Free market speech isn't free

August 4, 1999


Free market speech isn't free

By Kim Bullimore

Freedom of speech is one of the most treasured ideas in Western democracies, held up as an ideal towards which all nations and governments should strive. The United States has enshrined this right, along with the right to freedom of assembly, in its constitution.

Australia, while not formally recognising these rights, accepts them as an integral component of a liberal democratic society. (According to the constitution, Australians have only the rights that parliament legislates; the rights to freedom of speech and assembly have never been legislated.)

In was revealed last month that radio talk show host John Laws had a multimillion-dollar contract with the major banks to promote them through advertising and by eliminating all adverse editorial comment from his shows. The ensuing scandal has forced many people to examine the nexus between the media, the idea of freedom of speech and actual practice.

The general notion of freedom of speech — which recognises that all individuals and groups should be free to express their ideas — assumes that every individual or group has equal access to the means of expressing their ideas, principally the media. This concept of free speech goes hand in hand with the liberal democratic ideal that the role of the media is to assist in producing an informed citizenry which can make informed choices and participate fully in a democracy.

However, the mainstream media are not, and have never been, such a public service. They are profit-based businesses with a service to sell: access to the public (readers, viewers, listeners).

Almost all of the main newspapers, magazines and television and radio stations in Australia, as in most other capitalist countries, are commercial ventures and therefore operate to serve the interests of those who own them or can afford to purchase their services, not to meet the needs of the population as a whole. Their first priority is to maximise profits, either for their owners or for their advertisers.

The result is that the content of commercial media, while not consistently and overtly censored by those who own or are employed by the owners to control it, nevertheless routinely includes the views of only a tiny minority. The ability to express an opinion is concentrated in the hands of those who either own the media or can afford to purchase advertising and editorial space.


In Western democracies, the main threat to freedom of speech has been seen to be "government interference". In fact, the bigger danger comes from the private profit system. In the US, Britain and Australia, the media are under more and more pressure to editorialise in ways that please their advertisers or serve the political agenda of big business.

Since 1997, for example, Chrysler and Colgate-Palmolive have required US magazine publishers to inform them in advance of editorial content, so they can pull out advertising if they do not agree. Proctor and Gamble, the world's number one corporate advertiser, explicitly forbids media it advertises with to include programming "which could in any way further the concept of business as cold, ruthless and lacking all sentiment or spiritual motivation".

In Australia, it was revealed last month that radio 2UE program director John Brennan warned station announcers, including Laws, Alan Jones and Stan Zemanek, that they should not make derogatory remarks about fast-food giant McDonald's because the company had purchased more than $170,000 worth of advertising with the station.

In addition to providing a congenial ideological environment for advertisers, the commercial media, like any other businesses, attempt to keep costs down. This is done primarily by covering only news that is deemed commercially viable.

For example, the mainstream media recently refused coverage of the East Timor rally at Richmond air base in Sydney's outer west because it was "not economical" for a news team to travel the distance to attend. Because it costs so much to have news crews in many locations at once, the media instead rely on "credible sources" for much of their information. These include the government, police and judiciary, as well as experts and "respectable" big businesses.

In a liberal democratic society, the government is considered a reliable source because it seen as representing the interests of the people. This view fails to take into account the limits of capitalist parliamentary democracy.

Governments in Australia are accountable to the people only every three or four years, and the primary aim of all political parties that form government is to win seats, not to represent the people. Having won government, in large part via election campaigns funded primarily by big business, the major parties loyally work to meet the demands of those corporations, an agenda that is increasingly concealed behind the rhetoric of "national interest".

Corporations not only purchase access to the public through advertising but also gain it via their dominance in the "free media" — coverage which is not paid advertising. This type of media coverage is generally achieved through concerted public relations efforts conducted by or on behalf of big business.

Over the last five years, the public relations industry in Australia has grown by 25% annually. This is mainly the result of more companies allocating a larger proportion of their budget to public relations.

According to John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton in Toxic Sludge is Good for You, their 1995 book on the public relations industry in the US and Britain, at least 40% of all "news" is a result of unedited and unaccredited corporate public relations products. One PR executive quoted in the book said, "Most of what you see on TV is, in effect, a canned PR product. Most of what you see on television is not news."

The mass media also use "experts" to give credence to stories. In the US, Australia and other Western countries since the 1950s, there has been a sharp increase in the number of "think tanks". Their sole purpose is to supply "expert" advice and information — principally to the media and governments — on everything from the state of the economy to family life.

In Australia, as in the US, the majority of these think tanks are funded by big corporations whose immediate and longer term aim is to redefine political and social issues and shape public opinion in favour of their economic and political agendas. In 1982, Hugh Morgan (then head of Western Mining Corporation, now a CEO with Westpac Bank), was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying that the goal of think tanks and their corporate supporters is "to reshape the political agenda of this country".

Politicians "can only accept what is accepted in the public opinion polls. So you have to change public opinion", he said.

To this end, big business ploughs billions of dollars each year into enormous campaigns which disseminate films, literature and other material to the mass media to propagate pro-corporate ideas. In Australia, conservative think tanks set up over the last 25 years include the Institute of Public Affairs, the Australian Business Council and Enterprise Australia.

According to academic/author Alex Carey, "The 20th century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy".

Rather than fostering freedom of speech and an informed citizenry, the boom in pro-corporate think tanks and public relations agencies, the increasing concentration of media ownership and the media's quest for more and more advertising revenue all work to limit free speech and discourage people from becoming actively involved in the democratic process.

The commercial media's pursuit of advertising dollars makes it more profitable to prioritise entertainment over serious discussion and debate, which might challenge conservative opinion or contradict the commercial message. In short, media outputs are designed, not to inform the public or facilitate freedom of speech, but to maximise private profit.

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