After a fortnight of predictable frothing about how the Finkelstein report is the greatest threat to press freedom since Stalin was a boy, is News Limited quietly preparing the ground for a more moderate position on print regulation? In today’s The Australian, veteran Murdoch spruiker Mark Day’s column meandered through issues of complaints against the media without taking the obligatory head-kick at Finkelstein. Last Thursday the Chief Government Whip, Joel Fitzgibbon, was given modest space on the commentary page of The Australian to hose down some of the alarmism that’s greeted what he described as Finkelstein’s “sensible reforms”.

Then on Saturday, The Weekend Australian carried a column by Mike Steketee who ever-so-gently answered the main objections to Finkelstein pushed by editorials and other commentators in his own paper. Steketee made the obvious point that radio and television already operate under government regulation without any apparent inhibition of their editorial freedoms. Similarly, the ABC continues to maintain its independence despite being directly funded by government, as do the Reserve Bank, the ACCC and the entire judiciary.

Only an in-house national affairs writer of Steketee’s long standing and authority might be allowed to challenge the News Limited editorial line in this way, and he was careful to devote the closing third of his column to a broader review of possible new roles for the Press Council, and to uncritically report the opinions of its chairman, Julian Disney.

And thereby hangs an interesting tale, especially for The Australian. Disney has, of late, made himself highly visible in the public debate on print regulation. Alongside a transparent campaign of empire building for the council (greater jurisdiction, more funding) the chairman and his staff have churned out plenty of high-minded submissions and speeches about “quality” journalism, the rise of internet outlets and the sacred role of a free press. Such rhetoric is, of course, their bread-and-butter shtick, but it’s the council’s recent deeds, not words, which may have rattled a few cages at News Limited.

Last Friday the council released its latest batch of complaint adjudications. One of these was a finding against The Australian made on March 9 (of which News Limited would, as a professional courtesy, have been made aware well before the release date of March 23). The original complaint was made by the Commonwealth Solicitor-General, Stephen Gageler SC, about a front-page report in The Australian last year of a High Court hearing in which he’d appeared. Council’s finding has huge ramifications for general newspaper practice in handling corrections, so it’s useful to quote the adjudication at some length:

“The article stated that a Justice had ‘expressed his frustration at Mr Gageler … saying his efforts in court was [sic] highly ‘unsatisfactory’ and ‘half-baked’. After an approach by Mr Gageler, the newspaper published a correction comprising two agreed sentences on the following day, stating that, in fact, the Justice ‘was referring to the Commonwealth’s preparation of an affidavit for the court hearing’.

”The correction appeared on page 2, as previously notified to Mr Gageler, but he complained to the Press Council that it had not been given sufficient prominence to remedy the damage to his reputation. It appeared at the bottom of the left-hand column under a small heading ‘Correction’, immediately preceded by many lines in small print giving details of the publisher and printers in each State which did not encourage readers to read that corner of the page. Mr Gageler said many commentators had picked up the original statement but he knew of none who had picked up the correction.

“The Press Council concluded that the prominence did not meet its requirement that a correction has ‘the effect, as far as possible, of neutralising any damage arising from the original publication and … Is likely to be seen by those who saw’ the original material. It should have been made more prominent by measures such as higher positioning on the page and a larger heading or prominent box. Given the gravity of the damage to Mr Gageler’s reputation by the front-page report, the attention of readers of that report should have been attracted by including his name in the heading of the correction or in a front page pointer to it. Accordingly, the complaint is upheld.”

Ouch. The council has reminded The Australian that the old newspaper principle that you can slander someone on the front page in six-inch type and then bury the correction in six point the next day isn’t good enough — at least if your victim was the Commonwealth Solicitor-General. It will be interesting to see if other complainants now take this finding as a precedent to pursue genuine “due prominence” for their apologies, retractions, clarifications and corrections (Council General Principle 2).

Despite this latest slap on the wrist from the Press Council, there’s no doubt News Limited would still prefer to be self-regulated by a body they help maintain and pay for rather than a genuinely independent government-funded authority. But just in case, are they leaving that door just slightly ajar?