One of 2009’s most well-judged and under-reported sprays  directed at the media was that penned by the departing chair of the Australian Press Council, Professor Ken McKinnon, in his final annual report.

McKinnon  attacked the nation’s newspaper publishers for cutting the council’s funding, apparently in the belief that their shiny new lobby group, the Right to Know Coalition, could do everything the council aspired to do, other than the adjudication of complaints from the public.

The Press Council is surely one of Australia’s lowest profile and most anodyne industry self-regulation bodies, and not for the first time, there were those who were prepared to write it off as a force. Over its history it had sometimes been reluctant to bite the hands that fed it. Now it was in any case on reduced rations.

But now it seems that the man who replaced McKinnon, social activist and academic Julian Disney, has quietly achieved significant reform. And there is more to come. The Press Council may actually be on the way to becoming relevant.

Last Monday the council advertised in the Australian for a director of programs on a six-figure salary. This only a year after having to cut back its research efforts because of the funding cuts.

How can this be so?

The answer is that Disney has quietly persuaded the publishers to reverse about 60% of the cuts imposed in 2009. The reinstated funding will be used to hire the new officer, who will have a broad brief, in consultation with Disney, to lift the profile of the council.

Just as significant, Disney has arranged for News Limited’s proportion of the funding to be reduced. He said to me this week that he thought it undesirable for just one publisher to be so dominant. And who can disagree? But as anyone who has worked in the industry knows, usually if News Limited is going to be involved in something, it prefers to own or control it.

The changes mean that News Limited will now fund 45% of the council’s costs,  down from just over 50%. The slack has been picked up by modest increases in the proportions funded by Fairfax, ACP and APN.

And in a further move to ensure independence, the council’s funding will now be on a two-year-at-a-time basis, meaning it can plan ahead, as well as being insulated a little from the immediate impact of any hand biting that might be necessary.

Lastly, Disney has secured in principle agreement that the council can also seek funding from other, non-publisher sources. Where, exactly? Disney clearly has ideas, and I’d guess they are well advanced, but he’s not revealing them.

He rules out governments. He is considering philanthropists and business and other groups that might have an interest in good journalism. Reading between the lines, and knowing Disney’s background as head of the Australian Council of Social Services, and connections with business, I wonder if he plans an approach peak bodies.

Disney says that if and when more funding is obtained, another officer will be appointed, with the title Director of Standards, to  conduct a comprehensive review of the council with reference to best international practice.

Even more is going on. In the past few months Disney has visited the online editors of most of our major newspapers. He has been holding round-table discussions with leading industry figures and critics.

His predecessor, McKinnon, had ambitions to expand the reach of the council to cover, in this convergent age, broadcast and online media as well as print. His aspirations were sat on firmly by the publishers — another cause of frustration covered in his departing spray.

Could it be that Disney will now pick up this agenda?

And how has Disney achieved all this reform, at a time when the industry seemed to be abandoning the council? Disney says that it involved no fights or bitter battles. “I like to think that was because I prepared well,” he says. Also “I was hardly asking for the moon.”

Meanwhile, (and see the declaration of conflict below) it is worth nothing that Disney, the head of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, Chris Chapman, and the ABC’s director of editorial policies, Paul Chadwick, will all be participating in a session at the New News 2010 conference to be held as part of the Melbourne Writers festival in September.

This will be, so far as I know, the first time that the three main people charged with policing media standards and ethics in Australia will speak from the same platform.

And the declaration? This conference is being run, in partnership with Melbourne Writers Festival, by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation, of which I am the chair. For more information on the foundation, see here. And for information on the New News 2010, watch this space. The program will be released soon.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey