Why ‘Freedom of the Press’ is a complete joke

This week I travelled to Mullumbimby in the Northern Rivers region of NSW to discuss the future of the media with Chris Graham, publisher and editor of the news-breaking and opinionated website New Matilda.

The Politics in the Pub night was organised by Dr Richard Hil and his partner Jennifer who have miraculously gathered an enthusiastic team to build the Ngara Institute, a discussion centre for socialists and rational thinkers.

Chris reminded the packed house at the Courthouse Hotel that when he worked for John Fairfax as a copy boy 30 years ago he knew me on The Sun-Herald. You only become a true veteran when former copy boys are sharing a platform with you to blackguard tyrannical media tsars.

After Chris’s brutally frank review of current Australian media “platforms” in which he praised a very few and rubbished the rest, I said the following (a slightly edited version):

FROM THE START I want to make clear that I believe in the rational publication of news, current affairs, science, culture and sport. Such an enterprise underpins the health of any society. Do we have it in Australia? No, emphatically not.

What we have is an deeply unhealthy monopolisation of news and current affairs: a situation made even more menacing, undemocratic and reactionary by the latest media laws announced by the Turnbull/Murdoch Coalition Government. New media rules passed by Federal Parliament this month increase the grip of billionaires making them more powerful than before and restricting the already shrinking number of media voices.

This is not a new story. It has been happening since the end of World War Two as capitalism globalised itself, cartelised itself and focused on rolling back all the public ownership and social policy gains made during the 19th and 20th centuries by two centuries of reformers.

Today’s neo-con mantra is privatise everything, sack loyal staff, out-source, dumb-down, bring in private consultants and give exorbitant salaries to the lickspittles who manage this grotesque agenda.

In the prints

For the past 50 years I’ve worked for the prints, with only a passing involvement in radio and television.

I’ve been a member of the high-brow press, the medium-brow press and the low-brow press. I’ve worked for the gutter press and the pavement press and Her Majesty’s Press. One of the longest stints was working for the workers’ press. Indeed that was the name of the daily socialist newspaper I edited in Britain during the 1970s.

In short, I’ve worked for them all – Rupert Murdoch, Lord Thomson of Fleet and Leon Trotsky.

I’d like to start by explaining why the concept known as the “Free Press” does not exist. It is a misnomer and always has been.

AJ Liebling

Newspapers all over the world are owned by media proprietors, usually billionaires who have made their money from slavery, timber, mining, manufacturing or the stock market. Whenever regulation of the press is raised, the proprietors go berserk and raise the alarm that “Freedom of the Press” is under attack.

The great New York columnist A J Liebling wrote in 1960:

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

Before him the great Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilych Lenin wrote:

“All over the world, wherever there are capitalists, freedom of the press means freedom to buy up newspapers, to buy writers, to bribe, buy and fake ‘public opinion’ for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.”

Truth about media tsars

Rupert Murdoch

In Australia during my lifetime we have had three or four major proprietors – the Murdoch family, the Packer family and the Fairfax family. Today we have a fourth – the Kerry Stokes family – and we may soon be joined by a fifth – the Gina Rinehart family. All are billionaires and all are bellowing cheer leaders for free market capitalism and neo-con economic and social policy.

Gina Rinehart

None of them need more wealth because they are stinking rich. So why do they crave owning newspapers, TV and radio stations and magazines? In a word – power. With mainstream media ownership comes power and insider social status. They can pick up the phone and talk to prime ministers and presidents. They do favours for politicians and in return the politicians are ready to give return favours to them. Media moguls and phone hackers like Rupert Murdoch control what goes in their media assets and what doesn’t.

However, they don’t issue public instructions or storm into the news room of the Sydney Daily Telegraph or Sky Television and lay down the law in front of the staff.

No, the proprietors abandoned that hands-on approach long ago. Today they hire editors and news executives who know instinctively what the boss wants and they faithfully deliver. If they don’t, then they are fired or put out to pasture on the Kyogle Advocate or the Bangalow Bugle.

As with most ironclad nostrums – such as “Freedom of the Press doesn’t exist” – there is a counter-view. Freedom of the Press does exist because men and women, of all social classes, believe in it and some earn their living from it. Each day writers and journalists are arrested, kidnapped, tortured or jailed because they believe in it.

Do we stand on high principle and say to them, “Tough luck, you shouldn’t have got yourself involved – Freedom of the Press doesn’t exist anywhere in the world – you’re a middle class prat with only yourself to blame”?

Submit or fight?

The same thing is true of bourgeois law. It is a framework of laws laid down by parliament which protects private property and the interests of the capitalist class. We all know that and accept it. But does it mean we reject all and every decision by the judiciary, the lawyers and the legal activists? Do we use the law courts when we need to?

For the professional journalist and the professional lawyer the choice is whether you submit to the bourgeois machinery of media and legal control or you use your position to fight it.

We all know journalists who have never raised their voice in anger and wealthy solicitors whose practices are devoted to conveyancing and making super-fees from real estate agents and developers. Most have never done a pro bono job in their lives, let alone stepped inside a courtroom to defend a drunk, an Aborigine or a refugee.

Come the revolution (what a great title for a book), law graduates will be required to spend one month in every 12 working as public defenders for set minimum fees.

How about we extend it to doctors and dentists as well? (Handclapping and cheers)

Social media critique

Moving on, I want to say something about so-called social media. Again, it’s a contradiction in terms: it can be both social and anti-social.

Five American-based firms now dominate the world’s new media – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet. They have a combined share market value of $4 trillion. Their wealth is bigger than the GDP of any number of countries across the world.

Their power is terrifying. They take the email records of people from all around the world and share them with American spy agencies. They generate profiles of their users and pass them on too.

These giants are domiciled in tax havens, like Panama and the Virgin Islands, to avoid paying tax. When the Turnbull government says it is going to hold an inquiry into the IT super powers, one can only laugh. It will come to nothing: Canberra is terrified of Facebook, Google, Amazon and company and will do anything to appease them.

A couple of years ago at the Sydney Writers’ Festival I was asked whether I supported the emergence of social media as an antidote to traditional mass media.

The questioner asked: “Do you support social media and do you see it replacing traditional media as the most popular place for people to get their news in the future?”

When I said “No”, there were groans from the audience. Some people walked out.

I was met by a series of comments from the floor. Some argued that the “new journalism” had arrived and “traditional journalists” (like me) had to get out of the way.

Others said that “citizen’s journalists” were taking the place of the old stagers and in the great dawn of a new media democracy, stories, photographs and interviews on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram would render the old media redundant and irrelevant.

But today, the very same people are warning us that social media, the use of Twitter, Facebook etc, is the new face of fascism and they want to censor it. Really?

It seems to me the new IT technology was Okay when it was used by educated middle-class people living in inner-cities, like Sydney, New York, Los Angeles and London, but when it was picked up by people living in the boondocks it suddenly became part of the march to fascism.

Laurie Oakes sounds warning

When he quit journalism after 50 years, Canberra Press Gallery doyen Laurie Oakes gave one speech before retiring to his Canberra home to read mystery novels. Oakes told his audience at the Melbourne Press Club: “One of the results of the digital revolution is that people now have torrents of information coming at them from all directions. That makes it increasingly difficult to tell what is news, what is personal opinion, what is rumour or gossip and what is fake.”

Oakes, my former flatmate from the 1960s, continued: “I see other worrying signs. A case in point was the fuss over the photograph of Malcolm Turnbull at the footy nursing his baby granddaughter while sipping beer from a plastic cup.

A few loonies criticised him on social media as an irresponsible childminder. That should have been that. Except that the mainstream media chose to treat the whole thing as news, with headlines about a social media backlash against the PM.”

He concluded: “It’s not the first such episode. The kind of dopey or offensive comments that you used to hear at the pub, maybe, now get on Facebook or Twitter, which is bad enough, but then – too often – mainstream media organisations jump in and amplify them. Allowing Twitter trolls a role in setting the news agenda is not something we should be comfortable with.”

Laurie and I each spent about half a century digging in the trenches of truth and although our politics differ it’s interesting that we’ve drawn many similar conclusions about so-called social media. There’s the good, the bad and the ugly.

In conclusion, if the mainstream media has become all too much for you, here’s some advice I heard in London years ago from a fellow journalist:

“One of the unsung freedoms that go with a free press is the freedom not to read it.”

Press release of the week

Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Minister for Police Troy Grant and Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn, APM, will launch Operation Slow Down ahead of the long weekend outside the Art Gallery of NSW on Thursday, 28 September, 12.30pm.

A.M. comments: Perhaps former prime minister Paul Keating was correct and the NSW Art Gallery is on its way to become a corporate venue as well as a backdrop for Coalition PR announcements on law and order. Certainly looks like it. Next we’ll have armed cops patrolling the gallery and water canons on the steps. Think I’m joking: most of the civilian security staff have been replaced by burly bouncers from a private security firm!!

By the way when a parliamentary committee stacked with Coalition conservatives recommended a review of treating convicted paedophiles by injecting them with personality-altering drugs, Police Minister Troy Grant told a news conference: “I accept the report’s recommendation, but if I had my way I’d cut their nuts off.”

Charming. This individual is a former senior police officer, a former deputy premier, a former leader of the NSW Nationals and a former NSW Arts Minister.

Moral of the story: We are led by unspeakable philistines and barbarians.


  1. Great to see you have had a public platform to vent your spleen on the wretched state of Australian media, though we do now have The Guardian Australia and the New York Times Australia to make it no longer necessary to buy the products of Fairfax.
    Two points:
    1. Other English language countries – UK, US, Canada, India seem to be able to maintain a number of worthwhile newspapers. I cite the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, The Times of London and The guardian, the Globe and Mail as examples. We have nothing that compares with any of them. Vale The Age.
    2. These newspapers – and broadcasters like the BBC – are still the main source of exposures of wrongdoing, not the social media, which just steals their stuff. The Washington Post is continually exposing the US administration, it was the press that exposed Volkswagen’s global criminal activity, despite threats to their advertising, not Facebook; and in the last two weeks it has been The Times and The Observer( and the BBC) that has ripped into Ryan Air’s deliberate flouting of EU laws on compensation that today forced the airline to start paying proper compensation. So all is not lost, but in Australia we have a dismal press with weak editors and despondent journalists. No Graham Perkins now!

  2. Re Press releases of the week, govt and police:
    When homeless people were camped outside the banks in Sydney’s Martin Place, just down the road from the sty that is state parliament, $600,000 a year, NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, said “If one person puts a step out of line, I’ll throw them in the back of the truck.”

  3. Alex,
    Not so fast that there is no Freedom of the Press. There are flashes of freedom but not too frequent in the world or Australia.
    You wrote on Come the Revolution:

    “Each day writers and journalists are arrested, kidnapped, tortured or jailed because they believe in it.”
    Yes, true.

    But on on August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned as US President in the face of almost certain impeachment and removal from office.

    That was because of the Washington Post and two journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Yes, their lives were in danger all the way until the case of the Watergate tapes was cracked wide open.
    To me that also is an example of The Fourth Estate. The media, The Washington Post was the watchdog of the people, and the dog growled and bit down hard.

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