Sydney City Council pushes for free speech tariff

October 26, 2007

On October 15, on a vote of five to three, a Sydney City Council planning committee voted to send the development applications (DAs) for the distribution of mX, City Weekly and 9 to 5 to the next council meeting for approval.

Councillors Clover Moore, Phillip Black, Marcelle Hoff, Michael Lee and Tony Pooley voted to lease public footways to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp for another 18 months. Councillors Robyn Kemmis, John McInerney and Chris Harris voted against the proposal and in defence of free speech. Verity Firth and Shayne Mallard were not present at the meeting.

The vote to grant approval was taken, despite the fact that council has never formally adopted an actual newspaper distribution policy. At its August 27 meeting, council voted to place its draft policy on the distribution of printed matter and other materials policy on exhibition as a first step towards implementing an actual ordinance, as required under the Local Government Act (Section 160).

In August 2005, News Corp was granted permission to distribute mX on an 18-month trial basis. The same year, council also resolved to develop and implement a newspaper distribution policy before the mX trial was finished in February. In March this year, council finally held stakeholder meetings with local newspaper publishers, free speech activists and community groups. At two meetings, newspaper publishers strenuously argued that council should allow for the placement of newspaper racks, as a less invasive method of newspaper distribution than spruikers who aggressively shove papers into pedestrians' hands, leading to large newspaper wastage and an unsustainable print distribution system.

When council's draft discussion paper finally went on exhibition, the public vociferously objected. Council received a number of statements opposing a free speech tariff from local newspaper publishers, small businesses, community and free speech groups.

The policy if adopted would have required that anyone — from a student activist to a small restaurateur wishing to distribute a flyer — pay the same footway rental rate as News Corp.

Bombarded with objections, council agreed to "investigate ... the feasibility of council installing public newspaper racks, as raised in submissions". Council also resolved to place a revised distribution policy on exhibition, exempting anyone except newspaper publishers from its proposed free speech tariff.

None of the groups that made submissions in relation to the City of Sydney's draft newspaper discussion newspaper policy were notified that council had listed the DAs for News Corps' free commuter publications on the committee's agenda on October 15.

According to founding member of the Free Speech Alliance, Maire Sheehan, "If this resolution is passed councillors will have acquiesced to the regulation of free speech through footpath licencing and pushed the responsibility for resolving the issue of free speech and the orderly distribution of print literature on city footpaths onto the next council where it can once again be stalled by bureaucratic finesse."

Without a promised study for news racks in place, or a policy on the books, the full council will decide on October 29 whether or not to renew the license for News Corp to distribute its three commuter publications mX, City Weekly and 9 to 5 in exchange for an estimated half million dollar rental fee for the use of public footways.

[Lawrence Gibbins is the editor of City Hub. This story first appeared in the October 20 edition of the City News and the November edition of the City Hub.]

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