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Jan 13, 2012

Complaints to Press Council double -- so will it beef up?

Those who are inclined to write off the Press Council might be given pause by the fact that the number of complaints it receives has doubled since October.


Few things are certain in media at the moment, but one of the sure bets of the new year is that the sorry old beast of the Australian Press Council will be at centre stage, thanks to the federal government’s media inquiry, headed by Ray Finkelstein, QC, which reports next month.

It was clear from the inquiry’s public hearings late last year that The Fink, as he has become known in media circles, had “bought” large elements of the media self-regulation model proposed by reformist Press Council chair Julian Disney. Namely, a better funded and resourced Press Council with more power to act firmly and quickly.

The discussion is around the details of where the money should come from (government, industry or both) and whether there should be statutory carrots and sticks to pressure media organisations to sign up — including tying the privileges journalists get under privacy law, trade practices law and shield laws to membership of the council.

Those who are still inclined to write off the Press Council might be given pause by the following news. The number of complaints it receives has doubled since October.

Disney yesterday told Crikey that the council is now receiving 15-20 complaints a week — more than twice the number it is used to getting. This is already placing a strain on the organisation’s scant resources.

One particularly high-profile complaint received in recent weeks is one is from former leader of the opposition Mark Latham, and concerns The Daily Telegraph. Crikey reproduces that complaint today.

The reason for the increased number of complaints is almost certainly the profile already bestowed by the Finkelstein inquiry and associated publicity, although the fact that most newspapers are now running the Press Council logo and contact details more prominently may also account for some of it.

The increased number of complaints will put pressure on those industry figures who have argued that no more funding is needed for what has been, in times past, a piece of self-regulation window dressing. But it also makes it clear that regardless of what The Fink recommends, the Press Council is already in the game, relevant, and of increased importance.

Given that most media organisations oppose any role for government in regulating journalistic practice, you would think they would be particularly scrupulous at the moment about being seen to do the right thing without statutory carrots and sticks.

Not so. One recent case study suggests that some in the media have yet to get with the program.

In the Finkelstein public hearings last November, News Limited’s group editorial director Campbell Reid emerged as the nice guy, saying that he not only supported increased funding for the council (with some caveats) but also that he had recently admonished a News Limited editor for not giving sufficient prominence to a council adjudication.

Reid has not responded to requests for comment, so we don’t know what he thinks of recent actions, or rather lack of actions, over what is surely a landmark and damning Press Council adjudication finding that The Daily Telegraph’s reporting of the National Broadband Network has been seriously inaccurate.

This matter began with a complaint to the council from Jamie Benaud about three articles published in June and July last year. Benaud has written about his reasons for making the complaint, and the follow-up on the Whirlpool forum. Benaud had no vested interest. As he puts it:

 “I finally got sick of the beat-ups in the press about the NBN and decided to do something about it.”

The original complaint is here; Benaud’s response to The Tele’s  defence is here.

His complaint was upheld. In its adjudication issued in December the Press Council found all three articles contained inaccuracies and were variously “misleading”, “unfair”, “clearly and seriously inaccurate” that corrections had not been made and that in one case an attempt at clarification had also been inaccurate:

“The council expressed concern that within a short period of time three articles on the same theme contained inaccurate or misleading assertions. It considers that this sequence of errors should not have occurred and that they should have been corrected promptly and adequately when brought to the newspaper’s attention.”

Relevant context includes that the Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has been one of News Limited’s main critics, and the reporting of the NBN one of the areas in which the Murdoch organisation faces allegations of unfair anti-government campaigning.

But if you think this means that The Daily Telegraph would leap to be seen to do the right thing, then you would be wrong. The Press Council adjudication was originally meant to be published on December 22. It wasn’t. Instead it appeared in print on Boxing Day, when most of us would have been in post-Yuletide slumber. And it was on page 104, in the world news section — much less prominent than the original articles.

Nevertheless, what some might regard as shameful still meets the Press Council’s current standards, and Disney isn’t whingeing about it.

What does concern him, though, is that The Tele has yet to publish the adjudication online, and has yet to annotate or correct the online versions of the inaccurate articles online. You can still see them, sans any indication that they are wrong (and in the second case that the clarification is also misleading), here, here and here.

Disney tells Crikey he suspects the lack of online correction is not a deliberate flouting of the rules, but that the Council is nevertheless following up with News Limited to attempt to secure compliance. Action is also under way to tighten up the guidelines on how publishers should treat the council’s adjudications.

Meanwhile, in the industry battle to convince that there is no need for increased regulation of media, this affair would have to count as an own goal.

News Ltd was approached for comment on this matter, but had not responded by deadline.


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28 thoughts on “Complaints to Press Council double — so will it beef up?

  1. Mark from Melbourne

    Paraphrasing the great Jerry Jeff Walker –

    “I took 2 steps backwards and gave ’em a dropkick in the crotch. I believe in talking to media organisations but first you’ve got to get their attention”…

  2. shepherdmarilyn

    Well Greg Sheridan and the Australian have been found to be wrong on any number of occassions for calling asylum seekers “illegal immigrants” but they do it anyway without apology.

    Just last week in fact Sheridan was at it again.

  3. Gavin Moodie

    The first remedy for breaching Press Council standards and for defamation should be a correction given the same prominence as the breach or defamation.

  4. Steve777

    No one wants to put restrictions on the freedom of the press to publish and comment on FACTS that may be embarrassing to Governments, businesses or celebrities. In fact I think there are too many now (e.g. libel laws as they operate in this country). Also, media organisations, like anyone else, do have a right to push their interests, as long as they don’t pretend it’s news. But some media outlets, especially the Murdoch tabloids, seem to be getting away with metaphorical murder. We do need to have some way to call to account instances when misleading or false information is published either deliberatly to further some agenda of the organisation or through sloppy reporting / editorial processes.

    An ability to enforce a requirement for the publication of corrections / clarifications with equal prominence to that of the original story, as soon as practicable after the offending article was published, would serve that purpose. If a media outlet had to publish something which meant, in effect ‘We were wrong’ on page 1 every time they actually were wrong, this would I believe lead to a much higher standard of news and reporting than we have now, without in any way hindering the right to publish facts and (clearly identified) commentary and opinion.

  5. Andybob

    Equal prominence be stuffed.
    All Press Council ordered corrections and clarifications should be on Page 1 displacing advertising. They need more incentivising.

  6. Mark out West

    Everyone bangs on about the freedom of the press, which means freedom to hide behind that idea while producing partisan articles that do nothing for clarification of an issue.

    The Press council should ask “how” it was that the article was published, poor journalism or management direction. The answer should be published and what remedies that are taking to address these issues.

    It really grates that there are SO MANY sycophantic company men receive these protection under law so they can promote their employer’s agenda.

    The privileges that they request should be provided on a case by case basis based on a public interest criteria or they should lose the privilege if found not be of highest journalistic standards that require such protection.

    Let’s be real there are only a handful of journo’s out there that write stuff that warrant such protection.

    Journo’s are the only industry that are able to self promote this idea that they some how promote openness and accountability when in the most part in australia it is partisan Bullsh#t.

  7. rossco

    The weakness of the Press Council process to date is that a complaint can be upheld and the offending newspaper only has to publish the finding. However the paper (and others) can keep repeating the offence ad infinitum without any penalty. As Marilyn has noted above the Press Council has on its records a determination that asylum seekers should not be called “illegals” as they are not illegal. All papers continue to ignore that ruling with no consequences.

  8. fractious

    The only things more spineless, gutless and chinless than the APC are members of the Protozoa. Nevertheless I hereby support any move to replace the current members of the APC by amoeba, since amoeba don’t have bank accounts or super funds to protect.

  9. Liamj

    Interesting proposal Fractious, however amoeba may be over-qualified – i suspect they would take up any morphological advantages on offer, where-as the APC seems dead set against developing any spine or teeth.

  10. klewso

    Reading between their lines, I thought Limited News was above such mundane matters as “balanced presenation” and “acceptable social behaviour”? That their actions were beyond reproach and question, from anybody?
    They work for the Sun King – His will be dun!

  11. Suzanne Blake

    But the NBN is a huge white elephant and Conroy is incompetent and sneaky, by ensuring NBN contracts have clauses that telco cannot release a faster service. That is anti – competitive and against the former Trade Practices Act (Australian Consumer Law), just that Conroy is above the law

  12. shepherdmarilyn

    Yeah and the original telegraph was a huge white elephant, no-one ever said in the beginning that we would all have phones.

  13. A. N. Onymus

    Thanks for your many articles, Margaret.

    I have gone to all of the links in this one, but am a bit confused. (I have not yet read the Whirlpool thread; perhaps there is something in it that will clarify part, or all, or my confusion.)

    The last paragraph of his original complaint (which is dated 19th July 2011) is “Should I not receive a positive response by 5 June 2011, I will be forwarding this complaint to the Australian Press Council.” How can a response to a complaint be received forty-four days before the complaint is lodged?

    Clicking on your link to his response to the newspaper’s defence, I see only “Page 2 of 3” and “Page 3 of 3”. Where is page 1? What is the date of this response?

    Is there a link to the newspaper’s defence?

    Thank you.

  14. CliffG

    The Press Council is more accurately a Press Club. A cheery bunch of media mates, out of touch with the media aspirations of the nation, a pal-sy little bunch, utterly blind to the abysmal state of Australia’s media and their pathetic under performance and which regards complainants as loonies and dismisses them.
    Australians deserve better than the hysteria and misrepresentation of “The Herald Sun” or the anti government agenda of “The Daily Telegraph” (so favoured for all too obvious reasons by John Howard) to name just two. Robert Manne’s “Quarterly Review” analysis of “The Australian” exposes that newspaper as being agenda driven, prone to personal vendetta and vicious attacks on its critics. Radio shock jocks inflame and distort issues daily and Australia yawns once its briefly hyperventilated blood pressure returns to its normal level.
    And the hysteria, the lies, even the contributions to racist beach brawls go on with impunity. One shock jock calls for our Prime Minister to be killed and where is the Press Council?
    Australians have had enough. Newspapers (if you can call them that) sales are in decline, public distrust is at an all time high and people have simply stopped believing what they, hear read and view from the Australian media.
    All under the blind and disinterested gaze of the Press Council. Those great defenders of “democracy” the right of all in the media to invent as they wish, to lie, to exaggerate, to inflame and distort, to blow as many dog whistles as they wish and press the fear and xenophobia buttons as often as they wish.
    Were it not so deeply serious it could be the greatest joke of the millennium.

  15. Lord Barry Bonkton

    The public need a brick wall and a .303 for the media when they lie and distort the truth – Front page for all false story complaints .
    Roll on the Global Mail.

  16. Suzanne Blake

    @ Lord Bonkers

    If that was the case ABC News – 24 would be history

  17. Cuppa

    The ABC also needs a good hard looking into.

  18. Tom McLoughlin

    I just want to make the trade practices point. When you buy a coffeee, it has to be made of – you know – coffee.

    Somewhere along the line the Australian public have been brainwashed into thinking when they buy a “newspaper” it doesn’t have to have the basic elements of unvarnished “news”. A campaign or a political bias is not “news” it is propaganda.

    “Journalists” are supposed to be trained to know the difference. And if editors distort the work of real journalists then that surely is misleading and deceptive conduct that every other business retailer in the country could be prosecuted for. But somehow “newspapers” can exploit the free speech principle to avoid this basis integrity test.

    For a long while now I refer to the News Corp as both the Sydney Daily Liberal Party newsletter, and white supremacist in philosophy. I stand by both descriptions. Newspaper – I don’t think so.

  19. Lord Barry Bonkton

    S.B , its Lord Barry Bonkton to you, and going by some of your articles, most people here would want you against the wall too.

  20. Suzanne Blake

    @ Lord Bonkers

    Labor bully as usual. You guys don’t learn do you. Just like the HSU, alleged corrupt bullies. I suppose you are off to visit the Labor MP’s in jail today for their Sunday visit.

  21. Jenny Haines

    Like Marilyn I would love to complain about parts of the media and their coverage of the refugee and asylum seeker issue. Distortion and lies are common. Some parts of the media are nothing more than a cover for Hansonism. But nothing gets done by the Press Council. They are toothless tiger and the media laughs at them. Meanwhile public hatred and vilification of refugees and asylum seekers continues causing them mental health problems that may scar them for life. That’s our not so lovely society for you!!

  22. Schnappi

    Wonder if SB uses underarm deodorant,or is her party just biased against migrants who shower everyday

  23. guytaur

    It is simple. Newspapers have no leg to stand on against government oversight. Why?
    We have experience of government oversight. The body that oversees radio and television.
    It seems to me that Alan Jones has no problem expressing his views.
    Given that I see no problem with government oversight and regulation.
    The only condition that needs to be put on that is oversight provisions to stop the government using licensing as an excuse to curb freedom of speech. Not a problem now but I can see where with all media regulated by government it could be.

  24. Lord Barry Bonkton

    S.B/TTH/Geewiz I vote Green and sorry i went to see a Lib senator in jail, but they said because she Payed Lots of money (Bribe ) in barristers fees , she got off the Theft charge and a down graded Assault charge and is running around dancing in public again. So who are these Labor mp’s in jail ? or are they just in your mind ????????????????????????????????

  25. Suzanne Blake

    @ Lord Bonkers

    Milton Orkorpolous in jail for childrens se x offences committed in Australia. There are others pending having been dealt with by Independ Commission against Corruption.

    How many times has Bob Brown been arested in his life?

  26. Lord Barry Bonkton

    S.B /TTH, GEEwiz So only one ? My soon to be ex- Cr Hajnal Black (ex- LNP hopeful ) Abbott opened her office and then she got caught with her fingers in someones Fathers money jar (another Sophie Mirabella sugar daddy ) and stole $1.3 Million. Funny she is a Barrister , but dumb as a brick, and she is defending herself ? in court as the L.C.Council is taking her to court as well for not putting the $1.3 million on the council register. It will be bye bye money and job.

  27. Schnappi

    My understanding is that bob brown was arrested as an activist,in particular against the franklin dam,which the liberals wanted to destroy a pristine area for their business mates.
    Would appear brown is no criminal as he could not remain in parliament if he was,would appear SB inuendo about brown is pure fascism.

  28. Oscar Jones

    I think Fairfax are a bigger problem because they rely on the perception of propriety.

    You know what you get with News Corp.

    I and a team have been attempting to get an online article corrected (that was reproduced around the world) that was full of falsehoods about an 87 year old woman. An English newspaper published a front page retraction after a British lawyer’s heavy letter.

    I sat in legal conferences and saw counsel’s advice that the article was defamatory but the pensioner decided against legal action because of her age and the cost.

    Not only do Fairfax (and their publishing editor) ignore all correspondence , but because the complaint to the Press Council was ‘out of time’ although the PC still passed on our concerns, they ignored the PC ‘s letter.

    They did however finally remove a photograph they published that had been stolen from that pensioner. No apology. No explanation. The Press Council and Disney are useless.

    Fairfax can explain to the police why they handled a stolen item.


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