The print media’s watchdog has announced its incoming chairman, and as far as the media is concerned, he’s cleanskin.

“I don’t know him at all,” says Minter Ellison’s Peter Bartlett, who often acts for Fairfax. “No media experience? He’s the perfect choice,” ran the (satirical?) headline in The Australian on his appointment.

The chairman of the Press Council can’t, according to its constitution, have been an employee or proprietor in the media industry. But even accounting for that, the American-born David Weisbrot is a relative unknown to the proprietors with whom he’ll still be sparring. He’s the longest-serving head of the Australian Law Reform Commission, having led the body for 10 years, until 2009. He’s currently an emeritus professor at Sydney University.

His appointment comes at a difficult time for the Press Council, with outgoing chairman Julian Disney inciting the wrath of Australia’s media publishers when he tried to beef up the council’s powers. Disney used the threat posed by the Finkelstein Report’s recommendations to secure greater concessions and funding from major media organisations, but it proved too much for Seven West Media, publisher of The West Australian, which walked away in 2012 and has yet to rejoin the fold. News Corp, meanwhile, subjected Disney to a concerted campaign of criticism earlier this year. Fairfax, the other main funder, has largely stayed silent.

So will Weisbrot continue in Disney’s footsteps, or will he carve out a new path that’s perhaps a bit more compliant to the wishes of the council’s major funders?

Speaking to Crikey this morning, Bartlett described Weisbrot as a “safe” appointment. “If they selected an ex-media person, there’d be criticism of that. So the council made a safe decision in choosing an academic. But Australia has a large number of academics with experience in media and communications, and they’ve steered right away from that. They’ve gone for someone with no background in the media.”

But barrister Les McCrimmon, who worked with Australian Law Reform Commission and at the University of Sydney, says Weisbrot is a “terrific” appointment, dismissing suggestions the former head of the Australian Law Reform Commission doesn’t understand the press. “I’m in awe of his intellect and ability to grasp information and ideas,” McCrimmon says. “He hasn’t been a journalist … but he has a very deep interest in the processes of government, the proper functioning of the media and its importance to democracy. And he’s published widely on matters of public interest.”

In his period atop the Press Council, Disney became a controversial figure. How would Weisbrot handle the scrutiny and recriminations? McCrimmon is hopeful. “He doesn’t take a defensive stance to criticism. He just explains why decisions were made in a very clear and thoughtful way. I’d have thought that would stand him in very good stead for the role. For example, with the privacy report, he dealt with that very well.”

McCrimmon is referring to what is perhaps the most controversial aspect of Weisbrot’s appointment. In 2008, the ALRC controversially released a paper, with Weisbrot’s blessing, recommending a tort of privacy. This was met by howls of outrage in the media. Bartlett called it “an extraordinary attack on freedom of the press in this country”. Some of the main criticisms were summarised by The Australian’s legal editor Chris Merritt, who wrote:

“… the ALRC’s statutory privacy tort would introduce a system of penalties that are far more onerous than anything ever experienced by the Australian media. It would establish a system that has the potential to be in conflict with the brand new federal shield law that protects journalists’ confidential sources. It would also negate the decision of the Labor states of six years ago to eliminate those parts of the state defamation laws that were operating as a quasi-privacy tort.”

Even today, Bartlett told Crikey the recommendations had tried to address a problem that wasn’t there. “The report was a wonderful and very impressive analysis of the issues, but the recommendations went far further than was justified on the basis of the number of serious privacy breaches we see in Australia,” he said.

“It’s an important time for the Press Council,” Bartlett said. “It needs to show it is independent and strong. But he’ll have to run a fine line … I think he has a very difficult task ahead of him.”

Weisbrot declined to comment this morning. He takes up his position in March 2015.

Peter Fray

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