. Could this particular blind spot be ignored because the lobbying of this particular vested interest largely helped them defeat the Howard government?
When all is said and done the biggest vested interest group is the government itself. It has huge resources at its disposal and unashamedly uses them to support the government’s political line. And of course this is not a trait of this particular government alone. As far as I can tell the Finklestein report doesn’t recommend a mechanism to shelter we undiscerning public from these sinister influences!
Let us then resist the inclination of a patronising and overly sensitive government from in any way curtailing our basic freedoms, including those of free speech and the freedom of the press, lest our democracy be further eroded away.