A failure to defend liberty
Last Friday one of the most able and intelligent people in the federal Parliament faced a test of his policy and political judgment. He failed. This time last week the Gillard government released the report of the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation.
The inquiry was demanded by Bob Brown and the Greens as part of their campaign against News Ltd. It was chaired by retired judge Ray Finkelstein.
To make the media more "accountable" and impose "professional standards", Finkelstein recommended a News Media Council to license the press and censor news reporting and political commentary. The council would have a judge or lawyer as its chairman and would comprise 20 members, half from the public and half nominated by media companies and the journalists' union.
The council could order offending articles to be altered or permanently censored. There would be no appeal. Disobeying the council could result in a fine or imprisonment.
The jurisdiction of the News Media Council would extend to practically any opinion on current affairs expressed in print or online. A blog site visited by literally one or two people a day would fall within the ambit of the council.
Finkelstein's recommendations are profoundly illiberal and undemocratic.
They are the most serious assault on the liberties of Australians since Robert Menzies tried to ban the Communist Party in 1949. It is almost incredible that Finkelstein, who as a Federal Court judge once adjudicated on the lives of citizens according to the laws of a liberal democracy, could conceive of such a regime to control freedom of speech.
Finkelstein's ideological position is not hard to find. It's in paragraph 4.10 of his report. He thinks a council should control speech in Australia because most people are too dumb or ignorant to decide for themselves about what they see and hear and read in the media.
In response to the claim from News Ltd's John Hartigan that ultimately readers "were capable of making up their own minds" about bias in the media, Finkelstein writes, "often, however, readers are not in a position to make an appropriately informed judgment".
This is intellectual arrogance at its most breathtaking. And it's a great argument against democracy. If, as Finkelstein claims, people aren't smart enough to decide for themselves the merits of what they see in the media then they're certainly not smart enough to decide who to vote for.
This is the totalitarian fallacy: don't let the people decide (because the people are too stupid), let judges and academics decide for them.
The Finkelstein report overturns two centuries of Western political philosophy. Since the French Revolution, the left have fought for the right of every adult regardless of class, education, or background to participate in politics and political debate. In Australia in 2012, Finkelstein and the Greens believe access to the media should be restricted to those who are "balanced and responsible".
The left no longer demands "free" speech - it wants "balanced and responsible" speech. And that's how we get to Malcolm Turnbull. Labor's media minister, Stephen Conroy, had the decency not to comment on the report.
Meanwhile Turnbull issued a meandering and mealy-mouthed statement that left open the possibility of the Coalition supporting some or all of Finkelstein's recommendations.
Turnbull said the report "deserves careful study and community discussion". No it does not.
The report is bad from beginning to end and should be completely and unambiguously rejected by the Coalition.
If you expected anyone to stand up for free speech and against censorship it would be Malcolm Turnbull. After all, he made his name fighting the British government's censorship of the book Spycatcher, and he loudly defended the "artistic freedom" of Bill Henson.
Turnbull baulked at upholding a core liberal (and Liberal Party) value. While on the one hand he acknowledged the importance of free speech, he also said, "There is also a vital right, or interest, of the public to timely, accurate information on matters of public interest. It has to be said that the legal arrangements at present do not adequately advance that interest."
It looks suspiciously like Turnbull is happy to contemplate the possibility of a News Media Council deciding what is "timely", what is "accurate", and what is in the "public interest".
Turnbull's equivocation on freedom of speech is not good enough. Why he is equivocating is a mystery. Freedom of speech is not something on which Turnbull and the Coalition can have a bob each way.