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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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