The federal government’s print media inquiry concluded on Friday with a wide-ranging discussion about possible sanctions for breaching Press Council standards, including the imposition of fines or compensation payments of up to $40,000.
Inquiry chair Ray Finkelstein floated the suggestion to the head of the Press Council, Julian Disney, who said that it could be administered by a new "referral panel" that would be attached to the council but independent of it.
In his submission, professor Disney had lobbied for more resources and more power for a body, which has been described in the past as a "toothless tiger".
However, the previous speaker, David Flint, former chairman of the Australian Press Council and of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (now the Australian Communications And Media Authority) rejected the idea of financial penalties, saying that it would turn the Press Council into a "quasi-court". He also objected to the council taking public money.
Flint told the Fink: "I think that when people think they have been defamed, they should go to court.
"Federal governments in particular have a very long history of funding activities and organisations outside their constitutional remit, and very soon taking control," professor Flint wrote in his submission.
Flint reiterated that "there are now a splendid number of sources ... The idea that there is concentrated power in just one chain is just not so.
Currently, the council receives all of its funding from publishers and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. Professor Disney outlined that News Ltd pays 45% of Press Council funding and Fairfax pays 25%.
Professor Disney called for a doubling of funding to $2 million, which would enable the Press Council to increase staff numbers to eight. The oft-mooted idea of a "super media council", to include electronic and online media, was such a radical change that would take at least five years and mean creating a entirely new body, he said.
The inquiry, set up by the federal government in September, has been closely watched by lawyers and journalists. For most normal people, however, media regulation is like hair loss -- you don’t care about it until you are personally affected. I’m lucky enough to have not been defamed in print, apart from being called a horrible wanker by Gerard Henderson; a truth so self-evident that even my mother agreed with it.
It was hard for me to focus on the professors’ arguments, however, as the Crikey
editor had decided to ruin my day by making me "live-tweet" the proceedings. I am firmly of the view that live-tweeting (and sleeveless shirts) are only for the young and I am therefore exempt. But the lady was not for turning, and it took me at least an hour to find the right application, download it and work out how to use it. By the time I master phone hacking, Wyatt Roy will be retired.
Writing something in 140 characters and tweeting it, unedited, did bring home the insanely difficult issue of how to regulate the digital space. Finkelstein is due to produce a report for the federal government by February 28. And are there any votes in harsher penalties for journalists? You betcha.