The embattled chairman of the Press Council says he’d rather have an effective council with fewer members and less money than the alternative.

Julian Disney, who has been under fire in recent weeks as The Australian newspaper accuses him of being an out-of-touch activist keen on controlling the Australian print press, told Crikey this morning the biggest danger for the Press Council wasn’t losing the support of News Corp, but rather pretending to be something it was not.

News Corp owns the majority of newspapers in Australia and provides around half of the Press Council’s funding. In recent weeks News Corp flagship The Australian has attacked both specific adjudications and the broader direction of the Press Council. News Corp’s CEO has indicated he is fully supportive of the campaign. But Disney says that “if the price of maintaining support is that the Press Council can’t be effective, it’s not worth having the money”.

“There’s no point of us taking the money and not doing our job properly,” he told Crikey. “If it’s a choice between the two, the job comes first.”

Disney’s comments come as representatives of Australia’s major publishers throw their support behind Disney and condemn the “misrepresentations” made in The Australian about the Press Council and its chair, passing a resolution supporting him at their August 28 meeting. The 23-member Press Council includes the representatives of various publishers, as well as nine non-industry members and several independent journalists. The vote was unanimous with one abstention, believed to have been News Corp representative Campbell Reid.

It’s a significant coup for Disney, as the council explicitly reaffirmed its confidence in him.

Disney has been widely described by industry observers as a far more robust chairperson than past chairs. “We’ve tried to strengthen the council, which is what I was asked to do when I was originally appointed,” he says. “I felt the council needed to be more effective, and that desire was increased during the Finkelstein inquiry. And it was often said, by News Corp in particular, that the council then was being beefed up and that I was doing a good job.”

“It’s hard to see how the Press Council can remain independent if publishers control the purse strings.”

The Australian has repeatedly accused the Press Council of overstepping its mark, but Disney says he doesn’t believe he’s gone beyond the council’s pre-existing responsibilities. Instead, he points to failures to meet those standards in previous years. “That failure was why it was generally agreed during the Finkelstein inquiry that the council didn’t have a lot of public credibility.

“My bottom line is we mustn’t deceive the public. The public were told by publishers and by me, which is why I feel a special responsibility to do this, that the Press Council was being strengthened and that it would be more effective. If we’re not going to be able to do that, the public needs to know.”

Towards the end of last week Disney announced he would step down from adjudicating any complaints involving News Corp during the remainder of his time atop the council (he’s due to step down in January). He says the decision will allow him to be a more robust spokesperson and will free him to more fully address News Corp’s complaints against him. “It’s impossible for the spokesperson to both chair adjudication panels and speak freely when problems arise,” he said.

The past few weeks have revived arguments that self-regulation of the press is no regulation at all. For example, former Media Watch executive producer David Salter wrote recently in Crikey that self-regulation was “little more than a charade”, with the Press Council having no power to enforce its decisions and the publishers effectively able to get away with whatever they wanted.

But Disney says the Press Council model is more accurately described as “independent regulation”.

“We’re funded by the industry, but they don’t control us. It’s important they continue to fund us in a hands-off way. The money is meant to be provided to us on a  basis that it doesn’t interfere with our independence.”

In practice, it’s hard to see how the Press Council can remain independent if publishers control the purse strings. Disney acknowledges this tension, and says he’d prefer the existence of a single regulator, funded by publishers, that covered both print and broadcast media. “The real tragedy of the Finkelstein review is that we didn’t move towards such a body, that wouldn’t be as dependent on funding by publishers in dire commercial positions. The range of publishers on such a council would be broadened, lessening the power of any one. I don’t know of any overseas press council where so many of the major publications subject to it are from the same publisher. It would be better to have a wider range of publishers.

“That was a tragically lost opportunity.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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