Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher and editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is a retired Australian journalist and climate change activist. She is best known for her stint as Phillip Adams’ ‘Canberra Babylon’ contributor and her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and #Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston

MARGO: I am so disgusted with the Brandis free speech interview on @Lateline I don’t trust myself to write about it. It brought back memories of the Howard Government’s relentless assaults on free speech, egregiously denied by Brandis last night, and of his nasty record. So @NoFibs will try to drag truth back on the public record with a Brandis archive. We begin with the transcript of his intellectual dismemberment by Emma Alberici on last night’s Lateline.

EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: The Shadow Attorney General George Brandis has tonight delivered a swingeing attack on the Gillard Government for what he calls a war on free speech. In an address to the Sydney Institute, Senator Brandis said the Government’s proposed media reforms were the worst attack on press freedom in Australia in nearly 200 years. He went on to say that under the Labor Government victimhood had become the basis of a new kind of privilege and that showing respect to its special status had become a more important value than the freedom to call that status into question. George Brandis claims that the Coalition has been the only party which has stood steadfastly on the side of freedom. He joined me here in the studio a short time ago. Senator Brandis, welcome to Lateline.


EMMA ALBERICI: You assert in your speech that the Government’s media reforms, which they recently abandoned, represented the most overt interference by an Australian Government with the freedom of the press since 1825. How have you reached that conclusion?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, this was the public interest media advocate that Senator Conroy wanted to foist on us, was in fact the first measure, at least in peace time, that had been undertaken in this country which could have had the consequence of a government official telling newspapers and media outlets what they were at liberty to say and what they were not at liberty to say in their media. Now that hasn’t happened before.

EMMA ALBERICI: The legislation didn’t say that.

GEORGE BRANDIS: The public interest media advocate’s determinations could have had that consequence.

EMMA ALBERICI: Do you believe the electronic media in Australia is facing government censorship?

GEORGE BRANDIS: I think that the withdrawal of the media regulation package that Senator Conroy was so wedded to was a great victory for freedom of speech. I’m aware, of course, that there are different issues between newspapers and the electronic media because the electronic media obviously use a public resource in a way that newspapers and magazines don’t. But nevertheless, I think a common philosophical principle strongly in defence of freedom of speech and freedom of the press unites them both.

EMMA ALBERICI: Is there any reason though why broadcast media should be regulated in a way that the press is not?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, I’ll – because as I said a moment ago, spectrum is a public resource.

EMMA ALBERICI: But that aside.


EMMA ALBERICI: That aside in principle do you think they should be regulated differently?

GEORGE BRANDIS: I don’t think it’s possible to just say – put that aside because that I think is the principle functional difference between the two.

EMMA ALBERICI: Well social media, for instance, is not regulated at all?

GEORGE BRANDIS: That’s right, but it doesn’t use the same public resources as the electronic media do.

EMMA ALBERICI: Is the Internet not a public resource?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, it’s a good question that I’m sure my colleague, Malcolm Turnbull, the Shadow Minister for Communications would be very eloquent on. But what I address in the speech that I gave to the Sydney Institute tonight is a philosophical issue and that is to call public attention to the concern that I have and that I think a growing number of Australians have, that there are, that there is a, an instinct on the part of this Government to diminish the centrality of belief of freedom of speech, which includes the freedom of the press, in Australian politics in a way I haven’t seen before in my life.

EMMA ALBERICI: But in a democratic society freedom can’t be absolute?

GEORGE BRANDIS: No, and I don’t think anybody disputes that freedom can’t be absolute. But I tell you if there is one species of freedom which ought to be as little qualified as possible, it’s intellectual freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. You see, as a Liberal I put that right up at the top of the philosophical priorities that make a decent and well ordered society and I’m afraid this Government has quite a different disposition and the fact that we had not just the attempt to regulate the media. We also had this hair brained Human Rights and Anti Discrimination Act which would have made it against the law to express political opinions merely because they were offensive or insulting in the eyes of some people. The fact that we even had brought to the parliament by Mr Crean on his last day, literally, as the Arts Minister, amendments to the Australia Council legislation which would have taken freedom of artistic expression out of the core objectives or purposes of the Australia Council, that expression in cultural policy of the same phenomenon which was the purpose of my speech to call attention to.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now you say you’re surprised that media shield laws are the number one concern of journalists right now. What surprises you about that?

GEORGE BRANDIS: I tell you the point I made. I talked about the press freedom dinner that I attended along with Mr Turnbull on Friday night. There were no Labor politicians there, by the way, but Mr Turnbull and I were there on behalf of the Opposition. It is barely a month since the Government abandoned what I claim, I think fairly, to be potentially the most invasive interference with press freedom in Australian history since before the Commonwealth of Australia began, since 1825. If you’re going to have a dinner devoted to press freedom, I would have thought that would be the big issue on the table. It was mentioned, it was averted to by some but the entire evening was about journalists, largely about journalist shield laws. I have no problem with journalist shield laws. In fact the Commonwealth journalist shield laws, as they exist in their current form, were introduced into the parliament not by the Government but by me as a private senator’s bill which the Government then adopted. So there is no greater friend of journalist shield laws than me but it seemed when I attended this occasion, when there’s just been this wonderful political victory won against regulation of the media that would have been at the top of everyone’s mind.

EMMA ALBERICI: I think part of the reason perhaps why it wasn’t the top of everyone’s mind is that the jury is out about just how damaging and draconian those media reforms actually were and in fact the criticism was coming mainly from commercial press bosses and from the Opposition. The people who drafted, for instance, the original Finkelstein report, including Ray Finkelstein himself certainly didn’t suggest some kind of government censorship of the press.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well I’ve read Mr Finkelstein’s report and there are parts of Mr Finkelstein’s report, particularly the philosophical chapter, the second chapter of the report which I find alarming. Mr Finkelstein speaks of the new intellectual climate of the 20th century which plays less emphasis to traditional classical liberal rights of freedom of speech and expression. I think that was a terrible point of departure for the Finkelstein report. But let me challenge your thesis Emma, that the jury is still out. I think the jury came back when the Government dropped the legislation. We were having a debate about how draconian it was. You’ve heard me say what my view is and that was the Opposition’s view. It was ultimately the view of the Independents and the Government has dropped this and I don’t see it coming back and I’m glad it won’t.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now, the court battle between billionaire minor Gina Rinehart and two of the country’s leading journalists, the media union labels that dispute as you made reference to over the media dinner, they say it’s the greatest threat to free speech facing Australia. Now, how do you prevent this situation where journalists face the prospect of going to jail for not revealing their sources?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well as I said to you before, Emma. I’m a supporter of shield laws. In fact I’m the author of the Commonwealth’s shield laws.

EMMA ALBERICI: They’ve clearly not worked in this situation.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Even though we did it from Opposition and we shamed the Labor Party into adopting them. So I’m entirely…

EMMA ALBERICI: You didn’t introduce them in your term of government, let’s be fair.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well I introduced them in the Senate, the Government adopted them so let’s give credit where it’s due. I’m entirely on the journalists’ side in relation to Gina Rinehart. I said at the time I introduced the legislation and I strongly believe that the relationship between journalists and sources ought to be regarded by the law as among those categories of confidential relationships which the law protects.

EMMA ALBERICI: Can you commit a Coalition Government to introducing legislation that would somehow provide some sort of consistency throughout the country with regard to shield laws?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well I think we’ve done our bit. We have written shield laws which apply to the Commonwealth, within the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction but of course most of these cases are heard in State and Territory Supreme Courts or other State and Territory courts which are governed by State laws. Now I can see a perfectly good argument for there being consistency among the various jurisdictions but that’s up to those jurisdictions.

EMMA ALBERICI: There’s no way for a Federal Government to bring in some sort of uniformity?

GEORGE BRANDIS: No, I don’t think that the Commonwealth could, in the exercise of its legislative power, overturn State shield laws. That’s not to say, as an exercise in cooperative federalism there couldn’t be some move towards uniformity. As I said in answer to your earlier question, that seems to me in principle to be a desirable thing.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now the theme of your speech is summed up in one of the opening lines where you say in your view this Government is engaged in a multi front war against the traditional Liberal conception of freedom of speech. Now that same criticism was often levelled at John Howard’s Government, specifically, for instance, over the Coalition’s attempt s to prevent charities, for instance, from criticising the government with gagging orders?

GEORGE BRANDIS: I think that’s an entirely different issue. When people give money to charities they expect – that was an issue of corporate governance, in effect, the corporate governance of charities. When people give money to charities they are entitled to expect the charities to spend that money on the purposes for which the money is donated, not on political causes. So I think it is bogus to regard that as a freedom of speech issue. Look at the real assaults on freedom of speech we’ve had. We’ve talked at length

EMMA ALBERICI: Can I just go back to this point because John Howard actually threatened to remove the tax free status of charities and church groups who lobbied for a change of laws, who criticised the Government. This is not about how they spend their money, this was specifically aimed, many called it muzzling the charities and church groups?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Emma, it’s an entirely different issue. If you want to quote to me the very words that Mr Howard used that you’ve paraphrased then I will comment on them but I know what the Howard Government’s position was and I think it was the right position. It was a corporate governance issue. You cannot go into the public arena as a charity, ask people to donate money to your charity and then spend it on a purpose other than the purpose for which it was given.

EMMA ALBERICI: As I understood this was around the time of the CES going to the job network situation where church groups and charities were taking over some of that work and as I understand it this was the Government saying to those charities we’ll give you these contracts, this money on the proviso that you don’t criticise us in return.

GEORGE BRANDIS: That might be your understanding but I don’t want to deal with – talk about a particular instance on which neither you nor I are specifically informed.

EMMA ALBERICI: You were in the Government.

GEORGE BRANDIS: But let me just make this point. Freedom of speech is about the right of people to express their opinions about the right of newspapers and the media to carry the expression of opinions to participate in an unfitted way in the democratic debate. It’s not an issue about corporate governance which the charities issue was an issue concerning.

EMMA ALBERICI: Because I’m specifically interested, obviously your speech talks about this Government attacking freedoms in a way that hasn’t been since 1825.

GEORGE BRANDIS: I have not seen it in my life!

EMMA ALBERICI: Other instances where it seems that the same point could be argued. For instance, let me give you another one, the Howard Government’s terror laws were also considered an attack on basic freedoms. Suspects held for 48 hours without charge, without being given any reason at all. Control orders for up to 12 months and the proposition that people be jailed for simply promoting feelings of ill will.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Alright, let me say two things about that. First of all, those laws were criticised not as an attack on freedom of speech but an attack on other civil liberties. So, you know, my argument is specifically about freedom of speech. It’s not a general argument about civil liberty. It’s an argument about what I regard as the most important among the civil liberties and that is freedom of speech. Secondly, as a result of the intervention and the negotiation at that time between people who are then on the government backbench, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, Senator Maurice Payne, Petro Georgiou, me, the original proposals were hedged with very significant safeguards. Thirdly, the alarmist rhetoric that we heard from people on the left of politics that this was legislation that would destroy our civil liberties has not been realised in the event. There have been hardly any control orders, there have been no preventative detention orders in all the years since.

EMMA ALBERICI: And let’s finally discuss one more thing I’ll point out from your speech, you say defending freedom of speech today has been left down to conservative commentators Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen. I put to you that all of us in the media are across the spectrum defenders of freedom of speech.

GEORGE BRANDIS: I wish you were. I wish you were. I wish there’d been more outrage from all quarters in the media when Stephen Conroy did – tried to do what eventually he failed to do, and that is introduce a public interest media advocate that could, in certain circumstances, have resulted in the Government or officials sitting around Lake Burley Griffin making decisions about what ordinary citizens were allowed to listen to on their radio or to read in their newspapers. I wish there’d been more outrage from the media but my point is there wasn’t and I find that very disappointing.

EMMA ALBERICI: Thank you very much for coming in this evening.



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