If you didn’t know any better one could almost assume Rupert Murdoch’s latest visit to our shores was something of a victory lap, coming so soon after the Sun King’s latest triumph in knocking over the Gillard Government’s pesky media reforms.
Barely two weeks after his troops at News Ltd forced Communications Minister Stephen Conroy into a humiliating back-down on a suite of media reforms which, among other horrors, would’ve introduced a public interest advocate to keep it accountable, Rupert and his trusted offsider and fellow Aussie Robert Thompson were back in town. While business was no doubt the reason for him deigning us with his presence, the great man took time out to be guest speaker at the 70th anniversary dinner for right wing Melbourne think tank the Institute of Public Affairs. There he was able to rub shoulders and sip Kool Aid with the likes of Tony Abbott, George Pell, Andrew Bolt and of course IPA hacks like John Roskam and Tim Wilson who’d taken time out from appearing on the ABC to kiss the great man’s feet.
The buzzword of the evening was freedom. As the slogan alluded, ‘The IPA Fighting for Freedom for 70 Years’. Freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom from any accountability or oversight; freedom for corporations and billionaires to whatever they bloody well like; you name it, the IPA and their fellow travellers in Murdoch’s News Ltd and the Liberal Party had fought for it and won it. Without this axis of freedom, communism would surely reign.
The most recent and prominent example of their efforts to uphold freedom is their trashing of the affor-mentioned media reforms.
To put it mildly, the Axis of Freedom and News Ltd in particular, hated the prospect of any government oversight of their journalism. Whether Conroy’s legislation was actually as a bad as they made out was a moot point, but the reality is that the Axis screeched so loudly about what they saw as an egregious threat to freedom of the press, free speech and democracy itself, that it was impossible for any sensible analysis of the bills to be heard. The highpoint in this barrage of hyperbole was the Daily Telegraph’s immortal front page which compared Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to Joseph Stalin. In the wake of such an offensive comparison the Tele duly apologised; to Joe. This, along with the absurdly short time frame that Conroy allowed for the bills to be assessed before a vote, lead to their premature death.
This scenario closely mirrors that involving another piece of contentious legislation that the Axis was able to force the Gillard Government to retreat from, the Human Rights and Anti- Discrimination Bill. The bill was aimed at consolidating and simplifying existing anti-discrimination laws such as those relating to racial and sex discrimination, with the racial discrimination clauses coming in for particular attention from the Axis. Again their response was to simply cry FREEDOM OF SPEECH long enough and loud enough for any dissenting view or nuanced opinion to be completely drowned out and ignored. New Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has since announced that the most contentious parts of the bill have being sent back to the department for re-examination, while his predecessor and the originator of the bills, Nicola Roxon, has resigned from her position and will soon leave the parliament.
And who could forget the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Axis when one of their favourite sons, Herald Sun firebrand Andrew Bolt, was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act in the Federal Court in 2011. The judgement found that two of Bolt’s columns published in 2009 in which he attacked light skinned aborigines for identifying as indigenous while appearing otherwise, were riddled with errors and had an intimidatory and humiliating tone.
Such matters were of little interest to the Axis though who just screamed FREEDOM OF SPEECH ad- nauseum in response. Bolt himself entered the fray the day after the judgement squealing about this freedom of speech being curtailed on the front page of the Herald Sun. The irony of Australia’s most widely read columnist complaining about his lack of free speech from the front page of the country’s highest selling daily paper seemed lost on the man himself. Proving that the Axis stick together the IPA took out full page ads in the national press defending Bolt’s right to smear people on the basis of falsehoods and Tony Abbott has politely agreed to abolish the part of the act under which he was found guilty if elected Prime Minister.
So often have the Axis of Freedom shouted freedom of speech everywhere and anywhere, that it is at risk of becoming one of those hackneyed, go-to phrases that conservatives reflexively reach for when challenged. Much like the how the term ‘politically correct’ has been used to convey the frustration of people who can’t be bigoted anymore, or the way ‘class warfare’ is used whenever wealthy people are asked to contribute their fair share to society, conservatives shouting about freedom of speech seem to be doing so to preserve the conservative hegemony that controls much of our press and public discourse rather than any altruistic concern for freedom and plurality.
If they really were so concerned about freedom of speech and freedom of the press maybe they would’ve been much more vocal about some recent developments that really threaten both of these ideals.
Gina Rhineheart is Australia’s richest person and the world’s richest woman. She is also the largest shareholder in Fairfax Media, publisher of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, the only opposition to News Ltd.’s dominance of Australian print media. The mining heiress is also a well known conservative with close links to The Liberal Party, IPA and is an unabashed admirer of Andrew Bolt. With such a close association to the Axis of Freedom it was no surprise that she was an honoured guest at the IPA’s Anniversary Dinner, where she seated next to, you guessed it, Rupert Murdoch.
Rhineheart’s lawyers recently served a subpoena against Fairfax journalist Adele Ferguson, that’s right a Fairfax journalist. The subpoena is aimed at forcing Ferguson to reveal her sources for stories she has written about a protracted legal battle between Rhineheart and her children over control of a family trust. If Ferguson refuses to protect her sources, a fundamental tenant of journalism, she could go to jail. If surely there is a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Australia it is the ultra-rich using the courts to silence journalists reporting on their affairs. The fact that Rhineheart is doing it to a journalist working for the very same company she has invested heavily in, is even more remarkable.
As Ferguson’s Fairfax colleague Nick McKenzie pondered ‘ it makes one wonder whether she cares about journalism at all’.
That’s something everyone’s been wondering since Rhineheart bought a large slice of Fairfax back in late 2011. The Fairfax board however have always been fairly sure and as a result have refused to allow Rhineheart a seat on the board unless she agrees to sign the company’s charter of editorial independence. Rhineheart has duly resisted to sign the charter and her pursuit of journalist’s such as Ferguson and The West Australians’s Steve Pennells shows why; she’s more interested in silencing desenting voices than investing in media or upholding any semblance of press freedom
Which brings us to Rhineheart’s presence at the IPA Dinner and the strange silence from Axis of Freedom on an issue one would expect they’d be all over. While Rhineheart, Bolt and Murdoch were having a whale of a time at the IPA shindig, those truly concerned about press freedom were adding to the more than 30,000 signatures on the change.org petition calling on Rhinehart to drop her actions against Ferguson and Pennells. While Bolt was acting as MC for the night, he was being called upon by other journalists to come out in support of Ferguson, knowing only too well what it’s like to be dragged through the courts for something he’s written. And did Rupert Murdoch use his seat next to Miss Rhinehart to urge her to cease her censorious ways?
Because, if we’ve learnt anything from the behaviour of the Axis, it’s that freedom is important, but not as much as money and power. Rhineheart is rumoured to be a major donor to the IPA and has worked closely with their attempts to develop Australia’s north. She is known to be close to Andrew Bolt who has recently used his various media appearances to act as something of an unofficial press secretary for the mining magnate. And Murdoch’s News Ltd.’s outlets have practically demanded she be allowed on the Fairfax board, knowing full well that it would further decrease the ideological plurality of the Australian press and further enhance the conservative control over of it.
And this of course is the ultimate goal of the Axis; the freedom of right-wing speech.