Australian Press Council chairman Julian Disney has singled out the creation of uniform standards on the disclosure of sponsored content in newspapers and websites as one of the watchdog’s “top priorities”.

Disney says a more consistent approach to the use of advertorials, sponsored supplements and subsidised travel and accommodation would help avoid a “race to the bottom” as publishers cut costs.

Crikey yesterday reported the AFL, V8 Supercars and other sports bodies are paying for journalists’ travel and accommodation to sporting events, with the arrangements rarely disclosed to readers. Crikey reported last month Fairfax and News Limited did not disclose they had accepted trips to the Bo’ao Forum in China from summit founder Andrew Forrest. The ABC’s Media Watch also uncovered other examples.

“This issue is very much on our radar,” Disney told Crikey yesterday. “It’s becoming an increasingly relevant issue because of the commercial pressures facing newspapers … It will be one of our top priorities to focus on.”

The Press Council, which regulates print media and some online outlets, is preparing to release an updated set of general principles in September. A series of specific standards, expected to include conflict of interest issues, will follow.

Sponsored content remains a live issue at Fairfax almost two months after business journalist Paddy Manning lost his job for slamming “creeping advertorial” at the company. In resolution passed at a stopwork meeting on Tuesday, Sydney Morning Herald journalists said:

“There is evidence this company is already not adhering to the standards it must adhere to in relation to demarcation of advertorial.”

Journalists at the meeting requested the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance meet with Disney to begin work on new standards of practice around advertorial and sponsored content. The Press Council vowed to create new standards in this area last September after ruling on a controversial sponsored SMH “special report” on the National Broadband Network.

As for the issue of paid travel and accommodation, standards on disclosure vary wildly between different publications. The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald take a strict approach in their respective code of conduct and code of ethics: their codes state disclosure is mandatory on all stories where free or subsidised travel or accommodation has been provided. The broader Fairfax code of conduct, which covers journalists at The Australian Financial Review, makes no mention of the issue.

At News Limited, disclosure is at the editor’s discretion; News’s professional practice policy refers only to the approval, rather than the disclosure, of sponsored trips.

After Crikey‘s story yesterday, Daily Telegraph sports editor Phil Heads admitted the fact journalists were flown to a racing event in America earlier this month should have been disclosed in the stories. “We will make a point of disclosing this in the future,” he said.

“Like a number of media organisations, we have to share the expenditure of covering certain events, but in all cases we retain full and complete editorial independence.”

As publishers increasingly move online, Disney says there is a strong case for more transparency on potential conflicts of interest. He says unlike in print, where space is finite, it is easy to attach disclosures to online articles.

But any moves to toughen up disclosure requirements are likely to meet opposition from media companies, which are seeking to cut costs wherever possible and looking for new forms of revenue beyond traditional display advertising.