Giving the press watchdog new teeth
Cartoon by Lindsay Foyle
The Press Council has plans to morph into an effective one-stop shop for all media complaints, writes Julian Disney
Early last year the Australian Press Council began a sustained program to strengthen our resources, complaints-handling processes, and the setting and monitoring of standards of media practice. We also increased our focus on online publishing by print publishers over whose websites we already had jurisdiction and by online-only publishers. A key goal was to strengthen media standards and thus enhance public access to reliable information and to genuine freedom of expression. Another goal was to strengthen the media’s credibility when resisting unwarranted interference on its freedom by governments, corporations or other powerful interests. The Council’s program recognised the need for convergent regulation of news media, a key aspect of the Convergence Review established by the Federal Government in 2010. It also foreshadowed the Print Media Inquiry by Ray Finkelstein which the Government established in September 2011, especially the term of reference concerning: Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to online publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints. The Council’s submission to the Convergence Review proposed a two-phase approach. First our structures and processes for both print and online media would be strengthened. Then, this model could be drawn on to create an Independent Council with responsibility for all news media. Most (though not all) funding for this Council would be from publishers but the Chair and most members would be chosen independently. This balance is greatly preferable to a regulator which is appointed and fully funded by government or, on the other hand, dominated by publishers. Our submission to the Finkelstein Inquiry concentrated on the first phase. Detailed proposals aimed at greatly boosting the adequacy and security of our funding arrangements as well as the independence and effectiveness of our work on complaints-handling and standards-setting. Mr Finkelstein endorsed the general direction, and much of the detail, of the Council’s submission but some publishers’ evidence led him to believe they would not provide the necessary resources. So he proposed a new body, entirely funded by government and without any direct publisher representation, although broadly similar in other ways to a strengthened Press Council. At the time of writing, the Convergence Review’s report has not been published and the Government’s response to it and the Finkelstein Report is unknown. But the Press Council has continued to develop our strengthening program and in early April we announced a major agreement with publishers to strengthen our funding and independence. The agreement addresses three key areas of concern which we put to the Finkelstein Inquiry and were acknowledged in its Report.