City Hub

Sydney battles for free speech

By Michael Gormly

There is a war between free speech and control being fought in Town Hall, and control is winning.

The current battle is about public information and communication, with the City of Sydney determined to prosecute people who post public notices; to charge stiff fees for distributing newspapers; and to forbid people, including elected politicians, to erect a card table or A-frame on a CBD footpath except on election polling days.

The council has delayed these latest sallies until just after the local government elections, knowing the new regime is very unpopular with many people.

Council boasts that it removed 374,000 unauthorised posters last year. The tidy-towner lobby sees this as evidence of the size of the problem while anyone who wants to find their lost dog, advertise a garage sale, promote a start-up band, a Fair Day or even the Walk Against Warming, sees it as evidence of a great need for the community to communicate.

Such people at best see their posters ripped down within a day or at worst can now be fined more than $1,500 per poster.

After the Free Speech Alliance kicked up a fuss and the two Greens councillors defied council rangers by taping Walk Against Warming posters to poles outside Town Hall, Council took a step back and exempted political posters from prosecution, lumping them with community ‘lost dog’ notices and the like.

But this is no great concession. The ‘Walk’ posters were removed the very same day, a fate that also awaits your ‘garage sale’ poster because Council has paid a small army of contractors $6m over the past four years to take them down.

The eight skinny poster bollards Council has erected across the city, to be shared by everything from A0 arts posters to A4 community jobs, is a mere token, a political ploy. As any screen printer can explain, a run of eight posters is not economical.

Council has also revived measures to regulate, and in some cases charge for, distributing handbills and newspapers on the street, in the face of clear advice from the Department of Planning that they have no power to do so ‘ as reported in this paper last year.

At Council’s planning committee meeting on November 17, staffer Michael Harrison countered this, citing legal advice that distributing handbills et cetera was still ‘a use of land’ and was therefore covered by environmental planning legislation. Even though these laws are administered by the very same Dept of Planning, it seems Council is so determined to control public information it is prepared to fight this out in court ‘ but only if someone has the means to challenge them.

Staff also recommended against installing racks for free newspapers, which are common in many cities including Melbourne, Brisbane and San Francisco.

No decision was made at that meeting but the battle lines were clear. Five speakers from the community had their three minutes each opposing the new measures, as did the minority councillors. Staff and the Clover Moore Party who control the vote supported them.

Newsracks are arguably the most cost-efficient and litter-free way to distribute community titles. They reduce the need for hired hands at railway stations and people take them only if they want them, and so are less likely to discard them.

Looming large in the debate was News Ltd’s lightweight title mX, familiar to evening commuters. Murdoch’s man Michael Wilkins asked for a trial of dedicated mX racks to a new design that he assured Council was a lot prettier than the tank-like Melbourne version shown in unflattering photographs in the agenda papers.

News Ltd pays Council $360,000 per year for approval to distribute on the street. This presents Council with a ticklish problem: how to lock in this cash windfall but exempt small-time outfits who want to publicise their backpacker hotel, their oppression by the Chinese government or their lunch menu. There is no kindness in this ‘ dealing with the Approval process for phalanxes of such small fry would grind the bureaucracy to a halt.

Their solution is to put newspapers into a separate category and require approval for any that distribute more than 40 days a year.

This neatly snares mX but it also snares titles such as The Hub and the City News which, I promise you, cannot afford any extra imposts.

Selling things is also a no-no, which snares The Big Issue and titles like the Green Left Weekly. The solution’ Exempt ‘social welfare’ efforts like The Big Issue. This would leave the Green Left Weekly in limbo. Staff assured councillors that such non-profit ventures would not be billed but since a weekly is distributed more than 40 days a year, the assurances are not convincing.

Publisher of The Hub, Lawrence Gibbons, wants multiple newsracks carrying up to 10 titles. This would offer punters a choice of free reading in a reliable, regular and litter-resistant way, and improve the viability of the independent press, itself a big issue in these days of ever-concentrating media ownership.

So what is Council’s problem’ Their case against newsracks revolves around ‘improving the pedestrian function of public footways’, a problem that seems not to apply to JCDecaux advertising fixtures, bus stop stands or electrical junction boxes. Then there is ‘reducing visual clutter’, an argument that also seems not to apply to the above. These are problems other cities and towns seem to cope with.

Clover Moore councillors defended the controls on A-frames and card tables in the CBD, playing the ‘it might obstruct the disabled’ trump card. But, as Labor councillor Meredith Burgmann pointed out, it’s hardly likely that Federal MP Tanya Plibersek would wilfully obstruct people in wheelchairs during her regular, advertised footpath appearances. In any case, such structures must leave a two-metre clearway so the argument is a red herring (but 10 to one it will still pop up at the council meeting).

Fêted writer on urban dynamics, Jane Jacobs, clarifies this conflict between public function and tidy towns:

‘There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.’

Imposed order is fine, but not if it suppresses legitimate community functions like finding your lost dog, meeting your constituents or having easy access to diverse street media.

It is well known Clover Moore and council staff are fixated on reducing ‘clutter’. It’s a view shared by people who would not be caught dead taping a notice to a pole, who don’t need to find flatmates, would never have a garage sale, don’t give a toss about the survival of small businesses or community press, and apparently never lose their cats. The sheer quantity of street posters and street media proves there are plenty who think otherwise. It’s a matter of preference, not a basis for draconian enforcement of one view over another.

But Council has to portray it as a serious problem, and rationalising that produces logical contortions that border on comedy. From Council’s background papers on the proposed controls:

‘The City has policy aims to allow and encourage opportunities for economic and social vitality on public footways’ These aims are realised by reducing ‘clutter’.

This from a city that forbids painters to do street portraits and that tried to prevent buskers selling their cds!

Or this circular logic on newsracks, paraphrased:

1. To minimise visual impacts, the city should own and control newsracks.
2. Council charges fees therefore Council would have to charge fees, in this case $162 per day per title for 10 rack spaces plus public risk insurance plus the costs of applying (including each applicant providing detailed scale plans of each location).
3. Small community newspapers could not afford this so we recommend against the idea.

This is called ‘erecting a straw man and knocking it down’.

Then there is the proviso that newspapers, distributed in any form, would have to be stapled to reduce the possibility of litter. Stapling is expensive ‘ mX is stapled but titles like the City News are not.

Looks like big money talks, the rest of us can walk.