Brandis free speech fudge: @MediaActive reviews the @albericie interview

ABC Lateline Interview May 7, 2013

Media regulation reform was never going to be easy in Australia. As it turned out, the legislation proposed by the Labor government foundered midst roiling misinformation and hyperbolic claims of draconian state intrusion into media freedoms.

It was also not helped by the ham-fisted presentation, timing and advocacy by the minister responsible for its passage through the parliament, Senator Stephen Conroy.

The irony of a news media reporting with dubious accuracy and fairness on the details of both the Finklestein Independent Media Inquiry and The Convergence Review processes and outcomes was lost on most but not all citizens and informed observers.

Professor Matthew Ricketson of Canberra University, who assisted Finklestein during the Inquiry, vented some of his frustration at the overall quality, orientation and accuracy of the media coverage and analysis around the process and ideas for reform explored by the Finklestein inquiry in an address to the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

Ricketson suggested in that speech that the best case study for the need for media reform in Australia was the news media reporting of the Inquiry itself: “What they have done in my view is to under-report a lot of what was presented to the Independent Media Inquiry late last year and to either mis-report the Inquiry’s findings or to ignore large parts of the report altogether”.

Those of us who have followed the Finklestein Inquiry, read the diverse submissions, the final report and the surrounding, often borderline hysterical, media coverage cannot help but have some sympathy for Ricketson’s view even allowing for his immersion in the inquiry process and his detailed contributions to its findings.

Perhaps the overall news media antipathy to the Inquiry itself and its recommendations were encapsulated best by the somewhat arch comments from the CEO of Fairfax, Greg Hywood, appearing in person before the Finklestein Inquiry. He asked in effect, “What’s the problem? Why are we here?”

He was not alone in that view. The coverage and advocacy journalism of the News Limited media was strident and tipping into polemical over-kill especially via its CEO Kim Williams. Sober analysis and balanced coverage were but a pipe dream.

In the UK, the equivalent struggle around the Leveson Inquiry’s findings and recommendations continue. There, the hacking scandals at the News of the World and elsewhere drove the sentiment, rhetoric and forensic character of that inquiry. Here in Australia, Finklestein was oriented more towards the transformations of the digital revolution albeit clearly within the ripple effect of the hacking scandals in the UK and Leveson.

Before Finklestein started his hearings, The Convergence Review was already doing its work and had issued an interim report. Finklestein’s eventual findings and recommendations were effectively folded into their processes as the government (at a snail’s pace) forged its legislation aimed at effecting some media regulation reform across a range of pressing issues including the growing anomaly of regulating the printed news media in one (to many deeply unsatisfactory) way compared to the regulation of analogue and digital broadcasting and online digital media.

Now, in the “phony war” phase of the lead up to a federal election in September 2013, the failure of that legislation and the apparent junking of much of the extensive research and analytical work by Finklestein and The Convergence Review are, of course, inevitably part of a campaign of intense political point scoring.

George Brandis, a senator for Queensland, shadow Attorney-General and opposition spokesperson for the arts, did his bit for the Opposition recently when he addressed the Sydney Institute on 8 May in a lecture titled, The Freedom Wars

Brandis didn’t keep his address and its attack on the Labor government low-key. He made sure it received plenty of attention via “friendly” media outlets and personalities and some less uncritical of his claims. Emma Alberici, co-anchor of Lateline on ABC1 gave Brandis fifteen minutes of close questioning focused on his claim that the media reforms, embodied in the failed Labor legislation, werethe worst attack on press freedom in Australia in nearly 200 years”.

Alberici is a highly experienced journalist with specialist business reporting and time as an ABC European correspondent on her CV.

What she confronted here was a difficult interview with Brandis “on a clear mission” to advance and publicise his polemical statements and with an established reputation for slippery obfuscation and avoidance of an authentic intellectual exchange.

This interview analysis examines the challenges of pressing Brandis to clarify and justify his assertions and Alberici’s interview techniques and style.

Just a couple of notes before we work our way through the Lateline transcript:

  1. The interview was a pre-record but Brandis was in the studio with Alberici – a face-to-face encounter. The two had direct eye contact.
  2. It was a narrow beam interview largely around a single topic but running for fifteen minutes, a reasonable balance between the density and complexity of the topic and the duration
  3. Alberici was earlier in her career in London as an ABC foreign correspondent and reported on the hacking scandals and the Leveson inquiry.
  4. Alberici has engaged vigorously on the details  and underlying values of the Australian media reform processes and proposed legislation especially via Twitter.

This exchange with The Australian’s advocacy journalist, Chris Kenny, may give you a flavour of her approach to this area and the rigour or otherwise of her thinking and analysis as a journalist.

The Interview

After her succinct set-up that briskly frames the discussion for an audience not familiar with the details of the Brandis Sydney Institute address, Alberici goes immediately to the substance of the Brandis assertions: the timeframe (“since 1825”) and the character (“overt interference”).

She then uses a “how” interrogative that usually investigates process but here implicitly asks the interviewee to reveal underlying thinking and calls for some measure of justification for his claims or assertions.

Could the question have been tougher and more specific? Possibly. It is the opening gambit in an accountability interview. Effectively Alberici is starting the contest by asking Brandis for both some “evidence” to support and justify his broad ideological assertions and some logical exposition.

This is an exchange about contested values and perspectives. Therein lies the difficulty for Alberici.

EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: The Shadow Attorney General George Brandis has tonight delivered a swingeing attack on the Gillard Government for what he calls a war on free speech. In an address to the Sydney Institute, Senator Brandis said the Government’s proposed media reforms were the worst attack on press freedom in Australia in nearly 200 years. He went on to say that under the Labor Government victimhood had become the basis of a new kind of privilege and that showing respect to its special status had become a more important value than the freedom to call that status into question. George Brandis claims that the Coalition has been the only party which has stood steadfastly on the side of freedom. He joined me here in the studio a short time ago. Senator Brandis, welcome to Lateline.


EMMA ALBERICI: You assert in your speech that the Government’s media reforms, which they recently abandoned, represented the most overt interference by an Australian Government with the freedom of the press since 1825. How have you reached that conclusion?

Brandis responds not to Alberici’s “how” question but answers as if she had asked a “what” question. He homes in on the “public interest media advocate” and asserts it was that proposed role that posed the danger to media freedoms and uses rhetoric such as “foist” to amplify his line that this was the state striding in with mechanisms to directly control news media outputs.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, this was the public interest media advocate that Senator Conroy wanted to foist on us, was in fact the first measure, at least in peace time, that had been undertaken in this country which could have had the consequence of a government official telling newspapers and media outlets what they were at liberty to say and what they were not at liberty to say in their media. Now that hasn’t happened before.

Alberici quickly challenges the thrust of Brandis’ logic citing the actuality of the proposed legislation. Of course, she is at a disadvantage here. The audience, almost to a person, would not have read the detail of the legislative package. She has tricky choices to make in calling Brandis to logically justify his rhetoric. She apparently decides to challenge the shadow minister, a barrister by training and profession, with a legalistic “correction” presumably in the hope he would sense her detailed knowledge and either tread more warily or strengthen his justifications.

EMMA ALBERICI: The legislation didn’t say that.

Brandis chooses a very weak conditional and qualified form of reply.

GEORGE BRANDIS: The public interest media advocate’s determinations could have had that consequence.

This is an interesting moment. The word “could” seems to be begging for investigation. It implies “boundaries” and “possibilities”.

“You say ‘could have had’, Senator. Give us some examples where you imagine that scenario unfolding? Where an “independent” advocate could intrude on established media freedoms?”

That style of question, directly addressing the language of his response would have been more forensic and pressed him to immediately lay out a process that might justify his “problem” with the legislation and the role of the advocate.

But Alberici chooses to go to a general over-arching question that comes from a different direction. She seems to be trying to maneuver Brandis to compare the “censorship” possibilities inherent in the powers of ACMA (The Australian Media and Communication Authority), an independent statutary body responsible for regulating the broadcast media in Australia, with the role and “censorship” powers of the proposed public interest advocate in relation to printed news media.

EMMA ALBERICI: Do you believe the electronic media in Australia is facing government censorship?

Brandis seizes this opportunity to increase his rhetorical content around “freedom of speech”. He acknowledges Alberici’s point in a very general way. But Brandis now attempts to use the notion of a “public resource” to define the key difference between regulating the printed news media and electronic and digital media. He doesn’t explain that or its implications further.

GEORGE BRANDIS: I think that the withdrawal of the media regulation package that Senator Conroy was so wedded to was a great victory for freedom of speech. I’m aware, of course, that there are different issues between newspapers and the electronic media because the electronic media obviously use a public resource in a way that newspapers and magazines don’t. But nevertheless, I think a common philosophical principle strongly in defence of freedom of speech and freedom of the press unites them both.

Alberici challenges Brandis’ underlying thinking here. However, maybe her actual question form doesn’t carry the forensic punch it might have. Should she have made it much more specific to the Brandis response? And more direct, less general?

Her challenge here was to gather up, in a question, quite a web of facts and media history especially around the progress so far and the projected future of the digital revolution as it affects the news media.

Brandis has already given “his reason”. But even if Alberici chooses to pursue the logic of the Brandis assertion, maybe the form:

“Senator, you argue a fundamental difference between the traditional printed news media and electronic and digital media, claiming broadcast media uses a “public resource”. Explain how, in your mind, that is relevant to regulating them differently?”

EMMA ALBERICI: Is there any reason though why broadcast media should be regulated in a way that the press is not?

Brandis appears to start a reply in one way then changes his mind and simply re-asserts his putative reason without further explanation. The Alberici question form allows him full freedom to do so.

He talks of “spectrum”, a very general description that logically involves broadcast media but, as digital technologies evolve, a wider number of platforms and media forms into the future. But he appears to mean “broadcast” as we know it now.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, I’ll – because as I said a moment ago, spectrum is a public resource.

The interviewer obviously perceives her difficulty in disentangling the logic of the Brandis assertions and attempts to separate his “public resource” argument out for the moment with her “putting aside” technique.

EMMA ALBERICI: But that aside.

Brandis starts to demur.


Alberici rides over that and attempts to bring Brandis back to some bedrock logic and a statement of his over-arching values around media regulation.

EMMA ALBERICI: That aside in principle do you think they should be regulated differently?

Here Brandis offers a handhold with his “principal functional difference” claim. It cries out for challenge and examination and his explication (if one emerges) related back to media regulation.

GEORGE BRANDIS: I don’t think it’s possible to just say – put that aside because that I think is the principle functional difference between the two.

However, Alberici doesn’t challenge or examine that phrase – “principle functional difference between the two”. She jumps to one of the other “elephants in the room” in any discussion on media regulation’ in the evolving digital era: social media.

EMMA ALBERICI: Well social media, for instance, is not regulated at all?

Brandis clings to his “public resource” (spectrum) line. Logically this appears to ignore the far greater complexity of converging media forms and platforms and the technological and practical inter-meshing of all the traditional forms of media (printed and electronic) with the cross-breeding digital media forms and genres. Much of this digital information is of course shuttled around via “wireless”.

GEORGE BRANDIS: That’s right, but it doesn’t use the same public resources as the electronic media do.

The interviewer engages the “thin” Brandis logic and challenges succinctly

EMMA ALBERICI: Is the Internet not a public resource?

At last, Alberici has a “pay-off” moment. Brandis backs off significantly. He defers and refers to Malcolm Turnbull, the shadow minister directly responsible for the area.

Then he asserts it is a “philosophical” argument he is advancing. He seems to be struggling a little at this point. Perhaps he senses that Alberici is pursuing a logical, fact-based enquiry as opposed to his more general polemical assertions. He uses very wooly phrasing and loose language now including, “a growing number of Australians” (no evidence) and an even more circumlocutory, “there is an instinct on the part of the Government to diminish the centrality of the freedom of speech which includes the freedom of the press …”

He then revises his time-frame from 1825 to “his lifetime”.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, it’s a good question that I’m sure my colleague, Malcolm Turnbull, the Shadow Minister for Communications would be very eloquent on. But what I address in the speech that I gave to the Sydney Institute tonight is a philosophical issue and that is to call public attention to the concern that I have and that I think a growing number of Australians have, that there are, that there is a, an instinct on the part of this Government to diminish the centrality of belief of freedom of speech, which includes the freedom of the press, in Australian politics in a way I haven’t seen before in my life.

A quick “score card” at this stage of the interview?

Brandis has made very little headway beyond his original assertion so far. In fact he appears to have stepped back slightly and could not adequately explain his (key?) points invoking the “eloquence” of his colleague, Turnbull, instead.

Alberici is shaping the progress and logic of the interview well, so far, with a consistent intellectual pressure on Brandis.

Now, Emma Alberici chooses to engage Brandis on a very broad political philosophical point, to some extent matching his mode of discourse.

EMMA ALBERICI: But in a democratic society freedom can’t be absolute?

The Senator accepts Alberici’s basic point but then expends a lot of wordage and cites other areas of “concern” in terms of “freedoms” and the Labor “disposition” to abridge them.

He offers nothing beyond this in the way of evidence or logical argument. Or even a clarification of his underlying philosophical points.

His strongest point for a general audience is probably by mentioning the “offensive” element in a proposed Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Act.

GEORGE BRANDIS: No, and I don’t think anybody disputes that freedom can’t be absolute. But I tell you if there is one species of freedom which ought to be as little qualified as possible, it’s intellectual freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. You see, as a Liberal I put that right up at the top of the philosophical priorities that make a decent and well ordered society and I’m afraid this Government has quite a different disposition and the fact that we had not just the attempt to regulate the media. We also had this hare-brained Human Rights and Anti Discrimination Act which would have made it against the law to express political opinions merely because they were offensive or insulting in the eyes of some people. The fact that we even had brought to the parliament by Mr Crean on his last day, literally, as the Arts Minister, amendments to the Australia Council legislation which would have taken freedom of artistic expression out of the core objectives or purposes of the Australia Council, that expression in cultural policy of the same phenomenon which was the purpose of my speech to call attention to.

Alberici jumps again to another aspect of his Sydney Institute address, journalists’ focus on “shield laws” and his “surprise” about that.

Apparently she has made an interviewer’s judgment to move on and shift angle.

Notice the use of the more specific and forensic use of “what”. It is asking Brandis to explain. Perhaps the addition of the oft used modifier in interviews, “specifically” may have sharpened the effect?

EMMA ALBERICI: Now you say you’re surprised that media shield laws are the number one concern of journalists right now. What surprises you about that?

I leave you to judge the Brandis response but I suggest it is a long answer about very little and circular in its logic.

GEORGE BRANDIS: I tell you the point I made. I talked about the press freedom dinner that I attended along with Mr Turnbull on Friday night. There were no Labor politicians there, by the way, but Mr Turnbull and I were there on behalf of the Opposition. It is barely a month since the Government abandoned what I claim, I think fairly, to be potentially the most invasive interference with press freedom in Australian history since before the Commonwealth of Australia began, since 1825. If you’re going to have a dinner devoted to press freedom, I would have thought that would be the big issue on the table. It was mentioned, it was averted to by some but the entire evening was about journalists, largely about journalist shield laws. I have no problem with journalist shield laws. In fact the Commonwealth journalist shield laws, as they exist in their current form, were introduced into the parliament not by the Government but by me as a private senator’s bill which the Government then adopted. So there is no greater friend of journalist shield laws than me but it seemed when I attended this occasion, when there’s just been this wonderful political victory won against regulation of the media that would have been at the top of everyone’s mind.

The interviewer recognizes an optimal moment to raise the pressure on Brandis. She deftly proposes some antidotes to the Brandis “logic” so far.

It is a relatively long statement compared to her technique up until now but this juncture demands it? There is no actual question to add a stronger enquiry which is a shame.

EMMA ALBERICI: I think part of the reason perhaps why it wasn’t the top of everyone’s mind is that the jury is out about just how damaging and draconian those media reforms actually were and in fact the criticism was coming mainly from commercial press bosses and from the Opposition. The people who drafted, for instance, the original Finkelstein report, including Ray Finkelstein himself certainly didn’t suggest some kind of government censorship of the press.

Brandis attempts to divert from Alberici’s points. He alludes to an “alarming” aspect of the Finklestein report that most of the audience will not have read so we have to take his word for the accuracy and interpretation of the citation.

He then characterises the media coverage and opposition claims as “debate”. He neatly simplifies the various objections to elements in the Labor legislation as being primarily about his claims during this interview and at the Sydney Institute.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well I’ve read Mr Finkelstein’s report and there are parts of Mr Finkelstein’s report, particularly the philosophical chapter, the second chapter of the report which I find alarming. Mr Finkelstein speaks of the new intellectual climate of the 20th century which plays less emphasis to traditional classical liberal rights of freedom of speech and expression. I think that was a terrible point of departure for the Finkelstein report. But let me challenge your thesis Emma, that the jury is still out. I think the jury came back when the Government dropped the legislation. We were having a debate about how draconian it was. You’ve heard me say what my view is and that was the Opposition’s view. It was ultimately the view of the Independents and the Government has dropped this and I don’t see it coming back and I’m glad it won’t.

Alberici presses home the logical point about shield laws and their nexus with “freedom of speech and the media”.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now, the court battle between billionaire miner Gina Rinehart and two of the country’s leading journalists, the media union labels that dispute as you made reference to over the media dinner, they say it’s the greatest threat to free speech facing Australia. Now, how do you prevent this situation where journalists face the prospect of going to jail for not revealing their sources?

Brandis doesn’t choose to contest the basic point.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well as I said to you before, Emma. I’m a supporter of shield laws. In fact I’m the author of the Commonwealth’s shield laws.

The interviewer pushes harder.

EMMA ALBERICI: They’ve clearly not worked in this situation.

Brandis again attempts to make it a party political point.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Even though we did it from Opposition and we shamed the Labor Party into adopting them. So I’m entirely…

Alberici picks him up on the looseness and perhaps over-reach of his claims.

EMMA ALBERICI: You didn’t introduce them in your term of government, let’s be fair.

For almost the first time in this interview, Brandis is very clear and unequivocal.  It seems the Alberici choice to weave in shield laws as deeply relevant to any discussion around news media freedom is paying off.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well I introduced them in the Senate, the Government adopted them so let’s give credit where it’s due. I’m entirely on the journalists’ side in relation to Gina Rinehart. I said at the time I introduced the legislation and I strongly believe that the relationship between journalists and sources ought to be regarded by the law as among those categories of confidential relationships which the law protects.

Even though we are drifting slightly away from the central theme of this interview, Alberici seeks an assurance that a coalition government would remedy the current inconsistency of shield laws across state boundaries.

EMMA ALBERICI: Can you commit a Coalition Government to introducing legislation that would somehow provide some sort of consistency throughout the country with regard to shield laws?

Brandis seems to deny there is a further “leadership” role for the federal government in engineering nationally consistent shield laws. He also ducks the legalistic possibilities despite the fact he is the putative next Attorney-General.

In logical terms, this is a kind of own goal for Brandis. It tends to reveal his avowed deep support for “freedom” of the news media (the whole thrust of his attack on Labor’s media regulation reforms) is not allied to any reforming zeal in a fundamentally related area of media law.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well I think we’ve done our bit. We have written shield laws which apply to the Commonwealth, within the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction but of course most of these cases are heard in State and Territory Supreme Courts or other State and Territory courts which are governed by State laws. Now I can see a perfectly good argument for there being consistency among the various jurisdictions but that’s up to those jurisdictions.

Alberici seeks clarification around the legal possibilities of federal reform of journalistic shield laws. I don’t know whether she was fishing or had something more legally specific in mind but she kept the question soft and general rather than more challenging and specific.

EMMA ALBERICI: There’s no way for a Federal Government to bring in some sort of uniformity?

Brandis continues his reluctance to envisage an active program of reform of the shield laws from the federal sphere.

In logical terms, it is a diminishing of his overall argument. And reveals him as “timid” when it comes to seeking practical means as Attorney-General, if in government, to advance his claimed passions for media freedoms.

It is no dramatic “gotcha’ moment but the interviewer has quietly achieved this important insight for her audience.

GEORGE BRANDIS: No, I don’t think that the Commonwealth could, in the exercise of its legislative power, overturn State shield laws. That’s not to say, as an exercise in cooperative federalism there couldn’t be some move towards uniformity. As I said in answer to your earlier question, that seems to me in principle to be a desirable thing.

It is a good moment for Alberici, with Brandis slightly on the back foot, to challenge his logic with a more powerful point derived from her background knowledge and research: the record of the Howard government in their approach to “freedom of speech”. Remember Brandis has been vaunting the superiority of the Liberal approach to these issues compared to Labor’s.

I do wonder why Alberici did not choose (again) to actually craft a question to go with her challenging statement. It would have been stronger and more effective surely? Just statements by their nature are easier for a political interviewee to handle. Here the question is implicit but able to be interpreted by Brandis according to his own aims.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now the theme of your speech is summed up in one of the opening lines where you say in your view this Government is engaged in a multi front war against the traditional Liberal conception of freedom of speech. Now that same criticism was often levelled at John Howard’s Government, specifically, for instance, over the Coalition’s attempt s to prevent charities, for instance, from criticising the government with gagging orders?

Brandis attempts to transform the issue into “governance” of charitable entities and peoples “expectations” around the funds they donate.

He denies the point raised as about freedom of speech at all even labelling it “bogus” with no further justification despite logic to the contrary.

GEORGE BRANDIS: I think that’s an entirely different issue. When people give money to charities they expect – that was an issue of corporate governance, in effect, the corporate governance of charities. When people give money to charities they are entitled to expect the charities to spend that money on the purposes for which the money is donated, not on political causes. So I think it is bogus to regard that as a freedom of speech issue. Look at the real assaults on freedom of speech we’ve had. We’ve talked at length

The interviewer cuts in to challenge the Brandis dismissal and raises the heat slightly by the use of the word “muzzling”.

EMMA ALBERICI: Can I just go back to this point because John Howard actually threatened to remove the tax free status of charities and church groups who lobbied for a change of laws, who criticised the Government. This is not about how they spend their money, this was specifically aimed, many called it muzzling the charities and church groups?

Brandis pushes back slightly and re-asserts.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Emma, it’s an entirely different issue. If you want to quote to me the very words that Mr Howard used that you’ve paraphrased then I will comment on them but I know what the Howard Government’s position was and I think it was the right position. It was a corporate governance issue. You cannot go into the public arena as a charity, ask people to donate money to your charity and then spend it on a purpose other than the purpose for which it was given.

Alberici presses the point.

EMMA ALBERICI: As I understood this was around the time of the CES going to the job network situation where church groups and charities were taking over some of that work and as I understand it this was the Government saying to those charities we’ll give you these contracts, this money on the proviso that you don’t criticise us in return.

Brandis seems uncomfortable with this challenge to his logic and attempts to bat it away claiming neither he nor the interviewer has sufficient knowledge to discuss it meaningfully. A very weak response?

GEORGE BRANDIS: That might be your understanding but I don’t want to deal with – talk about a particular instance on which neither you nor I are specifically informed.

Alberici counters logically and with another challenge.

EMMA ALBERICI: You were in the Government.

Somehow this line of questioning seems to discombobulate the senator. This next response and statement is plainly lopsided and bears no scrutiny. He even attempts a re-minted narrow definition of “freedom of speech” to suit this immediate occasion. His language becomes ragged and loses clear meaning .

GEORGE BRANDIS: But let me just make this point. Freedom of speech is about the right of people to express their opinions about the right of newspapers and the media to carry the expression of opinions to participate in an unfitted way in the democratic debate. It’s not an issue about corporate governance which the charities issue was an issue concerning.

Alberici pursues and drives home her point including the 1825 claim.

EMMA ALBERICI: Because I’m specifically interested, obviously your speech talks about this Government attacking freedoms in a way that hasn’t been since 1825.

Brandis seems to back off that claim and to stick to “my life”.

GEORGE BRANDIS: I have not seen it in my life!

Now the interviewer strays slightly by citing the Howard terror laws. She uses the language “basic freedoms”.

It seems to me there were other examples closer to the logical line of the argument underway than this for-instance.

EMMA ALBERICI: Other instances where it seems that the same point could be argued. For instance, let me give you another one, the Howard Government’s terror laws were also considered an attack on basic freedoms. Suspects held for 48 hours without charge, without being given any reason at all. Control orders for up to 12 months and the proposition that people be jailed for simply promoting feelings of ill will.

Brandis is able to convert “freedom of speech” in Alberici’s example into a question of “civil liberties” a wider category and to assert the “liberties” under question were not specifically freedom of speech issues..

GEORGE BRANDIS: Alright, let me say two things about that. First of all, those laws were criticised not as an attack on freedom of speech but an attack on other civil liberties. So, you know, my argument is specifically about freedom of speech. It’s not a general argument about civil liberty. It’s an argument about what I regard as the most important among the civil liberties and that is freedom of speech. Secondly, as a result of the intervention and the negotiation at that time between people who are then on the government backbench, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, Senator Maurice Payne, Petro Georgiou, me, the original proposals were hedged with very significant safeguards. Thirdly, the alarmist rhetoric that we heard from people on the left of politics that this was legislation that would destroy our civil liberties has not been realised in the event. There have been hardly any control orders, there have been no preventative detention orders in all the years since.

Finally, I assume Alberici found the claim in the Brandis address to the Sydney Institute that Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen were the primary journalistic defenders of Freedom of speech a little hard to ignore.

As a final question, this was a complex one. Doubtless it was galling to Alberici and her colleagues to be “marginalized” rhetorically by Brandis this way. But perhaps the question could have been much more pointed and challenging?

Any generalities give a very partisan player such as Brandis the easy opportunity to bend the logic and actualities.

EMMA ALBERICI: And let’s finally discuss one more thing I’ll point out from your speech, you say defending freedom of speech today has been left down to conservative commentators Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen. I put to you that all of us in the media are across the spectrum defenders of freedom of speech.

And that is exactly what Brandis now does.

He wanted “more outrage”? Beyond the almost united antipathy of the News Limited media whose editorial line he is now parroting? It is such a plainly silly line that denies patent reality and very recent history. What are these “certain circumstances” that echo his assertions very early on in this interview?

Perhaps if there is one key weakness in the Alberici technique, that now shows up again right in the closing moments, is that she chose not to delve into the SPECIFICS of how Brandis claims the public interest media advocate could possibly operate in the way claimed by him, Kim Williams for News Limited, and many others. He raises the spectre by very conditionally phrased and unsubstantiated claims. They are never really tested thoroughly or forensically in this interview.

Should they have been pinned down more clearly to make the interview much more effective and relevant to the debate?

GEORGE BRANDIS: I wish you were. I wish you were. I wish there’d been more outrage from all quarters in the media when Stephen Conroy did – tried to do what eventually he failed to do, and that is introduce a public interest media advocate that could, in certain circumstances, have resulted in the Government or officials sitting around Lake Burley Griffin making decisions about what ordinary citizens were allowed to listen to on their radio or to read in their newspapers. I wish there’d been more outrage from the media but my point is there wasn’t and I find that very disappointing.

EMMA ALBERICI: Thank you very much for coming in this evening.


This was not an interview about facts as such although Alberici did marshal some to counter the Brandis line of assertions and rhetoric. It was about political values as claimed AND as put into practice. It was factually about the actual content and potential effects of the wording of the proposed and failed Labor media reform legislation. Most of that factuality has been submerged by the hyperbolic language of the debate around the reforms. And this interview didn’t really help that problem much.

Overall, Brandis came out of this interview looking weak and under-prepared to argue his line with conviction, logic or political passion and deep belief. He didn’t step up.

At no point was his argument around “public resource” or the potential for “censorship” by the proposed media public interest advocate clarified or logically justified. He simply and repeatedly asserted these claims.

Alberici through her preparation, use of research and steely, logical and intellectual approach managed to reveal the softness in the Brandis polemic and him personally as a reluctant reforming political warrior despite his avowals of commitment to “freedom of speech”. To any discerning audience, his assertions didn’t stack up and lacked persuasive power.

All of these accountability interviews are different: different logics, dynamics and, of course informational outcomes or insights.

This one has to be given to the interviewer. Our pay-offs as citizens? A slightly deeper, clearer insight into Brandis himself and his style of political partisan argument.

Alberici did succeed in creating a strong contrast between the Brandis “swingeing attacks” in his Sydney Institute address where he had free rein to use argument by assertion well larded with polemics and the force and logic of his performance during this one-on-one interview.

My overall suggestion, similar to the one I have made in earlier accountability interview analyses here, is that the questions need to be tougher and less couched in deferential phrases that betoken politeness. Go in harder, tougher and more logically constrain the opportunities for avoidance and obfuscation. Think smart sheep dog, obstacles, narrow passages and a final yard with a gate to close behind sheepesque logic.

And more SPECIFICS to go with the habitual generalities and abstractions of these political interviews . More factual, concrete, real world actuality would work wonders.

I again look forward to your analayses and comments here on the site.

Read more:

The Liberal Party’s war on freedoms: My reply to Brandis

Brandis Remember This Freedom

Media Reform Debate

Support an independent media voice. Support No Fibs Citizen Journalism.
Monthly Donation


  1. skywriter says

    Thank you for this detailed analysis, most informative…an analysis I could not have achieved myself. Such is the value of an experienced journalist informing the public.

  2. The real problem is that the ownership of all media in this country is about 90% owned by right wing (Murdoch over 70% Fairfax etc the rest). The owners regulate their editors & these editors cow tow to their bosses. The MSM journalists, even if they privately think differently to what they have to write, so just write what they are told to write.
    The journalists need to grow some intestinal fortitude. At least there are some out there who are willing to speak up & question tho they are mostly now on social media.

    Senator Conroy looked as though he was attacking the journalists and the opposition jumped all over him championing them through Brandis. It is hypocritical of Brandis because he has been one of the people who has tried to have shut down the real truth in reporting i.e. Ashbygate, Slipper & Thompson. All of these stories have been under reported by the MSM so who is really trying to stifle freedom of speech?

    The answer is, of course a combination of the media owners & their self interest which lies quite firmly in the right wing conservatives LNP. They are trying to gain control over us all by printing daily propaganda which suites their adgendas. They don’t give a fig about the middle to low income earners of this country. They couldn’t care less about health, education or infrastructure. They only care about who they can get to do their bidding and that looks very much like TA & the LNP.

  3. I thought it was a good interview. Alberici showed us some of the character of Brandis and gave him plenty of room to hang himself. A more confrontational interview might well have been less successful.

    I think it’s also important to note that the Lateline audience is different to that of ACA, TT and 7:30. Lateline audiences are quite capable of recognising humbug and hypocrisy. A smart interviewer, like Alberici, is aware of this and conducts her interviews accordingly.