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What the Press Council wants — and needs

For all the talk (some reasonable, some not) about the threat to freedom of speech, it looks increasingly as if Ray Finklestein’s proposal for a government-funded grand media regulator will be a non-starter. Its effect, and quite possibly its purpose, will instead be to goad the big media companies into agreeing to increased powers and funding for the Australian Press Council, thus keeping the print and online media at least nominally self-regulating.

It was therefore all the more interesting to hear the views of the Press Council’s chair, Julian Disney, who spoke at Melbourne University last night. (With any luck a transcript or recording will eventually appear — try here or here.

Disney’s title was “Why Good Journalism Will Always Matter” and he had plenty to say about the challenges of  good and bad journalism. But his main expertise, and the big topic of current interest, is the future of media regulation — although as he pointed out, “regulation” is probably the wrong word (but he confessed himself unable to think of a better one).

Disney urged the audience to look beyond the immediate motives of the Finklestein inquiry; technology and media convergence, he said, would sooner or later have forced the issues to be looked at in any case. And in the long run he argues that a single body will have to deal with all forms of media. For now, however, it makes sense to let the Press Council deal with print and online media, and try to get a model working that can later be extended to broadcasting.

Even when it comes to fixing up the press council (you can read its submission to Finklestein here, Disney is not really arguing for increased powers — he does not, for example, want to be able to fine people or compel them to print apologies — but for the resources and the co-operation to perform its present tasks effectively.

It was evident that the Press Council’s relationship with some media organisations has been stormy — Disney referred to the lack of even “basic civility of communications”. That may have something to do with his view that the Press Council should not act as an “advocate” for the industry, but in any case that would seem a good thing for any regulator to avoid. (He also wants to promote media diversity by encouraging more exposure for online outlets; in the course of this he said rather nice things about Crikey.)

To overcome some of the difficulties, Disney suggests a clearer contractual relationship with the media companies that would impose binding legal obligations on them — including not just things like the prominence with which the Press Council’s rulings are published but also an obligation to keep funding it, delivering what he described as “security of membership”.

But here lies the crux of the problem: if press freedom is to be meaningful, membership of the Press Council has to be voluntary. While any standard-setting body wants to encourage the widest possible participation, there is a line that should not be crossed. Disney seems conscious of that, but if media organisations are forced to sign up by the threat of a Finklestein-esque alternative then the voluntariness of the process is going to ring hollow.

In my view, media “regulation” suffers from trying to do too much. On the one hand, there is a quality-assurance function — the sort of thing that professional associations of all types do. For that, a voluntary self-regulation is entirely appropriate.

But there is pressure on bodies such as the Press Council and ACMA to do more than that, because media organisations are seen to be getting away with things that go beyond just poor quality product or unprofessional behaviour. Even occasional viewing of Media Watch will reveal cases of genuine fraud on the public — conduct that in other fields we would have no hesitation in labelling as crimes.

Disney’s Press Council, through no fault of its own, is having to do the job that the police and the courts should be doing.

This in turn reflects a more general problem: we are unwilling to treat white-collar crime with the seriousness it deserves. Multiple regulatory apparatuses (the corporations law is the most obvious example) divert malfeasance away from the criminal law and into largely toothless processes that waste time and resources and fail to provide real deterrence.

By all means give the Press Council more resources, but an editor or two in jail would probably do a lot more for media standards.

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