tip off

The West goes one-out on self regulation — more to follow?

The announcement late last week by the owners of The West Australian that they will resign their membership of the Australian Press Council has interesting ramifications.

Colleague Margaret Simons has already canvassed some of the immediate issues, and the print world is now buzzing with conjecture as to what Seven West Media’s dummy spit may mean for the future of print regulation in general.

The West is a powerful, popular and profitable newspaper – a rare trifecta these days – and its decision to cut itself loose from the protective association established by press proprietors 45 years ago may signal the beginnings of some new thinking within the industry.

Seven West’s terse public announcement only confirmed its withdrawal, and that the newspaper would establish its own complaints-handling mechanism (good luck, readers!) within the next few months. A lot has been left unsaid.

But there was an earlier indication of the paper’s contempt for the APC when editor-in-chief Bob Cronin told the Finkelstein inquiry the council was “a cudgel with which zealots, bigots, academics and despotic politicians are able to beat newspapers which dare to depart from their view of the world”. There’s no Australian species of fauna quite so thin-skinned as the hairy-chested newspaper editor found to have erred.

But it’s too easy to dismiss Cronin’s bile as just an angry response to some recent adverse APC adjudications upholding complaints against The West. Nor was it merely another Stokesean rant against the effete “eastern staters” who don’t understand how the world of business really works. Seven West Media is now a very large company spanning newspapers, magazines and television, and it doesn’t take this order of decision without considerable forethought.

So what was it thinking? Most probably that the days of an industry-funded system of press self regulation in Australia are numbered.

As we foreshadowed a fortnight ago, the APC pitch to the Finkelstein inquiry was essentially an empire-building play. Council head Julian Disney spruiked his case for a much broader media remit, and increased funding and staff.

Finkelstein wasn’t impressed. Instead, his inquiry recommended the establishment of a new regulative authority, the News Media Council. If the government now legislates such a body into existence (unlikely before the next election, but let’s assume it can), then the Press Council would soon wither into irrelevance.

Those proprietors still loyal to the council have moved swiftly to counter this threat by doubling their contributions to its funding. This is a pre-emptive response to Finkelstein (and whatever might emerge from the Convergence Review), and an attempt to lift the APC from its perceived status as little more than the toothless lapdog of the blokes who buy their ink by the barrel.

They’ve also changed the conditions of council membership, adding a bizarre rule that no company can now resign from the APC unless they’ve first given four year’s notice of their intention to do so. Over in Perth, the sound of stable doors being slammed shut after the horse has bolted must have raised a few chuckles.

The West has clearly made a judgment that the Press Council is headed for extinction and that it has nothing to gain from continued membership. It would prefer to keep its corporate powder dry for the inevitable public fight if some form of government-backed regulatory authority becomes a real possibility.

Implicit in that strategy is the view that even an expanded APC will not be up to the job of protecting newspaper interests during the likely battles ahead. That may be a harsh conclusion, but it’s most probably close to the mark.

For the moment, Fairfax and News are backing the council.

Mark Day’s column yesterday in The Australian (always a reliable guide to the approved Murdoch line), damns the Seven West decision as “a disservice to the rest of the publishing industry”. Day argues for unity in the face of threatened regulatory reform, but omits to mention that News Limited itself withdrew from the APC between 1980 and 1987.

And if we were in any doubt as to which horse Holt Street is currently backing,  Disney was given space on the same page to congratulate himself on achieving “strengthened independence” for his organisation.

So, for the moment at least, our two dominant newspaper companies have opted to stick with the devil they know (and own). But, as the whole charade of media self regulation is increasingly laid bare, it will be interesting to see how long they can resist the persuasive pragmatism of their comrades across the Nullarbor.

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