Various libertarian types have fired up their organs of liberty and laboured forth on the Finkelstein Media Inquiry report. Rather than ‘free speech’, I see ‘public competence’ as a much bigger problem at the current historical juncture than any threat to free speech.
Does the public have a problem expressing or accessing the views, opinions or whatever of others? In Australia, to a large extent, no. There are those in various communities without ‘voice’ of course, but this is not a problem with the actual concrete mechanisms and practices by which people participate in ‘free speech’. The current situation has been hard won through various battles in different jurisdictions over the last couple of centuries. I can understand why drawing on debates from the 17th and 18th centuries might be attractive for libertarians unwilling to face the differences plainly evident in the current situation. What are the differences? One key concept is ‘the press’. What was ‘the press’ then? What is ‘the press’ now? They are certainly not the same thing. What about ‘government’? Does ‘government’ operate as a monarchy now?
Rather than limits on ‘speech’ at the moment, we have an excess of channels and opportunities for many people from many different walks of life to have their say. We certainly do not have an abundance of competence. What do I mean by ‘competence’? The first competence is the capacity to assess whether ‘you’ are competent to assess your own competence. We often discuss this in terms of feelings of confidence. We also send people to school and perhaps university or some other post-secondary education to develop such capacities.
The abject character of this column by Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella, and the comments, is utterly sickening to me. I am dismayed that someone who is meant to be an MP and perhaps one day could possibly be running part of the government can read the Finkelstein report in terms of ‘political correctness’. Mirabella is participating in the pure aestheticisation of politics. Using others’ sound bites to ventriloquise moral indignation, the Finkelstein report becomes a tool to whip up and harness the stunted fury in the responses of others who have also not read the report.
Finkelstein is critically analysing the news-based media industry in terms of the measures of competence that the industry sets for itself. The example of Mirabella’s piece goes to the heart of the report’s main point. She does not seem to understand that when you write in a journalistic capacity for media outlets that have set a standard of ethics and regulated practice, then you are already writing under the constraint of a series of rules. One of the main rules of journalism, in whatever form, is to be accurate. Journalists do not deliberately lie. They attempt to be as accurate as possible. Accuracy is a question of competence. Either you are accurate in your representations and aspire for such accuracy or you are not.
She raises the example of how a piece of her writing was changed to fit with a Press Council ruling:
It was explained to me that it had to be done due to a Press Council ruling which found that the word “illegal” “may be considered inaccurate and unfair” in relation to those who enter our country by other than legal means. Go figure. Therefore journalists have been instructed to use the term “asylum seekers”, rather than “illegal entrants”. Even more insidiously, the Press Council ruled that “even opinion pieces and commentary” had to be held to this apparently new standard.
Without getting into the argument of whether it’s “unfair” to describe someone who has entered our country illegally as an “illegal entrant”, exactly who has made the ruling that my opinion is now so very offensive that it must be censored?
Unfair or not, the problem is that the term ‘illegal entrant’ is inaccurate. There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum. Using ‘illegal entrant’ in a journalistic capacity is strictly incompetent. It is nothing about being ‘offensive’. Change the laws to make seeking asylum illegal, then you can write journalism using the term ‘illegal entrants’ all day long.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Can anyone else see how this is a monumental problem for Australian democracy?
Maybe it is just me.