News Limited will publish its internal Code of Professional Conduct for journalists on all its masthead websites, following the stoush between Crikey and News Limited spin doctor Greg Baxter over the code not being made easily available to the public.

Today, Crikey publishes the News Limited code in full.

And also today, Crikey editor Sophie Black commits (see below) this media organisation to developing its own code. Not before time.

Meanwhile, chair of the Australian Press Council Julian Disney has weighed in, saying it is “highly desirable” for newspapers and magazines to publish their internal ethical codes. He also announced the council is currently considering whether to issue guidelines on internal codes and complaints systems for print media organisations.

So in other words, its a win-win situation for transparency and availability of internal media codes.

Which has not stopped Caroline Overington of The Australian from describing me as a ranting pork chop this morning over my commentary on this issue over the past few days.

Nor has it stemmed the flow of correspondence from News Limited spin doctor Greg Baxter. Yesterday’s emails, with my response, are on my blog together with more testimony from News Limited journalists about their awareness or otherwise of the code.

This morning’s  correspondence with Baxter is below, with my response, because one of Baxter’s complaints is that I am running this material on my blog rather than in the Crikey email (in fact, it has run in both, sometimes in full, sometimes with links to my blog).

Baxter makes the commitment to publishing the News Limited code in this email, saying the reason it hasn’t been done before is because nobody has asked for it. Readers can make their own assessment of that excuse.

He, and Overington, also point out the code has been available on the ABC Media Watch website for some time. That is true, and I admit I had overlooked that. But how pathetic that, in proclaiming that the code is published, News Limited is forced to link not to its own site but to that of the public broadcaster. How good it is that this will now be put right.

We’ll save commentary on the code for another day. Readers might like to make their own comments, and emails are being received in confidence at [email protected].

Here’s the latest from Baxter:

Margaret, I don’t know why it is that you publish your allegations about News on Crikey but publish my responses on your blog which has a much much smaller readership. Actually I do know why but let’s not go there. That aside, you are in error on several fronts in your response to me as per the link you sent.

It is disingenuous to suggest that Crikey has not yet had time to create and publish a code of conduct. Crikey has been running for what, over a decade? Secondly, Crikey exists only online (leaving aside T-shirts and coffee mugs) so where else could it publish such a code. Thirdly, Crikey sets itself up both as part of the media and as a scrutineer of the media. But it clearly holds itself and its contributors to different standards than those it expects of the rest of the media.

Our code will be added to our masthead websites. There has never been any attempt to withhold it from the public. We simply have never been asked for it to be published in this way. We also honour the codes of the MEAA and the Press Council. Given that you and many others have had access to our policy for years and could have made it public at any time, the attempt to make us look shabby is facile.

Our policy is included in what we call starter packs which are information packs given to new employees before they start. They must sign an acknowledgement that they have received and read this information. In the wake of your item yesterday I had several emails from senior journalists describing you in unflattering terms. One confirmed that he was given a copy of our code when he joined us from Fairfax but that he had never received a code of conduct at any of the three mastheads he worked for in the Fairfax group. I know of two other recently hired senior people who have joined us from Fairfax who have had similar experiences.

You have criticised us for not making the code available. Clearly that is wrong. You have criticised us because a handful or two of our staff claim never to have seen it. I am sure you could find 10 or 20 people at the ABC and Fairfax and any of the FTA networks who haven’t read their codes if you look hard enough. Our code is freely available within the company and provided to all new employees, not just editorial staff. You then claimed our code wasn’t on Google. It is. It comes up on the first page including on the Media Watch website.

So, apparently, our sin now is that we have different policies in different states. You will find the policies are all essentially the same and I guess when we have nothing better to do we could assimilate them all into one policy that applies everywhere to satisfy the pedants who are concerned about a word here or a word there that is different depending on whether you are reading the HWT policy or the NWN policy.

You will be sent the new HWT policy today. It is being released today and editor in chief Phil Gardner is conducting two briefings for staff. These were planned to occur last week but Phil had laryngitis. As you rightly point out, the HWT code has been expanded and updated in a process that pre-dates the NOTW scandal. I am not aware that you have asked questions about it and not received answers but please send me your questions and I will arrange to have them answered today.

Greg Baxter| Director, Corporate Affairs

My response:

Dear Greg, when people respond to my stories, I try to publish that as soon as possible. Your first correspondence to me was sent on Friday afternoon. I put it on the blog because the next edition of the Crikey email was not until Monday lunchtime. I have posted all your correspondence to me as soon as practicable after receiving it, and then have also either published or hot linked to it in the next edition of the Crikey email. While the email has a bigger readership, my blog is free to view, which is not always the case for the email content. Also, your correspondence does drive up traffic.

I in no way excuse Crikey’s failure to develop a code. That was clear in what I wrote in response to you last time. But for News Limited to excuse it’s own failure to make its code easily available with reference to Crikey is ironic, to say the least.

As for awareness of the code internally at News Limited, the material I have published tells its own story, and I am content for people to make their own assessment.

I am very glad that News Limited will now publish the code on all its mastheads, and congratulate you on this decision.

This correspondence will also go on my blog, so you will have the benefit of both audiences.

Yours, Margaret Simons

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Crikey editor Sophie Black writes:

When it comes to a code of ethics Crikey has always referred internally to the MEAA code of conduct. But we’ll take this opportunity to establish our own code. We’ll draw broadly on the MEAA code and our Crikey mission and add guidelines specifically related to the online space (eg: moderation — see our moderation code of conduct here).

As part of our discussions we’ll look at the code of ethics that inform journalists at outlets like The Guardian, The New York TimesThe Age and the ABC.  We’ll also draw on standards from media regulators both here and overseas (eg: bodies such as the US Society of Professional Journalists).

As has been mentioned by Margaret Simons, the Press Council is currently undergoing a “standards review project” in a bid to reframe the organisation’s code of conduct, and has indicated the practice of online publications will be part of the process.

Chairman of the Press Council Julian Disney told Mumbrella earlier this year it is: “…increasingly receiving complaints about on-line content which raise difficult issues about the extent to which existing standards and processes for print need to be adjusted or supplemented for on-line content. The assertion by many editors that the same standards should apply to print and Internet does not appear to be appropriate or realistic in all circumstances. Certainly it is not always being applied in practice, even by some who espouse it.”

We’ve searched for any kind of code of ethics written specifically for a purely online publication, but so far have had no luck. If we’re wrong, we’d like to know. WikiLeaks has faced calls from some academics and commentators to publish its own code of ethics. It currently doesn’t have anything under that description on its website, but its About section explains in detail why it does what it does, how it verifies its material and its commitment to protecting sources’ anonymity.

The basic tenets of journalistic ethics should apply to any news publication and its staff, whether it’s based online or not. But it’s worth examining the rapidly changing online environment when informing our code, for example, providing extra guidelines around online publishing issues such as corrections. The UK Press Complaints Commission has recently published new guidelines for news publications on the prominence they should give to corrections, clarifications and apologies online.

We’re also interested in our readers thoughts on this — email us at [email protected]. Once we’ve finalised our code, we’ll publish it on the website. Watch this space …