Latham’s unhinged rant against free speech

If ever there were any doubts that failed Labor leader Mark Latham  has lost the plot they were dispelled by his recent diatribe over the collapse of the Gillard Government’s media censorship legislation.

Drawing  a long bow from the armchair comfort of the still left-leaning Australian Financial Review, Latham claimed Parliament had a duty to pass this legislation because of failings, both in ethics and performance, by the Canberra press gallery. This was so far off the mark that it was downright ridiculous.

This is not to say there are no shortcoming in the gallery, but not everyone is as perfect as Latham or as accurate in their political crystal-ball gazing. Latham does, in fact, touch on a sensitive issue, but he blurs the point with political bile.

I don’t have a problem with his assertion that media commentators  of one kind or another should declare their past  associations. But Latham is too busy trying to rubbish anyone with a News Ltd connection to convincingly pursue this argument. Among others he lashes are former Abbott staffer Peter van Onselen, and ex-staffer with Alexander Downer and Malcolm Turnbull, Chris Kenny, both of whom are these days columnists for The Ausralian.

If there is an issue here it stretches across the entire political and media  landscape, where there is no shortage of former ALP staffers engaged in political commentary. True, Latham does spay some bile at former Labor Senator Graham Richardson, but one suspects this is motivated by the former minister’s association with News Ltd as a columnist and as a SKY News commentator.

Latham then takes this fixation to extremes by claiming that the failure of selectively chosen News Ltd commentators to meet his idiosyncratic standards reveals a breakdown of media self-regulation. From there he uses this conclusion as a platform for an extraordinary defence of media censorship, dismissing the recent exit of several front-bench Labor ministers, among others, as secondary to Parliament’s failure to pass  legislation enshrining the interventionist role of a public-interest media advocate, the mooted Public Interest Media Advocate. The reality is that this ill-considered and politically driven legislation, which effectively tried to nail News Ltd to the cross of the UK phone-hacking scandal, fully deserved to fail.

If anything it is the Gillard government which should be called to account, especially for its shambolic policy making in dressing up naked self-interest as public interest. Latham might have had some sort of defensible argument  had he claimed that the press gallery underestimated the impact this restrictive legislation would have had on the professional integrity of its members.

Why, for example, did no journalist or gallery representative appear before the, albeit brief, Senate committee inquiry into this legislation? This left the clear impression that it was a battle between high-powered media executives and the government, which is exactly the perception Labor wanted to advance.

The gallery’s reluctance to enter the fray on behalf of unfettered free speech is both puzzling and deeply troubling, considering that Labor was effectively trying to define "material fit to print", while imposing  its peculiar definition of “fairness” along the way.

In other words, had the legislation got up,  journalists would have had to comply with what government considered to be fair — a frightening power in any society.
Regardless of Latham’s protestations, the PIMA legislation ended up where it belonged: in the dusrbin of political history, where it will soon be joined by the discredited  government that created it.

Nevertheless, the episode should not be forgotten because it was a scary demonstration of what Labor really wants — power over a non-compliant free press.

Veteran journalist Malcolm Colless is a keen media watcher and regular contributor to Quadrant Online


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