September 29, 2018
The long and winding road to media freedom
COMMENT | There’s a political storm raging right now in Australia about suspected government-instigated interference in the independence of one of this nation’s most cherished institutions, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
This comes at a time when levels of public trust in politicians, political parties and corporate pressure-groups and media power-brokers are at all-time lows.
Even the major banks and other financial organisations, whose very existence depends on trust, have been exposed by a royal commission into their activities that Australia’s ruling coalition for years fiercely denied the need for, as systematically dishonest to the point of criminality in many of their dealings with customers.
And far too many of Australia’s commercial news media are controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s (photo) News Corp, often more accurately referred to as News Corpse.
This is an organisation that so confuses media freedom with media feraldom as to have disgraced itself several years ago in the UK phone-hacking scandal that led to its closure of its dreadful News Of the World, but not, unfortunately, its equally sordid Sun – or, if you prefer, the Shun – and continues to disgrace itself today with its Fox News in the US.
In Australia, it peddles such right-wing-partisan apologies for “newspapers” as The Australian, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, all of which pander to their proprietor’s personal, commercial and political interests by shamelessly slanting their news to fit his views.
And into this very bad bargain, the Murdoch media in the UK constantly campaign against publicly-owned media like the BBC in the UK and the ABC in Australia on the dubious, self-interested grounds of “unfair competition” for print readers, air-media viewers and internet “eyeballs”.
Australia’s government has been responding to this campaign by slashing the ABC’s budget whenever possible, and constantly making complaints about what they choose to perceive as its left-wing bias.
As a result, the ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie was recently fired by the corporation’s board of directors for reasons that the chairman of the board Justin Milne refused to publicly disclose.
And now the chairman himself has been asked by the rest of his board to resign following claims that he had bowed to pressure from Australia’s recently-replaced prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (photo) to propose the sacking of two senior ABC journalists that Turnbull “hated”.
Or at least that’s the plot so far in outline, and anybody interested in exploring it in more detail or following it further would be well advised to do so here.
Meanwhile, this sordid affair should serve as a salutary reminder to citizens of Australia and many other countries never to take their relatively free news media for granted.
And as a timely reminder to Malaysians that the media freedom that most, if not all, of them have dreamed of for so long will not be won quickly or easily.
Lapdogs, not watchdogs
As the much-admired elder statesman Lim Kit Siang said last week in his speech to a large audience assembled by the Sydney branch of Global Bersih, Malaysia now has the chance to transform itself from a kleptocratic black hole to a beacon of enlightenment, probity and progress, but this achievement may take years if not decades.
And I would add that it will never happen without genuinely free, independent and unbiased news media to serve as the people’s watchdogs over whatever government is in power, and also over every other aspect of the nation’s economic, civic and social activities.
The first steps in this direction have already been taken, of course, by Malaysiakini, Sarawak Report and several other pioneering portals dedicated to the dissemination of respectable, responsible and above all, independent news and opinion.
But for 20 years now, they’ve been the tiny exception to the rule imposed on the majority of Malaysia’s so-called “mainstream” media which have served not as watchdogs for the people but as lapdogs for the repressive, corrupt and otherwise criminal and now mercifully defunct UMNO-BN regime.
This is largely due to such unconstitutional laws as the Printing, Presses and Publications Act, the far-too-widely-applied Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act and the Anti-Fake News Act.
So firstly, if Lim Kit Siang’s version of what I presume to be Pakatan Harapan’s vision for Malaysia is to be eventually realised, all of UMNO-BN’s anti-press freedom laws must be repealed.
Next, or even simultaneously, legislation has to be enacted forbidding political parties or their backers from ownership of news media, and requiring political parties’ shares in existing ones to be immediately surrendered or sold.
But changing truth- and independence-repressive media laws might be one thing, and changing media culture quite another, given that the managers, editors and so-called “journalists” of the mainstream media have been so long and apparently so happily serving as pet propagandists for filthy rich politicians and their cronies.
Anybody who imagines that many or even the majority of these panderers will change their spots beyond switching their craven allegiances to those they see as the new or latest people in power must be dreaming.
As must anyone who fancies that a great many of these ‘presstitutes’ will in future refuse to take bribes for suppressing or playing up stories, depending on who’s the highest bidder for their services.
But this poses the question of how to quickly replace these people, or re-educate enough of them in everything from the ABC to the XYZ of basic news reporting, let alone such advanced versions of the profession as investigative journalism.
DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practices as a writing therapist. Published compilations of his Malaysiakini columns include “Mad about Malaysia”, “Even Madder about Malaysia”, “Missing Malaysia”, “1Malaysia.con” and “Malaysia Mania”.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.