Does Australia have a free press?

18 Jul 2014

Freedom of the press is an issue that has been unusually prominent in Australia in recent months – taking ‘the press’ to encompass all public media. But most of the discussion has focused on the wrong questions and has failed to notice that whether Australia has a free press is a question that can be answered empirically; and regrettably the facts demonstrate that, taken as a whole, we do not have a free press.

The issues recently in the news concern journalists’ freedom of expression. This is certainly one requirement of a free press. Whenever a journalist is prosecuted for something they have written, regardless of whether the law ostensibly offended concerns defamation, racial vilification or indeed anything else, we are right to be concerned about whether this is a threat to journalists’ freedom of expression and thus, in consequence, the freedom of the press. Equally, whenever strong disapproval of something published is expressed by anyone (or any entity) a press relies on for its funding, whether it is a large advertising customer having a quiet word to an editor, or a government minister publicly taking issue with a story run by a public broadcaster, we should be concerned about whether this pressure will influence journalists’ approaches to and editors’ judgements on future stories. For this would also curtail freedom of expression and thus the freedom of the press.

But these concerns about freedom of expression do not go to the heart of the matter of whether we have a free press, for while a restriction on journalists’ freedom of expression is a constraint on the freedom of the press, freedom of expression itself is no guarantee of a free press.

Freedom from constraints about what can be published is a necessary condition for a press to be free, but it is not a sufficient condition. A free press must use its freedom from constraint as a freedom to publish what is true.

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Michael Rowan is Emeritus Professor, University of South Australia, Adjunct Professor, Division of Deputy Vice Chancellor: Students and Education, University of Tasmania. He is a philosopher with a background in philosophy of science and reasoning in natural language. Following a career spent mainly in applying philosophy to the task of developing a new university, he is now enjoying a return to philosophising about society, science and the environment.

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