Several weeks ago Crikey, and our publisher Private Media, promised our own internal code of conduct. Like a lot of issues hashed out in the pages of Crikey our own bout of navel gazing was sparked by a story we were already covering. Our media writer Margaret Simons about News Limited’s code in the wake of parent company News Corporation coming under fire over the News of the World. The story provoked internal discussion amongst staff and management about writing up our own code, as our publisher Private Media’s stable of mastheads rapidly grows.

Since then, the announcement of the terms of an additional media inquiry in concert with the pre-existing Convergence Review has raised further questions around the regulation of online media.

While we’ve always referred internally to the MEAA code of conduct we acknowledged it was time for something more, and to be public about it.

We kicked off the discussion with an all-staff meeting shared across Private Media and the Business Spectator group. We invited Simons to host a broad discussion around media ethics and, as part of that, started drafting our own version of a code. Present at the talk were editors, journalists and management.

We hashed over case studies, asked questions relating to particular problems that we’d encountered and put forward hypothetical scenarios. The talk around the code centered around how it applied to online media and if there were any additional provisions that needed to be put in place for a purely online newsrooms.

But as Simons correctly pointed out at the time, it’s no good having a code if there aren’t a set of accompanying consequences to go with it.

In the weeks since, in discussions between publisher Eric Beecher, CEO Amanda Gome, SmartCompany editor and publisher James Thomson and myself, we’ve studied the code of ethics that inform journalists at outlets like The Guardian, The New York Times, Fairfax, News Limited and the ABC and standards from media regulators both here and overseas (eg: bodies such as the US Society of Professional Journalists).

The following code of conduct is applicable to all of the publications under the Private Media banner — that includes The Power Index, SmartCompany, StartUpSmart and  Property Observer.

We’ve drawn broadly on the MEAA code and our Crikey mission and added guidelines specifically related to the online space.

In addition to the code, we’ve established an in-house adjudication panel made up of myself, James Thomson and Amanda Gome to ensure that the public can take the issue further if they’re not satisfied with the corrections and right of reply process on offer.

We’ve also created a complaints form across all the mastheads for readers to use to ensure their complaint will go before the panel. As always, the best and most effective approach is to deal with the journalist and/or editor directly — and in the broad majority of cases this works for us and for our readers.

But what about the implications of the media inquiry announced last week for online publications like us? It’s not clear how a newly invigorated Press Council will regulate online media broadly, and at first glance it’s a potential minefield — define an online publisher for a start. In the broadest possible terms, that’s anyone who chooses to tweet or post updates on their Facebook page.

But if we focus initially on the bigger independent online outlets (and there aren’t many) there are some points of interest. There is some talk around trading basic regulatory protections such as access to shield laws in exchange for voluntarily signing up for regulation. Good for outlets like Crikey perhaps, but as Bernard Keane pointed out last week, not so much for resource-poor bloggers. As for how the regulation process would work, like pretty much everything else, that’s up for discussion.

Eric Beecher wrote in praise of the terms of the media inquiry last week:

“If the inquiry can formulate a regulatory structure with teeth – one that compels newspapers (and websites such as this one) to correct their editorial misdemeanours prominently (not buried at the bottom of page two) and quickly (within hours or days, not months) and therefore shames media companies into acting responsibly – that will be a major achievement.”

I’d argue that if anything, when it comes to fast correction and clarification, print could learn from online.

Unlike a large publisher in which a complaint or piece of correspondence can get lost in red tape and take days and sometimes weeks to deal with, we endeavour to come back to readers almost immediately. We publish almost every comment we receive through [email protected], we monitor the comments stream of our stories on the website and we reply to complaints and observations made to us on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. This won’t change and it’s still our preferred method of dealing with disagreements, corrections and mistakes — readers get to deal with the editor or deputy directly.

Julian Disney told Mumbrella earlier this year that the Press Council is: “… increasingly receiving complaints about online content which raise difficult issues about the extent to which existing standards and processes for print need to be adjusted or supplemented for online 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.”

I was present at the same Press Council roundtable that Simons wrote about last week — I was the only representative from a solely online publication present and I share her reservations about some prevailing attitudes around online media:

“… there was a distinct flavour of the internet being regarded as the source of all evil, due to the impact of rapid publication. Yet it is also a potential engine of transparency and interaction. If it wants to regulate internet publication, the council, in particular its public members, will have to become much more new media savvy.”

Disney has expressed an interest in sitting down with exclusively online publications to discuss establishing a relationship with the Press Council and any possible regulatory oversight. Engaging with the public online would be a start. The Press Council currently has no online strategy to engage with the public, instead they still talk in terms of public meetings and snail mail.

That’s a very old fashioned view. These days, when the public are struck by what they say as media malpractice, chances are they’ll take to the internet to express their outrage instead of penning a missive to the mail bag. The recent Choppergate scandal is a case in point. Discussion around the conduct of the journalists involved took place on Facebook and in the comments threads of news stories. Online media may have made news more instantaneous, but it’s also brought the public, and their outrage over shoddy media practices, much closer too. Provided, that is, publications and the Press Council don’t persist in keeping them at arm’s length.

We’re happy to keep talking to both the Press Council and the media inquiry on these points and to his credit, Disney seems willing to throw all of these issues on the table. But in the meantime, we’re getting on with maintaining our transparency and the trust of our readers regardless of any of these measures, because for online mastheads that’s one of their most valuable assets.

Ask any print publisher about their struggle to maintain the authority and trust of their masthead online — that’s partly because they’ve passed up the opportunity to speak back to their readers. Even a great initiative like The Sydney Morning Herald’s new readers’ editor hasn’t made a move to communicate with readers via social media. Instead the newly appointed Judy Prisk wrote: “The email address below will be open for business 24 hours a day (but please don’t expect me to be), however handwritten letters are welcome. You can also go online, if that is your wont, and leave comments about the column.”

So we’re not waiting around for results from the media inquiry, or the Press Council’s next move.  Traditionally, squeezing a correction/clarification or even a full right of reply from the papers is like pulling teeth. But we don’t have a problem with admitting mistakes, we offer full right of reply, and if we run a correction it won’t be buried on the online equivalent of page two of the next day’s paper (whatever that is …).

That, and I’m starting an editor’s blog. I’ll be writing about the newsroom, developments in the media in general, issues that have struck a chord with readers and generally getting wordier. Time to get the byline back. Just need to build it, now. Should be up within the week.

But enough about us. We’d like your thoughts on any of this stuff – email us at [email protected], tweet @crikey_news or talk back on our Facebook page.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey