The likelihood of a strong move to discourage abusive online comments threads in mainstream media outlets emerged at the media inquiry today, with inquiry head Ray Finkelstein and Australian Press Council chair Julian Disney agreeing they were damaging to democracy and freedom of speech.

Finkelstein raised comments made by Robert Manne yesterday in which he mentioned that he and Tim Flannery had been subjected to hundreds of defamatory comments online. Finkelstein said this was surely dangerous to democracy and freedom of speech.

Disney agreed, but said that he was less concerned about the “rough and tumble” for public figures such as Manne and Flannery. Of greater concern was abuse aimed at ordinary citizens who wanted to engage in debate.

“The greatest threat to freedom of speech in Australia is abuse of freedom of speech,” said Disney, and “a cacophony is not freedom of speech.”

He said the Press Council needed to encourage publishers who were prepared to moderate comments threads so that genuine engagement was encouraged. Some editors were moving towards this already, because of a recognition that abusive comments threads damaged the brand.

The exchange came at the end of Disney’s evidence. Earlier, Disney had outlined the reforms he had led at the Press Council since his appointment.

He also said that there was sufficient evidence to show that the media was falling short on adherence to Press Council standards, and the industry needed to address this.

The Press Council needed more power and resources, not only because of the action it could take on its own behalf but also because of the catalyst effect it could have on industry internal standards, which would always be the front line of complaint handling and regulation of journalist behaviour.

The Press Council needed to be able to respond quickly when issues arose, said Disney. He gave as an example the supposed Pauline Hanson photos published by News Limited tabloids. Had he been chair of the Press Council at that time, he would have wanted to speak to the editors that afternoon, and make a statement the following day, he said. But at present the council lacked the necessary resources to act quickly in major cases.

Many complaints were dealt with invisibly and quickly, with the council negotiating resolution with publishers out of public view. But for those complaints that went to formal adjudication, the average time taken was three months, he said.

He agreed that the Press Council’s current standards needed work, and that statistics kept so far were nearly meaningless.

As previously reported in Crikey, Disney has led a reform of the Australian Press Council, following the departure and major dummy spit of former chair Ken McKinnon in 2009.

Disney has persuaded the publishers to restore funding obviously cut, gained funding from other sources (the Myer Foundation) and instituted a view of standards, led by a new Standards Director, Derek Wilding, who was formerly with the broadcasting gulag or ACMA.

Disney was also in the ear of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in the lead-up to the terms of defence for the media inquiry being set, with the result that one term specifically mentions beefing up the council.

This morning he addressed the issue of independence, agreeing with Finkelstein that the public perception that the press council was in the pocket of the publishers was a problem. In fact, he said, only a third of council members were publishers, a fact that was not generally known. But what was needed was improved rigour and public profile rather than a complete disconnect from the industry.

Cutting the council off from industry skill and knowledge “of where the bodies are buried” would not be a good thing, he said.