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The Oz’s attacks on the Press Council put media freedom at risk

The Australian’s editorials have mused about leaving the Press Council, but News Corp can’t officially do so without four years’ notice. It could, however, gut the watchdog by undermining its authority. And that may well be the strategy …

Australia’s loss-making national broadsheet has declared war on the media watchdog, with this morning’s edition containing the latest salvo. But will the fallout be restricted to The Australian itself, or could the whole media industry be under threat?

In recent weeks, The Australian has accused the Press Council of being, to quote a recent editorial, “erratic in its rulings, unmoored from its foundations, ponderous and serpentine in its procedures, sidetracked by its chairman’s peculiar tastes and political predilections and ineffective as a body that promotes good practice”. Press Council chairman Julian Disney has been called a social campaigner, and today, he’s accused (in a headline) of breaching the council’s confidentiality principles (even though the article states it was Press Council executive director John Pender who was directly responsible). Disney has also been accused of conflicts of interest and asked to step down from two adjudications as a result (he chose to wash his hands of all News Corp complaints instead).

The major print media companies have always had a vexed relationship with the Press Council, a body they fund to adjudicate complaints from members of the public and to promote high standards within the industry. But Mark Pearson, a long-time chronicler of journalism regulation and journalism professor at Griffith University, says he’s never seen a campaign like this against the Press Council before. He fears it will lead to an unravelling of support for self-regulation of the print media industry.

Both News Corp and Fairfax have at times refused to publish the council’s adjudications, or left the council altogether. The nation’s third-largest print media publisher, Seven West Media, hasn’t been part of the council since 2012, when it disagreed with the council’s (ultimately successful) attempts to beef up its funding and funding security in the wake of the Finkelstein Review.

Many of the Oz’s criticisms of the Press Council today are best understood in context of the attempts by the Rudd/Gillard governments to regulate the press.

Press Council heads past and present, and the publishers that fund them, gave statements to the Finkelstein Review in 2012 about how the Press Council worked, or, as it eventually transpired, how it didn’t. All former Press Council heads bar one (David Flint) agreed the Press Council was overly vulnerable to being swayed by its funders. Its lack of resources was another concern.

Fixing these things would require the support of the council’s three major funders at the time: News Corp, Fairfax and Seven West Media. But they were reluctant. As Fairfax chief Greg Hywood told the inquiry, the Press Council had enough money to fulfil its task. “We are having a media inquiry here. There has not been to this point, until this media inquiry, within the industry a high level of concern that the Press Council does not have sufficient funding,” Hywood said.

No doubt Disney’s been a more robust and independent chair of the council than many in the media would have liked.”

This left Ray Finkelstein, to quote his final report, with the “clear impression that the media will not tolerate, let alone finance, an effective industry regulator”. So he proposed something else — a government-funded New Media Council, independent from both government and the media, with the power to adjudicate over both print media and broadcast complaints.

This was rejected by publishers and most in the journalism fraternity. But in the uproar, Disney secured a coup. He got the publishers to agree to double the Press Council’s funding and to enter into agreements to not withdraw without four years’ notice. Similarly, media organisations couldn’t pull funding without this notice period.

Seven West Media baulked and formed its own Independent Media Council, which it funds all on its own and which deals with complaints from The West Australian, as well as Seven West Media’s magazine empire.

But for News Corp, Fairfax, and the council’s other members (including Crikey publisher Private Media, which joined in 2012), the four years’ notice requirement still applies. In a recent editorial, The Australian’s editors wrote that it “may be time to consider” joining something like Seven West’s Independent Media Council. It’s possible News Corp could stop co-operating with the council and in effect withdraw — but it would have to continue funding the council for another four years.

After securing greater funding and greater security from publishers in 2012, the Press Council got busy. It announced new standards and codified codes of practice around access to patients in hospitals and the reporting of suicides.

Pearson says the Press Council had to change, “to respond to criticisms that it was a publisher’s poodle and the like. And it negotiated those changes with publishers.”

Disney has been responsive — he’s been a reformist. And he has reshaped the Press Council.”

Matthew Ricketson, who helped Finkelstein in his media inquiry, told Crikey the Council’s adjudications of late had been more rigorous, and more likely to side with the complainant.

This appears to have angered News Corp, which pays up to 61% of the Press Council’s $1.8 million budget. Fairfax pays another 30% approximately, but Fairfax representatives didn’t respond to requests asking them whether they shared News’ concerns.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (the journalists’ union), however, did give qualified support to the Press Council. Speaking on allegations of conflict of interest raised by News Corp, MEAA federal secretary Chris Warren told Crikey he didn’t share the Oz’s concerns on that issue.

Philosophically, I don’t agree with the approach that it should be state-based or company-based. Complaints need to be handled nationally. That’s the way it works globally, and it’s a better approach for Australia”.

Most of those Crikey spoke to believe the environment in which publishers were beefing up the Press Council has gone. Unlike its predecessor, the Abbott government shows no inclination to regulating the media — in fact, any such plans it has tend to go the other way. And so the gloves are off.

Even if News Corp cannot formally leave in a hurry, it can make things very difficult for the Press Council. Arguably, it already has. By repeatedly breaching the confidentiality of ongoing adjudications, it undermines and detracts from any eventual ruling the Press Council makes.

News Corp sources told Crikey they are only concerned with the public and media companies having “an effectively functioning Press Council”. So far, Crikey understands, News Corp has made no formal moves to leave the Council.

But there are other possible motives.

Disney will step down in January (one year before his six-year term expires, he announced in February), and the Press Council recently advertised for his replacement. “My guess is this is about finding a more compliant chair,” one media insider (not from News Corp) mused. “No doubt Disney’s been a more robust and independent chair of the council than many in the media would have liked.”

Media ethicist Denis Muller, from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, says Disney has been the most independent-minded Press Council chair he’s come across. “And some of the past ones have been very distinguished,” he added.

But even if the war between the APC and News ends when a new chair is announced, Pearson fears its fallout. “This erodes the principle of self-regulation — it erodes public confidence in self-regulation,” he says. “Governments change, and if you give governments a reason to regulate the media, they’ll take it. In the end, it stands to damage the longer-term goal of freedom of expression and a free media.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this article said the ability of third parties to make complaints to the Press Council was brought in after 2012. It actually existed well before that. Also, Disney’s term does not expire in January — he announced in February this year that he would be stepping down one year early. His term expires January 2016. The article above has been amended.

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  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 26 August 2014 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    All this unseemly carry on could be avoided if we could implant a conscience in these media glans?

  • 2
    Northy
    Posted Tuesday, 26 August 2014 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Another great article Myriam. Some very respected media experts referred to in this piece. Perhaps The Australian, being 50-years-old, could grow up and accept the Press Council’s findings with grace. That’d be the sensible thing to do.

  • 3
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 27 August 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m struggling with the idea of a ‘ponderous serpent’ - would that be like an anaconda swallowing a News Corpse?

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