- Money Morning Australia

It’s About Freedom of Speech: What if We Couldn’t Write to You Anymore?

Written on 23 August 2012 by Kris Sayce

It’s About Freedom of Speech: What if We Couldn’t Write to You Anymore?

My old pal, Dan Denning, wrote a great article in yesterday’s Daily Reckoning on media regulation and freedom of speech. If you haven’t seen it you can click here to read it now.

In it, Dan takes a stab at an article by the federal MP for Bendigo, Steve Gibbons.

In short, Mr Gibbons says the press isn’t living up to the right standards.

Mr Gibbons writes:

‘But participatory democracy only works if the people are given sufficient, accurate information about an issue for them to make up their own minds what they think about it.’

That sounds innocent enough. But there are some real problems buried in his language. For a start, who judges what’s accurate? Who judges what’s sufficient? Who determines the difference between information and opinion?

These are complicated questions about editorial judgment. And they’re important questions, even for a financial newsletter…perhaps especially for a financial newsletter. So we’ll have more on this in a moment, including an error of judgement that would shame even the laziest journalist. But first…

Before we go on, a quick note on the market. We won’t spend too much time on it, because frankly, not much has changed.

But we’re sure you’ve noticed that gold took off like a rocket last night. It was on the back of comments in the minutes of the US Federal Reserve’s latest meeting:

‘Many members judged that additional monetary accommodation would likely be warranted fairly soon unless incoming information pointed to a substantial and sustainable strengthening in the pace of economic recovery.’

In other words, you can bet your house on the Fed either printing money or fiddling with interest rates…again.

Of course, we can’t give you a 100% guarantee that it will happen. All we can do is look at history and learn from what it teaches us. And what we’ve learnt is that politicians and central bankers love nothing more than manipulating economies and wreaking havoc…causing most harm to those they claim they’re trying to help.

This brings us back to where we began. Today we can write fairly freely about the bad things done by the bad people in power.

But unlike Americans, Australians don’t have a constitutional right to freedom of speech or freedom of expression.

That’s what makes Mr Gibbons’ comments troubling.

A Government Jackboot to the Face of the Free Press

In a free press, editors and journalists make decisions every day. But ultimately, it’s the consumers of the news who decide, based on what they read and what they buy, who’s doing the best job.

Mr Gibbons doesn’t appear to be happy with this consensual, voluntary state of affairs when it comes to information and ideas. It seems he believes the government should be the final referee of what’s published and broadcast.

If that isn’t a slap in the face for free speech, we don’t know what is. In fact, it’s more like a jackboot to the face.

To back up his argument, he says:

‘It’s no surprise, therefore, that Australian journalists are consistently ranked among the least honest and ethical professions in the annual Roy Morgan reputation survey.’

That may be true. Your editor certainly isn’t a fan of the Aussie mainstream media. We’ve often accused them of cosying up to vested interests, politicians and bureaucrats.

But in terms of honesty and ethics, Mr Gibbons probably should have checked the latest Roy Morgan Reputation Survey a little closer before he decided to put politicians in charge of journalists. The mistake he made is something even the laziest journalist would have picked up.

Any journalist worth their salt will always check their sources. And in many cases they won’t go ahead with a story until they have at least two confirmed sources. The mainstream media even employs folks to fact-check the journalists’ work, to make sure the journo isn’t just making stuff up.

But there’s another reason to check sources. To make sure someone can’t use the quote you’ve used against you. That’s not so much ethics as, well, common sense. For instance, you wouldn’t want to quote a source that turns out to say the opposite to what you claim.

That’s why we think Mr Gibbons should have made the effort to check out the latest Roy Morgan Reputation Survey. While it’s true that Australian journalists have a low honesty and ethics score, there are six professions with worse honesty and ethics scores (the lower the number, the less honest and ethical):

The Least Trusted Professions in Australia

The Least Trusted Professions in Australia

Have a close look at the chart. As you’ll see, the public thinks federal MPs are less honest and ethical than newspaper journalists.

What’s more, the public thinks pollies are only marginally more honest and ethical than real estate agents and advertising people!

Oh dear. Perhaps we should have a body that monitors and regulates MPs. Maybe we should fine, tar, and feather politicians when they make dishonest or unethical statements.

But it doesn’t seem to occur to Mr Gibbons that someone could turn his comments against him. He thunders on obliviously:

‘I also suggest that the vast majority of the public are thoroughly fed-up with so-called political commentary that degenerates into vicious and hurtful personal attacks. Commercial radio shock-jocks are notable offenders in this area.’

‘Suggest’ must be a scientific term for, ‘I’m going to speak on behalf of the Australian public in order to make the point I want, without any other proof.’

Yet according to the Roy Morgan numbers, it seems that most people don’t agree with Mr Gibbons. According to the survey, ‘talk-back radio announcers’ score much higher than federal MPs, at 17.

As you know, we don’t normally comment on political matters. It makes us feel dirty. And besides, this is an investing newsletter, not a political newsletter. But in this case we feel it’s important to make sure you’re aware of what’s happening.

If the federal government ploughs ahead with the Finkelstein Review’s recommendations, it could have a serious impact on what and how we write to you.

It could mean that if someone takes offence or disagrees with something we write, they could report Money Morning to the new government-appointed panel, where the onus would be on us to show that we’re not guilty.

In other words, guilty until proven innocent.

The Chilling Threat to Freedom of Speech

This would certainly have a chilling effect on the publication of ideas that challenge conventional thinking. And if we happen to offend someone – say a vested interest – the government gets to determine the rightness of our ideas, rather than the consumer of those ideas.

The freedom of speech to discuss ideas openly, even when they offend or upset the sensibilities of other people, is the bedrock of an open society. If the government proceeds with the recommendations in the Finkelstein Review, it could lead to less diversity in the ideas you read online every day.

Can you imagine a world where a government-appointed body gets to sit in judgement on our forecasts, opinions, and ideas about Australia’s investment future?

Will we still be able to predict the collapse of the fiat money system, highlight the fragility of the banking system, and warn you about the latest investment bubble?

The trouble is, you have no idea how an unelected board will behave once it’s in power. And by then, it’s too late to object. If asked, it’s difficult to prove that our ideas are right. We can’t prove that a bubble will burst until it bursts. And we can’t prove the dangers of fiat money and fragile banking systems until both have collapsed.

All we can do is use logic and the experiences of history to argue our point. But that may not be enough to satisfy a government-appointed body.

If you think we’re exaggerating the threat or making sweeping generalisations about a little sensible regulation, then please read the next line closely. When governments start fearing the press and free speech you know that things are heading in one direction – towards tyranny.

It’s not the obligation of free people to prove they can use freedom responsibly. Freedom of speech is a natural right. Once you concede that there is a role for unelected bureaucrats to determine what people can and can’t say or publish in Australia, you’ve ceased to be a free person.

As John Basil Barnhill wrote, in 1914:

‘Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty.’

At the moment, as far as media freedom goes, the government fears the people. It fears that the people or the press may say things the government doesn’t like.

That’s good. It shows there still is at least a small amount of liberty in Australia.

Stop Government Violence

But if the government adopts the Finkelstein Review, the opposite will be true. The people will fear the government, and that means adding freedom of speech to the victim list of government tyrannies.

People fear getting their tax return wrong…they fear not voting…they fear not taking out private health insurance…they fear driving after drinking alcohol. Get on the wrong side of the government and you can easily find yourself locked up in jail.

Government by its very nature is a violent construct.

And soon enough, if the government adopts the Finkelstein Review, if you write something the government doesn’t like – even on a personal blog – the government could fine you and send you to jail too.

Bottom line: tyranny is upon you unless you can stop it.

The threat from seemingly benign and bumbling ideas like those put forward by Mr Gibbons deserve to be taken seriously, and then treated with scorn and disdain. If you don’t take them seriously, and you don’t speak up now, it will be too late to say anything later.


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Kris Sayce
Kris is never one to pull punches when discussing market developments and economic events that can affect your wealth. He’ll take anyone to task — banks, governments, big business — if he thinks they’re trying to pull a fast one with your money. Kris is also the investment director for Australian Small-Cap Investigator, Diggers and Drillers and Revolutionary Tech Investor. If you’d like to more about Kris’ financial world view and investing philosophy then join him on Google+. It's where he shares investment insight, commentary and ideas that he can't always fit into his regular Money Morning essays. Read more about Publisher and Investment Director Kris Sayce.

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