The incoming head of the Australian Press Council, Julian Disney, believes the body needs secure, long-term and hands-off funding, and an increased focus on pro-active promotion of media standards.

Disney, a social justice activist and reforming lawyer who formerly headed the Australian Council of Social Services, will take on the post as head of the print media industry self-regulation body next year following the departure of current chairman Ken McKinnon.

As reported last week, McKinnon has used his final Annual Report to sledge newspaper publishers for slashing the Press Council’s funding, undermining its independence and failing to live up to their own rhetoric on ethical standards. McKinnon called for a new constitution and funding arrangements to protect the council’s independence.

In an interview with Crikey yesterday, Disney said he did not want to be prescriptive, since he was still finding out about how the council presently operated, but that he had already discussed the funding issue with industry representatives.

Disney said he saw himself as in the job for the “long haul”, but declined to specify a term. While he emphasised that he was still learning about how the council worked, he said he was interested in exploring ways of pro-actively promoting media standards, as well as the council’s current “core business” of handling complaints.

He said he had taken the job on because his long career in public life had given him an acute appreciation of the “constructive and destructive” effects of the media on public issues.

“I thought I could try and contribute on the twin interwoven issues, the honeysuckle and the bindweed if you like, of media independence and media integrity.”

Disney said he was not consulted by McKinnon about his departing criticisms, but he was forewarned.

He rejected suggestions that the Press Council is dysfunctional.

“I know there are problems but it is not so dysfunctional that it cannot be made to work,” he said.

The recent battle between public members and the industry over the funding cuts and resulting restructuring might have a good outcome.

“The problems of the last few months may have a constructive effect. I think the disputes may have focused the members’ minds on why the council matters and how it might contribute more effectively.”

He would not be drawn on the possibility of a broadening of the Press Council’s role to cover non-print media.

“First I want to be sure we are doing the core job as well as possible, and that the council has adjusted to the new structure, before any questions of a broader role are considered,” he said.

As for the industry established Right to Know coalition, which campaigns against restrictions on access to information, Disney said he thought it might help the Press Council.

Having a body that put the industry’s “unvarnished” view might free the council from pressure, and enable it to put a more balanced view.

As for whether a body funded by the industry will ever be able to bite the hand that feeds it, Disney said the tensions in the relationship would be nothing new to him.

“I am used to being in a situation where you have to criticise people who fund you. At ACOSS we were funded by the government, and I didn’t find that a constraint on criticising the government. I never worried about the impact on the dollars, but I did worry sometimes about the impact on the channels of communication. You must make sure that you have open channels of communication, and that your criticism is well informed and temperate.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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