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Byron Shire
September 21, 2023

Is a free press essential or a luxury?

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A tale of two pressers

Last week, the National Press Club in Canberra hosted two major press conferences, one day apart. The first was a desperate plea for attention from Nick Kaldas, the Chair of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicides. The second was an all-out attack on the Voice to Parliament, via Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians.

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The very first amendment made to the American Constitution protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press. 

It is claimed that freedom of expression is essential to protect every other right that flows in a ‘free’ country. But is that true?

In Australia, we have spent the past year considering the health of our own democracy – the voters have strengthened the power of parliament by electing large cross-benches to hold the major parties (Labor and the Liberals–National coalition) to account. 

A National Anti-Corruption Commission has finally been established. 

Parliamentary inquiries have revealed the scandalous betrayal of taxpayers by large corporate consultancy firm, PwC. 

Ben Roberts-Smith. Wikimedia Commons

The court system has exposed a revered Victoria Cross (VC) recipient, Ben Roberts-Smith, as a probable war criminal.

But in every case, our ‘free’ news media has not merely had a role reporting on these stories – in the case of the VC recipient who failed in his defamation bid, the role of the media became the story itself.  

Just as Roberts-Smith has gone from hero to zero, the two journalists he sued for defamation are now the heroes, talking us through how they conquered the odds to complete their mission. 

We surely have feelings of gratitude for the journalists’ efforts. 

But it is shattering to realise that somehow, as a nation, we blindly handed the Victoria Cross to a war criminal who became one of our most revered Australians. 

We now face a difficult journey addressing our responsibility for war crimes, and unpicking how this could possibly have happened – what system, what culture, what sort of deranged groupthink could have perpetrated such a gigantic fraud on the Australian public?      

What is worse, this hero-to-zero story is not an isolated case. It adds to a pattern of news stories where accepted norms and embedded narratives have been turned on their heads. 

The PwC scandal, whereby a trusted accounting company betrayed Australian taxpayers, has exploded thanks to media reporting. For the Australian office of PwC to betray Australian taxpayers – in order to line the pockets of global clients like Glencore Mining – can only be described as economic treason. We have to ask how did we get into this situation where the institutions we rely on – the ATO, Treasury and even the Australian Federal Police (AFP) dropped the ball – and it fell to the free press to fill that void?

The free media has played a vital role in quashing astonishing abuses of power by our own government. 

The appalling persecution of the Murugappans – a Tamil family of four better known as ‘the Biloela family’ went on for ten years in a game of cat and mouse that only ended with a change of government last year. 

ACT lawyer, Bernard Collaery, has been appointed Honorary Legal Officer for the Australian Bravery Association, despite being charged by the former Liberal-Nationals federal government. Photo Eve Jeffery

Similarly, the media was critical to ending the secret prosecution of Bernard Collaery – a lawyer accused of breaching the federal Intelligence Services Act 2001. 

Mr Collaery helped his whistleblower client reveal embarrassing details about how Australia’s government, in 2004, spied on East Timor to gain a commercial advantage in sharing of Timor Sea oil and gas reserves. Think about it. 

Spying on one of the poorest countries in the world to steal economic advantage from them was said to be in our national interest. 

Revealing that shameful activity to an incredulous public was said to be against our national interests. It took nearly ten years for Collaery, aged 77, to be freed from persecution by his own government.  

Later on, a couple of Guardian journalists figured out, and revealed, the staggering truth about Robodebt. 

An ABC Four Corners story ‘Fox and the Big Lie’ revealed Murdoch media’s deliberate undermining of American democracy to protect Fox profits, bringing down right-wing icon, Tucker Carlson, in the process. And it was the media who discovered Scott Morrison’s multi-ministry scandal. 

It took a persistent, questioning media effort to reveal that a 95-year-old nursing home resident ‘injured during an interaction with police’ had, in fact, been tasered, as she slowly approached them in a walking frame. 

So much of this news is demoralising, and often calls into question our precious perceptions as to who we really are and what it means to be Australian.  

Sometimes these media reports are particularly hard, because they reveal things that politicians, governments, institutions and we, the people, do not want the truth to be. We wish it wasn’t true and so it falls to the media to force us to face it. To protect the truth, however unpleasant it proves to be.

This is never easy or simple – we are dismayed by the shattering of the mythology surrounding Ben Roberts-Smith. But we also need to remember the bravery of SAS soldiers who defended the truth and, in many ways, salvaged our honour as a nation. These men who stood by the gut-wrenching truth would rather run headlong towards Taliban bullets than talk to friendly journos. 

It is a lot to absorb when heroes become villains and villains turn out to be heroes. It is especially troubling that truth can take so long to emerge. 

As former US Secretary of State, Madelaine Albright, wrote: ‘The ability of a free and independent press to hold political leaders accountable is what makes open government possible – it is the heartbeat of democracy.’ 

♦ Catherine Cusack is a former NSW Liberal MLC.

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  1. That in its self is a legacy media trick. Equivocate their malinformation with free speech, then present some dodgy stories where they misled the public, so that if you point out the errors, they make it look like you are attacking free speech. This is the same media that periodically calls to shut down the speech of others, to protect propaganda. Case in point, Tucker Carlson was not fired, he was suspended, he is still an employee of Fox at his regular pay. This came about because he was attacking Blackrock’s subsiduaries, so Blackrock made an above market bid for shares on the proviso that Tucker be taken off the air. You will be pleased to know that Tucker’s new show had 101.5 million viewers.

  2. Notably, the author conveniently leaves out the atrocities of the main stream press and supposedly truth seeking leftist media outlests when it comes to their unquestioning push of the covid narrative and the censuring of dissent and more recently of the Ukraine war narrative and likewise, the censuring of dissenting views.
    The main stream media is all corporate owned media and many of the formerly independent news outlets are also now corpórate owned or oligarch patronised, including The Guardian, a newspaper I once revered but now wholly despise, a newspaper that turned on decent men such as Assange and Corbyn, heros whom you choose to completely ignore.
    The new push of the left to support news censorship on social media platforms and comment censorship online in general is very disturbing and will surely not end well for anyone who is not either priveleged with money or political power. The new industry of ‘misinformation” experts is even more disturbing for the future of our freedom and all of the so called ‘misinformation’ experts are like wise funded by corporations to control the narrative, not to pursue the facts.

  3. Well, that’s good as far as it goes – but what about the Media cheering-on one side in the Higgins case?
    The silence of left-wing journalists and ABC over the ‘NO’ referendum question?
    Just two (there are many more) of the current examples where the media was irresponsible, populist, dogmatic and ideological.
    So Catherine – your vaulted “free press” is a bit like Punch’s magazine’s ‘The Curate’s Egg’.
    Valuable to a democracy as the Media undoubtedly can be, it is in stark reality just as the cartoon Curate responded over enquiries on the eating quality of his egg – ‘Only good in parts’.


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