After months of ongoing discussions, Private Media, publisher of Crikey, is officially joining the Australian Press Council.

The decision comes at a time of intense discussion about the role of the regulatory body, in the wake of the Finkelstein Inquiry’s recommendation that a new government-funded media complaints body, the News Media Council, incorporating both the Press Council and the broadcasting regulator ACMA, be established.

“We’re joining the Press Council because we were invited and because we believe in the concept of a media complaints system,” said Eric Beecher, chairman of Private Media, which also publishes The Power Index, Smart Company, Property Observer, Leading Company and StartUp Smart. “We also believe that the producers of online journalism should be part of the complaints system.”

Our critics have often accused Crikey of hypocrisy for not previously joining the council. But our reluctance was never based on the suggestion that we should not be part of an independent complaints system or that somehow online media should be beyond the scope of the editorial expectations placed on print media. Our hesitation was based on the belief the Press Council had no real understanding of how online media worked.

I was present at the same Press Council roundtable that Margaret Simons wrote about in September of last year — and as the only representative from a solely online publication present, I shared her reservations about the Press Council’s 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.”

Quite a bit has changed since then, not to mention the release of the Finkelstein report.

Much hysteria has circled around Finkelstein’s suggestion of a government-funded regulator, with not a lot of column inches devoted to just why he came down on the side of establishing a whole new government-backed body, rather than simply beefing up the Press Council.

In Finkelstein’s view, the media proprietors responsible for funding the Press Council, and submitting to its code of practice, had their chance. And they blew it. Comprehensively.

Finkelstein’s choice to push increased, enforced regulation is a reflection of his deep scepticism over the idea that media proprietors could ever adequately regulate themselves, based on their track record. And he lists a multitude of examples to support his assertion.

Predominantly, though, Finkelstein’s comprehensive and thoughtful report, and his findings, are based on the record of the print press.

As we’ve noted, along with online outlets like Mumbrella, there’s not much in the 500-page review for online publications. Or, as Simons noted bluntly in her op-ed on the review, Finkelstein “clearly knows nothing about new media”.

Even less than the Press Council displayed back in August of last year.

The difference? Since August, the Press Council has sought to engage with online publications and subsequently has given some thought to what they could offer digital media in exchange for membership. They’ve addressed the issue of fee structure and how that factor alone could potentially exclude many start-ups, and started to consider the unique challenges that online publications face such as moderation.

Thus, they outlined in their press release response to the Finklestein report:

“The Press Council’s submission proposed, in effect, a combination of Mr Finkelstein’s two reform options. Its proposal involved strengthening the Council in the print and online are over the next 3-4 years and then transforming it into a body which covers news and comment in all media. This new body was designed to avoid the risks of excessive government influence and legalism which apply to the body proposed by Mr Finklestein.”

We remain, like Finklestein, sceptical of the media’s will to regulate themselves. The Press Council is very much a work in progress, and its efficacy will depend on factors such as further funding and a much bigger pool of resources.

But in a relatively short time it has transformed itself from an increasingly irrelevant media mouthpiece on life support to one that is increasingly striving for independence and a leading role in navigating a path through our rupturing media landscape.

“Like many others, we support the beefing up of the Press Council to give it more resources, and ideally greater funding that is independent of the big media companies who currently fund the council and can withdraw their funding if they don’t like the way it operates,” Beecher said.

“But you can’t always have the ideal, and in the meantime we’re joining and supporting the Press Council, and we hope other independent online publishers do the same.”

It’s been suggested that a possible outcome of the Finklestein report will be a strengthened Press Council, which in time will be expanded to cover all media — and yes, that would have to mean changing the name, quaint as it is.

That is our overwhelming preference. But it will also depend on publishers, as Press Council chairman Julian Disney put it, guaranteeing “substantially improved financial support for the Press Council. They also would need to accept measures aimed at providing the council with due independence from them and to co-operate with strengthening its powers to remedy media mistakes.”

That’s the model we want to throw our weight behind — and one that also goes far beyond regulating online like print to actually recognise and contribute solutions to the challenges that new media presents, whether they be issues of financial sustainability, or the chance to offer a range of skills, advice, research and findings around issues ranging from right of reply to defamation, advertising and business models. This same body will have to be agile and substantially change its current snail mail practices, and it will need to provide a thoughtful, detailed and relevant response to the upcoming Convergence Review findings.

A body like that would suddenly become a whole lot more relevant to the future of journalism and new media. For now, we’re willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Peter Fray

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