PROMISES, promises, promises … never sure about political promises. Ever.
Only made to be broken, as far as I’m concerned. No shortage of about-faces, non-core undertakings, circumstances changed and blatant in-your-face misrepresentations. Terrible blight on what should be a good system.
Charles de Gaulle summed up my cynicism about political promises pretty straight when he said: “Since a politician never believes what he says, he is surprised when others believe him.” I’d like to believe pollies, too.
But too many years in this game has taught me acutely otherwise. Last time I think I saw proper representation was Geelong MP Hayden Shell in the office asking if I had anything I wanted raised in parliament.
Didn’t know which way I voted, maybe thought I’d spoken to lots of people as a reporter, don’t know but, yep, a simple: “Anything you think I should raise?”
Haven’t been able to accuse any others of such atrocities although there are some, old-school variety, who I think did their job admirably: crossing the floor to represent their constituents, fighting their own party’s cheating branch-stackers, running as independents.
So, it’s with a fair degree of apprehension I see something I’ve wanted to see for a long time announced by Canberra.
Something that might, if it holds up, properly tackle the cesspool that is social media – that moral vacuum that equates lies with free speech, anonymous bullying and abuse with fair game, political misrepresentation with integrity and outright hostility with personal entitlement.
And that is the federal government’s overtures to make social media legally liable for the falsehoods they allow to be published and disseminated on their platforms to the detriment of their intended targets – just as newspapers, TVs, radios and other mainstream media are held legally liable.
Social media will kick and squawk like a castrated mule, of course. They’ll argue free speech, in reality just a legally “implied right” in this country, is being undermined. And they’ll argue political interference for base election purposes. They might have a case on the latter.
I spent years on this publication checking stories before they went to press, regularly doubling down with media lawyers to see stories weren’t defaming people.
Did the story hold them up to ridicule before friends and colleagues? Were the references about them true? Were they reported fairly and accurately? Was the person granted an opportunity to rebut the comments, claims, accusations? Where was the story going to appear; page one, back page or page 15? How inflammatory was the story’s headline? Was it all really in the public interest?
These considerations, and more, are still weighed up daily by mainstream media around the world. They’re weighed up in the public comments attached to their online publications, too, and a great many are moderated or deleted before reaching their intended audience.
This isn’t meant to protect the guilty. Truth remains the media’s legal defence when accused of publishing defamatory material.
So if you’re delivering facts, not fiction or innuendo, and doing so fairly and accurately, you’re doing what the media is allowed to do. – and, generally, with reputable outlets and mastheads, what it’s supposed to do, in the public interest.
Few social media companies seem to do much of this. Which is why subjecting them to the same obligations as papers and TV and radio is only reasonable. Especially given the misuse of social media around the globe.
Mending what Australia can mend won’t fix social media globally. It won’t stop propaganda by totalitarian states. It won’t expose internet companies shielded from legal liability in the US under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
But it may clean up Australia’s act. Provided the politicians pushing for change don’t weaken at the knees.
Thing is, it’s in their own interests to stem the abuse, misinformation and outright lies that might be thrown at them in an election year.
And self-interest, as always, remains the greatest motivator in parliament. That I can promise you.
This article appeared in the Geelong Advertiser 11 January 2022.