The best way to appreciate press freedom is to lose it

I’m late to this fight.

I find myself a little uncomfortable standing in the same corner as the over-the-top Daily Telegraph response to Stephen Conroy’s proposals for media regulation. But in truth, I’m a fellow traveller.

Conroy’s proposal to effectively end press self regulation is a bad thing.

The risk posed to freedom of the press is relatively small, but it opens the door a crack.

And in the last few days, I’ve found myself thinking about the miserable year I spent editing a magazine in a country that censored the press.

Actually, it was the Tele’s satirical double page spread of government-approved stories that did it for me. They reminded me a little too much of the Dubai press. More on that shortly.

daily tele conroy pravda

My Middle Eastern adventure began about eight years ago. I was hired to launch a magazine about the advertising and marketing industry.

Officially, we were told, Dubai had a free press. There was a ring fence around the Royal family and Sheikh Mohammed’s Vision For Dubai, but apart from that we were free to go for our lives.

However, directly or indirectly, the Royal families of the United Arab Emirates owned most of the major institutions, including the media. And we were writing about the media. And our publication was subject to licensing by the powers that be at Dubai Media City.

Still, we launched strongly. We were more direct than our predecessors. If you think Mumbrella occasionally causes ripples here by being a tad, erm, spiky, imagine how that editing style would go down somewhere as conservative as Dubai.

We were taught the nuances. You didn’t acknowledge in print that people drink alcohol in Dubai. You refer to “a drop of grape” or similar. You never mentioned Israel.

I began to present a weekly radio show about media and marketing on the local talk radio station – also Government-owned. Because construction workers cannot be made to work outdoors if the temperature rises above 50c, I was taught a code for weather forecasts. I could say that it was “likely to be 49 degrees or higher”.

As people began to notice what we were writing, the pressure grew. At that stage nobody had actually censored what we had written – they just grumbled a lot.

The first time I had to take a stand was from an unexpected direction when we were put under pressure to pull a profile of a rival media owner. We had been too sympathetic.

It was a huge moment for me. I’d never censored a story before. For the first time in my life I seriously lost concentration at the wheel of my car as I headed into work for the confrontation. I crashed – fortunately slowly – into the back of the car in front of me.

When I got to work, I threatened to resign and meant it. Eventually I got my way. We published the piece, albeit a week late.

Meanwhile, the government-owned media company launched a new newspaper. It was a daily tabloid called Emirates Today. Staffed by trained journalists from around the world, including many westerners, it looked like a good mid-morning tabloid, and read like one initially.

Jeez, I hated Modesh

Jeez, I hated Modesh

Quickly though, it began to slip almost into self parody. Not untypically – but the most memorable for me – was a picture caption story about a billboard poster promoting a shopping centre featuring a yellow character called Modesh. The caption read something along the lines of – and I’m not exaggerating – “Modesh is smiling. Perhaps he’s excited by the vision of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates.” I kept a copy somewhere.

In our diary column, we began to refer to the newspaper as Emirates Toady. Eventually word reached me that the boss of the media company – a powerful Emirati – was unhappy. But we carried on calling it Emirates Toady.

My weekly radio show was on the station owned by his media group. A week or two later, I turned up for my show. The way I found out I was fired was that my electronic card no longer worked. As I wasn’t actually paid, it wasn’t the end of the world.

That same boss later called me. He used the somewhat melodramatic words: “I could make your life in Dubai very unpleasant.”

It made me think of a previous warning my boss had give me. If a journalist displeases the authorities and gets deported, they don’t give that as a reason as this is a country that officially has a free press. They find cocaine in the journo’s apartment, he told me.

The internal pressures also began to build. One day, I sat outside with my deputy, who I’d brought over with me from the UK. We discussed whether we should just give in and give the management and authorities the blander fare they wanted. We were being very well paid, and if we didn’t rock the boat we could have a very nice life and go back to proper journalism once we left. But we decided that once you do make those compromises, the habit is probably too hard to break after returning to the real world. We decided to see it through.

The conversations with my boss were a real exercise in seeing it from both sides. He had a multimillion dollar business to protect, and was responsible for hundreds of jobs. He could be shut down on a whim. He argued that the pragmatic approach was to keep pushing the boundaries, and if we had to retreat from time to time “not to mistake the waves for the direction of the tide”. It was a view I respected, but couldn’t live with.

The internal pressures came to a head. I discovered a cracking yarn. The executive creative director at a large ad agency shifted to a rival. The powerful owner of his agency told the police he was a visa violator. The cops turned up at his new agency and arrested him. He was to spend the weekend in prison and face a deportation hearing first thing the next week. Fortunately, his new owner was powerful too, and got him out.

Bravely, he went on the record. I wrote the story.

The afternoon before publication it was spiked.

It was actually the first time that I had lost one of those battles and failed to get something published. I decided that was the line I couldn’t cross. I saw the paper to press that night, wrote my resignation letter to my boss and left it on his desk. He was extremely gracious about it.

I returned to the UK, and within a few days, out of nowhere, was offered the job that brought me to Australia. Back in Dubai, a few weeks later, the magazine’s licence was withdrawn the night before it held its awards in front of 1000 people. The awards were cancelled and the magazine closed.

So why have I shared this lengthy anecdote, when Australia does not face anything like this level of censorship? (Let me stress, the comparisons between the two situations are small: but it happens to be my personal experience before being in Australia)

First, I should say that I strongly believe the press should have standards and face stringent self-regulation. That’s why we joined the Press Council last year. We’re probably their smallest member.

If you’ve got a problem with what I write, you can complain to the Press Council. Their details are at the bottom of this page. If they decide I’m in the wrong, they’ll say so, in excruciating detail. Even if I disagree with the umpire’s verdict, I’ll have to publish it.

What I do have a problem with is that somebody appointed by whoever the media minister at the time is, will have the power to tell the Press Council whether the standards and rules it sets are acceptable. This is somebody who has relied on the minister’s patronage to get the no doubt well paid job, and who will presumably be reliant on them to keep it.

In reality, any attempt by such a person to nobble the Press Council would probably cause an uproar. But it would certainly be a bigger possibility than before.

For what it’s worth, I think the response by News Limited – and the Daily Tele in particular – has been strategically poor. The front page comparing Conroy to despots plays rights into the hands of those who believe News Limited has too much power. (That’s despite the fact that as a journo there’s a part of me that thinks of it as front page of the year for its agenda-setting impact).

conroy joins them daily telegraph

The follow-up, featuring Emirates Toady style double page spread gave me greater pause. But even then, the risk is not as dramatic as is being suggested.

But just because the Daily Tele has gone over the top, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

The truth is that press freedom is not binary. Every country has laws, and in effect has a spectrum of press freedom. A government-appointed overseer of the regulator takes us backwards on that spectrum away from a free press and towards censorship – even if it’s only a couple of steps.

In this case , the tide is going out.

Tim Burrowes


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