SBS News – Comment: No dignity in free speech without meaningful access


(Originally published at SBS News here)

Freedom of speech is one of the most important parts of a functioning democracy. Very few people in the community will argue with that. Unfortunately ours is a democracy with many competing versions of “free speech” and sadly many of those interpretations value the free speech of one person more than another.

Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes these rights in the following terms:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It’s a nice ideal but one that we in Australia fall far short of because freedom of speech is meaningless in a society where there isn’t equal access to the skills, platforms and opportunities to exercise it. It’s nice to think that in the digital age we’ve torn down the barriers for people to meaningfully express themselves through online platforms and yes – the internet has given us a whole new world of possibilities, but to suggest the internet is an equalising platform where everyone’s voice has the same value and same access to opportunity is an insult to those who face significant barriers expressing themselves. It is also an insult to the intelligence of those who benefit from privilege structures.

As a media educator I’ve seen first hand what this looks like. You can walk into a classroom of year nine students from high socio-economic backgrounds ask them to to produce their smartphones and within minutes have them write, record, create and publish whatever they like to the world. Do the same with a classroom of year nine students from low socio-economic backgrounds and you’d be lucky if there were more than one or two smartphones in the room, let alone access to enough internet data or knowledge of the tools needed to write, record, create and publish. Too often those of us in the privileged position of having the education, the tools and the access to express ourselves in a meaningful way assume that’s just the case for everyone else.

Right now in Australia the freedom of speech debate is being couched in the context of the Federal Government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. It’s a particularly interesting time for former Institute of Public Affairs policy director and now Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson. Writing for The Australian on Saturday, Wilson made the statement that “there is an insidious argument now creeping into the debate: that free speech protects “old rich white men”” and that “identity group-based arguments for restricting free speech are just a backdoor, sociological argument for censorship”.

Issues of the Racial Discrimination Act aside (for which he does have some valid points), Wilson’s arguments show a blatant disregard and ignorance for the current barriers that restrict people’s ability to freely express themselves.

What Wilson promotes is a form of “freedom” that is just a backdoor, economic form of censorship. Firstly. he suggests that “everyone can consistently exercise their free speech”. What is consistent about free speech in a country where those with enough money can simply use the scare tactic of threatening defamation to silence their critics, or where many the major platforms of expression flatly reject access to those they don’t like or who can’t afford it? To deny or deflect from the fact that “old rich white men” hold more meaningful access to expression than other groups in our community is absurd.

Wilson also argues that “not all voices should be given equal platforms. Arguing [that] one voice you agree with should be given a bigger megaphone also means everyone that you disagree with it should be given it as well”. This argument again blatantly ignores the privilege of those who own and control our major platforms of expression. By giving and creating more access to platforms of expression you’re not giving under-represented groups a “bigger megaphone”. You’re giving them a meaningful opportunity to participate in the democratic, social and cultural discussions that have very real impacts on their lives.

When your socio-economic structures automatically privilege and amplify the voices of people from particular mainstream groups and place significant barriers in the way of minorities then our society is simply using economic structures to censor minorities. He says “speaking freely goes to the heart of individual dignity”, but there’s very little dignity in being told by those in privileged positions that you have “freedom” when those very same people actively support the structures that limit you from exercising it.

We must consider the social, cultural and economic circumstances that impact people’s ability to access freedom of speech. For our democracy it’s more important than ever that we ensure there are measures in place to give as many Australians as possible the skills, the platforms and the opportunity to express themselves. It’s not about special treatment – it’s about ensuring that the economic censorship of minorities isn’t the version of “free speech” that we blindly accept.

Jonathan Brown (@JB_AU) is a Melbourne based media educator.


What we should demand from media coverage this election

Australia Votes

Since Julia Gillard announced an election date for Australians back in January it’s felt like we’ve been in one of the most extended campaigns ever seen in Australian politics. Even with a change in leadership to Kevin Rudd (and a now uncertain election date) it feels even more so that the campaign is well underway.

With “campaign mode” also comes the usual critical eye over our media – who is covering what? What questions are being asked? What questions aren’t? Who are the influencers and what roles do they have to play? It seems that each electoral cycle the same criticisms reemerge. Too much personality, not enough policy. Too many stunts, not enough detail. Too much negativity, not enough vision. Yet as media consumers we surely must accept that most Australians will stray to the light and fluffy than the hard detail. We have to accept that we play a role in the media that gets served to us and if we want better – we must demand it. Here are some of the things that Australians should demand from our media this election.

Lay off the polls

The polls are a favourite plaything of most media outlets and even I can admit to finding the week to week fluctuations of the polls as a source of intrigue and entertainment – but that’s all they are: Entertainment. The polls give us a vague idea of the trends in the electorate, but the obsession with them needs to calm down. Especially when you consider that the fluctuations are often within the margin of error anyway. This year PLEASE lay off the polls.


Can we please get some new voices in the mix? In the 24 hour news cycle I understand that there’s a lot of airtime and white space to fill, but there are thousands of competent writers, broadcasters and commentators who can bring something different to the mix. Our commentators should reflect the diversity of our society and not just the political binary. If I hear any more of what Mark Latham thinks about topic X or Y I’m going to scream.

Ask some actual questions

It’s tempting to chase the scoop or the “gotcha moment” and many of these have defined journalist’s careers, but please ask some actual questions (And preferably about policy at that). How many times do we have to tune into a media conference to hear 20 versions of the same question slightly rephrased in a desperate attempt to make the politician slip up? If you’re going to wedge a politician in a media conference – at least wedge them on a policy issue.

Speed does not = quality

Let’s face it – Twitter is going to go bonkers over the next couple of months and it’s a tempting source of live information. We will also have more citizen journalists producing their own work than ever before, but please don’t pull a CNN and choose speed over quality. Not only does it look bad when you get it wrong, but it breaks our trust as media consumers. If you do mess up, own up to it, take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again and move on.

Listen to us

This election isn’t about the media. It isn’t about the politicians. It isn’t about their parties. It’s about us – the citizens. It’s about the human impact that these people, their ideologies and their policies will have on our lives for months, years and even decades to come. Now it’s more important than ever to listen to your audiences and find out what they want to know. I accept that a number of factors influence what ends up on our screens and in our papers, but look past the surface, dig deeper into our communities and listen.

As media consumers in the free market we won’t get what we want from our media unless we demand it. If you want the quality of coverage to improve this election contact the stations, the editors, the comment sections and tell them what you want – and if you don’t get it? Make it yourself and lead by example.

This piece has also been published over at AusNPAC. I also put the call out to ask what you would demand if you could ask one thing of the media this election.  Read the responses and join the conversation here or on Twitter @JB_AU

What if you could demand one thing from our media this election?

Australia Votes

In writing a new piece about how we can demand better coverage from our media this election I asked my Twitter followers if they could demand one thing from our media this election – what would it be? Here are some of the responses.

Debs made a suggestion regarding the use of language about asylum seekers:

Ed called for more “important stories”

Lots of discussion about assessing claims and getting the facts:

On policy:

Less “horse race” politics (From Tumblr)

Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 5.04.58 PM

On wasted opportunities:

What are your thoughts? Comment below or get in touch @JB_AU