"Freedom" is on the chopping block, we are told, all because a government-commissioned inquiry recommended the establishment of an independent regulator to improve the accountability of media organisations to the public and to ensure they follow the very standards they claim to uphold.
Over at The Australian, they're dishing out editorials about threats to "freedom" faster than a short-order cook at a fast-food restaurant. On Twitter, young Liberals, who clearly watch too much US television, post exclamations about our "inalienable" rights to free speech.
The Leader of the Opposition has also turned up at the barricades, issuing a rallying cry to the hair gelled, shiny-suited multitudes of the IPA, all clutching their copies of Atlas Shrugged like cappuccino-quaffing Red Guards brandishing Mao's Little Red Book.
Can the end really be so close at hand? Should we start preparing now for the dictatorship of the journalism professors, that cardigan-wearing, Daihatsu-driving elite who would impose mandatory death sentences for misplaced modifiers and split infinitives? It seems so.
So feverishly idealistic has the public debate become that anyone arguing for more effective regulation of the media and for the idea that with freedom comes responsibility finds it impossible to have a sensible discussion without being accused of being a jackbooted totalitarian.
As a journalist by training and inclination, my suggested approach is to always to go back to the source and see what was actually proposed, before slinging on a rifle and rushing to the barricades. So for perspective, here's what Finkelstein opened his report by saying:
"There is common ground among all those who think seriously about the role of the news media and about journalistic ethics that a free press plays an essential role in a democratic society, and no regulation should endanger that role."This does not to me sound like a man who wants to "silence a free media once and for all." Finkelstein made a lot of very pertinent observations about the current system of self-regulation, which on even the most charitable view is scattered, unresponsive, slow and ineffective.
He says the proposed News Media Council should have secure funding from government and its decisions made binding, but "beyond that government should have no role. The establishment of a council is not about increasing the power of government or about imposing some form of censorship. It is about making the news media more accountable to those covered in the news, and to the public generally."
Of course, none of this has been reported. Instead, we get the "here come the jackboots" stuff as every second conservative lashes on a bandanna and throws himself on the public stage to wage the freedom banner like an extra in Les Miserables.
And once again, this is the problem with so much media debate these days. Half the time, people get animated about stuff that no-one is actually proposing. Instead, we increasingly see the traditional, practical Australian approach of "let's see what works" shoved aside in favour of the hysterical polarisation and mindless sloganeering of American politics.
In any case, it would help if the participants actually defined their terms before rallying the people into the streets. Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech are not the same thing. If a mass market newspaper publishes an inaccurate article about you and your family and you insist on a retraction or right of reply, the paper has no obligation to agree. As the writer John O'Neill has said.
"The freedom of the press is not in fact an instance of free speech, but refers, rather, to the power to control the speech of others. The question we must ask in considering the arguments for a free press, when it is thus defined in terms of editorial powers, is what legitimates such powers."In the current debate in Australia, the camp making all the noise about press freedom are really talking about property rights, which in the IPA libertarian view, so regularly represented on the ABC these days, is the only kind of freedom worth promoting. The call is to "let the press print what they want, within the rules of defamation and contempt, and if you don't like it, don't buy the paper".
This implies that the consequences from poor journalism - and by this I mean stories that either misrepresent or manufacture facts in pursuit of a commercial or ideological end - are felt only by the people who buy and read the paper. On this view, the newspaper serves a market, not a society.
But it is that society that bequeaths on journalists the special privileges that allow them to carry on their trade. You and I cannot interview the prime minister or get privileged access to the Budget or have public officials answer our questions.
Journalists have those rights because we have collectively decided that democracy functions better when the institutions of that democracy are answerable to a free, independent media. But democracy fails when the media - the Fourth Estate - becomes a player in its own right and misrepresents the news in aid of its own agenda.
The arguments we are hearing now about freedom are really only one type of freedom, the economic kind. As citizens of this nation, we also agree to a commitment to human rights, an opposition to discrimination on the base of race, sex and religion and a balancing of freedom of expression with the protection of individuals and groups from offensive behaviour.
Freedom is not, and never has been, an absolute. It does not come from "God". It exists insofar as we allow it to. And freedom comes with responsibility. Why is that so hard for some people to comprehend?