Illustration: Simon Letch
The ABC's top man Mark Scott delivered a useful speech this week – on journalism and newspapers.
He touched on something that is simmering not so far beneath the surface and yet presents a dark possibility for our proud little kingdom.
What happens should Fairfax Media cease to publish newspapers on dead trees and, except for a weekend hard copy edition, migrate its weekday journalism entirely to digital platforms?
Fairfax has long stated that it will continue printing newspapers so long as they are profitable. What if the day arrives when they are not? The senior brass at Fairfax, no doubt have something up their french cuffed sleaves.
Even though we hear about the fresh harvest of new voices in the online "space", the truth is newspapers still set the tone and agenda of news and opinion.
Without daily Fairfax papers News Corp, which already bestrides the narrow world like a Colossus, would be within a whisker of a national mainstream newspaper monopoly.
For a publisher that is so strident, bullying and right-wing, that would be an unhappy outcome for "public debate and the contest of ideas", not to forget good old Democracy herself.
So, the underlying contest now is who can hang out longer in print, because whoever drops off first leaves the other with the spoils.
We're seeing now a reheated bubble-and-squeak version of the culture wars fired up by News Corp, with freedom of speech packaged up as some sort of faux imperative to strangle an important part of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Attorney-General George Brandis has put forward his Bigots Bill and "community consultation" in all its strange forms is under way.
One of the nuttier contributions came from Brandis' freedoms expert, Tim Wilson, ex-Institute of Public Affairs and now a Human Rights Commissioner.
Timbo was in The Sun-Herald complaining it was "bizarre" that members of a community can use racially loaded language to each other, while people outside that community cannot.
Was he referring to the word "nigger", asked reporter Bianca Hall?
At this point Wilson was not very deftly dancing on eggshells and cracking quite a few of them in the process. "I won't say it, but that's right."
He wants poor old section18C repealed so News provocateurs will never again get into trouble. It's only fair, he argues, for there to be "equality before the law".
Two things about this latest cack-handed contribution to the "community consultation".
First, there is a world of difference between black people calling themselves "nigger", as we saw in The Wire, and whities or yellowies applying the same word to black people.
It's like gay men calling each other "poofter". For a non-gay man to do the same thing can be insulting.
Minority communities appropriate offensive words to use with each other as a way of making light of the way they have been stigmatised.
Second, when you talk about "equality before the law", it's helpful if you know what you're talking about. In a formal sense the law says everyone is equal and will be treated equally. But then we also know that people come before the law from unequal positions.
To ensure that the law has an equal impact on people affected by it is what is largely ignored in the puerile way in which the issue is discussed.
On the ABC's Q&A program, the freedoms commissar was at pains to say that the Bigots Bill was not about protecting a Melbourne columnist who fell foul of the law. He said: "It's about the precedent that case established ... the precedent applies to everybody into the future and that's part of the problem."
This is fascinating. The case is a precedent established by a single judge of the Federal Court. There are two more tiers in the stare decisis food chain that could have tested that "precedent". It's only a precedent because News Ltd left it there and refused to appeal it.
This has now allowed the relevant spear-carriers to indulge in confected outrage about free speech.
Right-wingers or "classical liberals'' or whatever they call themselves are reminiscent of schoolchildren running wild with power.
One of the great books of my youth was William Golding's Lord of the Flies. You know the story – a bunch of young boys wind up on an isolated island after their plane crashes.
Order used to be kept by a conch shell. Whoever held the conch shell had the floor. However, the boys soon fell into tribal factions and turned against each other over the idea there was a beast that lived on the island.
Of course, there was no beast, the beast was inside them all.
Ultimately, the island is set ablaze by the boys. The blaze captures the attention of a passing Royal Navy ship and the boys are rescued.
Is this what will happen to us? Will we be rescued after News Corp takes the conch?