The departing chairman of the Australian Press Council, Professor Ken McKinnon, has called for a review of the accountability of newspaper editors, and has fired a parting shot at the industry, accusing it of undermining the Press Council’s role and independence.

McKinnon has used the council’s Annual Report, due to be officially released later this week, to flay the industry for failing to live up to its own rhetoric on ethics, privacy and independence.

He names the “Utegate” scandal and the publication of photos supposed to be of Pauline Hanson are examples of the media failing to observe its own standards.

McKinnon sledges the “reform” proposals urged by newspaper publishers that resulted in a reduction in the Press Council’s membership and activities… The result, he says, has been a downgrading and perhaps even elimination of the council’s role in defending press freedom.

McKinnon takes fire at the News Limited dominated Right to Know coalition, saying that the argument that it can take over media advocacy is “obviously naïve. It is a proposition that has no wings. An industry consortium is never likely to be seen as making submissions essentially in the public interest. But the proposition, which ignores the Council Constitution, was used as another justification for the swingeing budget cut proposals.”

McKinnon says that a constitutional change to protect the Council’s independence was now “essential to its public credibility”.

“The problem boils down to the fact that, when every penny for every activity depends on specific industry approval, funding authorities can easily use the veto to avoid potential embarrassment, ensuring no facts that might be inconvenient are collected. More dangerously from the point of view of the perceived independence of the Council, funding authorities are seen to be calling every shot.”

McKinnon’s parting salvo after nine years as Press Council chairman will leave a difficult agenda of issues for the new Chairman, social activist and reforming lawyer Julian Disney, who takes up his post at the end of the year.

I understand that Disney was nominated by the Press Council’s public members. While he has been out of the public eye for some years, which may have made him more acceptable to the industry representatives on the council, Disney is unlikely to be a push-over. Expect interesting times ahead.

The budget cuts imposed on the council by the industry resulted in a reduction in from 22 members to 15. McKinnon writes that the cuts were vigorously resisted by the Council’s public members. The industry had at first proposed that the council be reduced to 12.

“In response to the membership part of the proposals, public members displayed impressive resolve. Despite there being nothing other than the satisfaction of genuine public service as the reward for membership, they mobilised to resist the proposed size reductions, being far from convinced that the Council could do its job well following such a drastic reduction. Ultimately they prevailed to the extent that the requisite two-thirds majority settled on a compromise of fifteen members on the reformed Council. Although that outcome was not what industry members envisaged it is a workable size and composition.”

Meanwhile I understand that there is also division within the industry about the cuts, with Fairfax Media being concerned that it will have less representation, meaning an increase in the dominance of the Council’s biggest funder, News Limited.

One of the activities that has fallen afoul of the budget cuts is the Press Council’s regular research reports, which in previous years have shown an increased tendency for news stories to be drawn from only one source. McKinnon mentions this in the context of the Pauline Hanson and Utegate scandals.

Australian newspaper stories rely on only one source more often than is the case in comparable countries, he says.

McKinnon names the “Utegate” scandal in which news stories were based on a “single unchecked, forged email” by public servant Godwin Grech, and the publication of photographs wrongly claimed to be of Pauline Hanson in provocative semi-dressed poses as instances where material without a basis in fact had been prominently published.

“Ethics demand that the press make sufficient enquiries to ensure that what they publish is accurate, fair and balanced,” he says.

The Pauline Hanson case, and the publication of details of NSW Minister John Della Bosca’s infidelity raised privacy issues, McKinnon said. “in particular whether there is a genuine public interest in the publication of the matter, as distinct from the public being entertained at the cost of the privacy of the individuals.”

McKinnon raises the issue of whether research that is embarrassing to the industry will be able to be published by the council in the future. “The problem boils down to the fact that, when every penny for every activity depends on specific industry approval, funding authorities can easily use the veto to avoid potential embarrassment, ensuring no facts that might be inconvenient are collected. More dangerously from the point of view of the perceived independence of the Council, funding authorities are seen to be calling every shot.”

On the brighter side, McKinnon notes that so far Australian newspaper circulations are holding up comparatively well, though not so advertising revenue. “There is still no room for complacency or confidence that a business model ensuring the future of newspapers has been found.”

He also notes that there has been no noticeable increase in complaints to the Press Council.

For more commentary, and a copy of the Australian Press Council report, see my blog.

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