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Jun 6, 2012

Toothless tiger? Press Council bites hard, says News boss

Fining newspapers or forcing them to publish a right of reply when they are found to have breached standards would be a fundamental attack on free speech, according to News Limited’s editorial chief.

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Fining newspapers or forcing them to publish a right of reply when they are found to have breached standards would be a fundamental attack on free speech, according to News Limited’s editorial chief.

Campbell Reid, News Limited’s editorial director, told a forum in Sydney today that the current sanctions regime — which forces papers to publish Australian Press Council adjudications in a prominent position — is tough enough to keep journalists honest.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph has published two critical Press Council rulings this week – the first about its coverage of asylum seekers and the second about its coverage of lord mayor Clover Moore.

“All the people who say the Press Council is a toothless tiger haven’t been bitten by it,” Reid, a former editor of The Australian and The Daily Telegraph, said.

“An editor and a newspaper absolutely hate to devote space to somebody else’s opinion and assessment that the newspaper has done the wrong thing. It is a very public and prominent and painful procedure to go through — and we’ve signed up to it.

“The challenge for us is to be up front and quick and admit we’re wrong and accept the referee’s ruling. Beyond that is an attack on the fundamental freedoms of our society.”

Earlier, referring to the Finkelstein inquiry, he said: “The government has to do the hardest thing for all governments to do: keep their hand away from the regulatory button. This is about putting the Murdoch empire on trial for crimes committed overseas. It’s wrong.”

Reid spoke yesterday at Mumbrella 360, a forum hosted by media and marketing website Mumbrella. Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes was in the crowd, as was News Limited CEO Kim Williams.

In its submission to the Finkelstein inquiry, the Australian Press Council referred to the option of publications that repeatedly breach standards being fined up to $30,000 (but not by the council itself).

The Finkelstein inquiry didn’t recommend fines, but did suggest a statutorily mandated “right of reply” when a complaint is upheld.

Matthew Ricketson, the former Age journalist who assisted the Finkelstein inquiry, told the crowds at Mumbrella 360 that such a power would not curb freedom of speech.

“The way the inquiry’s report was covered in the mainstream media by and large was to suggest that we’d be off to Stalingrad or that we’re going back to the Reich Press Chamber in Nazi Germany, which was ludicrous,” he said.  “What’s envisaged is to provide a right of reply where a complaint has been upheld … to me that seems to add to freedom of speech.”

Press Council chairman Julian Disney told the forum that publishers were already moving to beef up the council before the Finkelstein inquiry and convergence review were announced. But he said the inquiries had compelled publishers to further increase the council’s funding and support a requirement that they must remain members for four years.

Disney’s preferred regulatory model is that only media companies that have signed up for self-regulation should be granted special privileges such as shield laws.

Membership of the Press Council is currently voluntary. Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media abandoned its membership when the four-year requirement was implemented recently.

Sydney Morning Herald publisher Peter Fray said that opinion polls showing journalists are not trusted by the public should not lead to a more heavy-handed regime.

“Journos don’t exist to be loved and don’t expect to be loved,” said Fray. “People need us and want us and the concept of not having us is a grave thought.”

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