The respected political editor has left Sky News after 19 years (Photo: Andre Cupido)

David Speers: Hard conversations needed on free speech

The respected political journalist David Speers has spoken up strongly in favour of free speech – even when it’s “offensive” – as he looks ahead to his new career at the ABC.

Speers left Sky News last weekend after nearly two decades as political editor, and will take up his new role as host of ABC TV’s flagship Insiders program next year.

He recently told Hatch: “I do think as journalists … something we should always be encouraging is free speech and being open to engaging better with people we disagree with.

“[It’s about] having the contest of ideas rather than shutting down everyone who says something offensive.”

Speers, 45, was speaking on the sidelines of the recent Antidote Festival in Sydney, where he participated in a panel discussion, Who Gets to Speak.

He stressed the importance of having tough conversations about media freedom, which has been in the headlines following Australian Federal Police raids earlier this year on the ABC and a News Corp journalist. A campaign for better protection of media freedom, called Your Right to Know, has since been stepped up by news organisations including the ABC, Nine and News Corp.

Speers, who hosted his final Sky News program last Sunday, said it was important, though, to distinguish free speech from offensive commentary.

“I think we need to stand up for free speech, (but) I don’t think we need to stand up for offensive comments.

“If you look at Israel Folau, or Alan Jones – there’s always a current example of someone who has run into trouble.”

Speers said social media had “changed the rules about who gets to speak and what they’re allowed to say … It’s a fascinating development in our public and immediate discourse.

“There are some unwritten rules surrounding who gets to speak, and some of the outrage cultures that we often see, when someone does step over the line, or say the wrong thing, causes offence.

“The social media age in which we live today means that we see an immediate backlash put on corporations and advertisers.”

Reflecting on the heightened debate about media freedom, he said:  “The way the media industry has united to push back hard on this has been a really positive development.

“Whether it ultimately results in laws being changed, we’ll see.

“We’re luckier than a lot of other countries in the world, but it’s something we have to be vigilant about.”

Speers added: “Press freedom is crucial and that’s the most important thing, I think, the press should be defending. When these problems arise, I think it’s really important that the industry here does speak up, and does speak loudly.”

He also spoke about the rise of social media, and how it had created blurred lines between professional journalists and others using the platforms to post news.

“Social media is crucial now to the daily workings of any journalist,” he said. “We rely on it for a number of things, whether it’s seeing what our competitors are doing, seeing what’s developing that we’re not aware of, and seeing what the public are thinking and saying about issues as well.

“It’s a way of getting our content out to the eyeballs of those who aren’t necessarily watching or reading the platform that you work for.” – @AndreCupido10