The Press Council needs to do a better job, its chairman Julian Disney admits. “We know we need to lift our game,” he told The Power Index yesterday, “but we intend to do that.”
But the council will need money, staff and new powers before it can become a proper watchdog. And Disney is hoping it will get these from the new media inquiry to be conducted by Ray Finkelstein QC.
“We have four staff at the moment, and two of these are administrative positions,” Disney said. “So there’s a physical limit to what we can do.”
One area in which the Press Council could improve its performance is in enforcing its basic principles, which state, inter alia, that “publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced” and that “publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the by-lined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion”.
Disney says the council intends to work harder to ensure accuracy and fairness, and will be targeting three areas: “opinion masquerading as fact”, “misleading headlines”, and “publications not making sufficient effort to find out the facts”.
Commenting on actions by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which is currently looking at five complaints of bias and/or factual inaccuracy against Alan Jones and 2GB, Disney says he would prefer the Press Council to not have to wait for complaints. “I’d like to get someone of the calibre of Ray Finkelstein to monitor the coverage of an issue for three months and report back, but we haven’t got the money to do that at the moment.”
Disney recognises that in “grave and persistent cases” of bad behaviour, the Press Council needs to have teeth. He says these could be given to a statutory tribunal (of the sort that lawyers have to face) or possibly to ACMA. But since newspapers aren’t licensed in the way that radio and TV stations are, there are clearly fewer penalties available for print media.