The trouble with taking an absolute ideological position on principle is that in practice it’s likely to bite you on the bum. Our freedom-loving, self-regulation-is-all-we-need colleagues at The Australian discovered this on Friday when they found themselves on the wrong end of an Australian Press Council adjudication.
This is all a tad embarrassing for The Oz, as they’ve been running countless editorials and opinion pieces attacking any form of government-backed media regulation, arguing that self-regulation through the recently “beefed up” APC is the only appropriate approach. News Limited CEO Kim Williams has hammered this theme in public speeches and a vaguely threatening letter to the government. You can trust the press to defend our democracy, Williams claims, but the public must trust the press to regulate itself through “a body independent of us”.
Maybe so, but when that body dares to find fault with something published by News Limited, don’t expect them to accept the umpire’s decision.
The case in point is last week’s APC ruling that found in favour of a complainant who’d claimed Phillip Adams had omitted a relevant fact when he described the notorious League of Rights activist Eric Butler as a “traitor” in a column for The Weekend Australian. It’s a rather peculiar and finicky finding — the Council’s stated principles don’t always sit comfortably with strong opinion writing — but rather than just meet their obligation to publish the text of the adjudication, The Oz spat the dummy as only they can when their journalism is questioned.
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A major news piece on page three by Nick Leys on Saturday canvassed the whole incident and included quotes from ACP chairman Julian Disney attempting to explain and justify the Council’s ruling. Leys did well to get Disney on the record — wiser Press Council heads have usually refrained from commenting on individual adjudications because to do so only implies that the decision is arguable.
Then, on page 18, The Oz went feral. A major feature in its Inquirer section by Christian Kerr began under a standfirst declaring “A Press Council ruling should make fans of Finkelstein stop and think”. What? And in case we missed this triumph of inverted logic, Kerr’s piece ended thus: “This Press Council Ruling should make Finkelstein fans stop and think just who they might be sharing their media with in a tighter-regulated environment.”
If there is a logical thread to that statement, it escapes me. The adverse ACP finding was the product of precisely the system of press self-regulation that the publishers of The Australian so repeatedly applaud.