Explainer: The Australian Press Council

What is the Australian Press Council?

The Australian Press Council is a non-profit organisation whose primary duty is to deal with complaints about published material from ordinary citizens and then to encourage publications to write apologies for the offensive or defamatory material in response to the complaint. The Council receives approximately 700 complaints per year, of which about three-quarters of those result in action being taken by the publisher, usually a correction or apology.

According to the Australian Press Council’s introductory pamphlet, there are three main areas of concern for the organisation:

  • “developing standards of media practice which are applied by the Council when considering and adjudicating upon complaints;
  • responding to complaints from the public about material that relates to news or comment in Australian newspapers, magazines, and associated online material;
  • issuing statements on policy matters within its areas of interest in order to highlight the importance of community access to information and freedom
    of expression.”

How does it affect you?

The Australian Press Council is important because it gives all Australian citizens the opportunity and space available in order to make complaints about published material which they might find to be offensive or defamatory. It plays a crucial role in protecting individuals’ privacy, ensuring proper conduct for reporting on sensitive issues (for example, suicides, trials, and children), and making sure that material has been gathered without deception and is presented with fairness and balance.

As a journalist, the Australian Press Council is valuable in that it standardises ethics for reporting the news, and creates and researches coherent guidelines which are beneficial for all journalists and media organisations.

What power does it have?

The Press Council is often criticised for being seen as a ‘toothless tiger’ in regards to the power that the council actually holds. It has no legal or legislative power to fine or penalise the press. The APC can only encourage constituent bodies to follow a set of ethics, they are not able to enforce any sanctions on media outlets. The Council is also unable to detect and act on breaches, and is dependent on complaints from the public.

Picture1.jpgCartoon by R Emmerson in J Disney, Regulation: the Finkelstein Inquiry’, in J Este (ed), Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy: 2012 Australian Press Freedom Report, Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, 2012

Who is in on the board of the Press Council?

The Chair of the Council is Professor David Weisbrot, a prominent law academic and barrister, who oversaw numerous improvements to the Council’s processes since becoming Chair in March 2014.

According to the Council’s website, there are 26 members, comprising:

  • “the independent Chair and 10 public members, who have no affiliations with a media organisation;
  • eleven nominees of media organisations which are constituent bodies of the Council
  • four independent journalist members, who are not employed by a media organisation.”

Why was a media regulator introduced?

The Australian Press Council was established in 1976 after an announcement in 1975 that the federal government was beginning to prepare legislation which would introduce a government authority ensuring accountability in the media.

The proposing of a government authority to regulate the media was revisited again some 40 years later, when – under the Gillard Government in 2012 – The Labor Party and The Greens backed an independent inquiry into media regulation. This report, known as the Finkelstein Review suggested that a government funded body be introduced in order to effectively regulate the media, ensuring accountability and transparency. The report determined that the efficiency of The Australian Press Council was inadequate.

What is self-regulation and why isn’t it working?

The Australian Press Council is funded by its members, the newspaper publishers and media organisations. These organisations become constituent bodies of the Council, with representatives on the board, and their complaints processes are taken over by the APC.

There are multiple reasons why the self-regulatory system is criticised, such as relying on the industry for financing, members having the ability to withdraw at any time, and no obligations for members to publish APC adjudications.

The Finkelstein Review concludes that the structure of the self-regulating APC is inadequate and that government regulating is necessary. That being said, there are major concerns of a threat to freedom of expression if a government funded regulator be introduced.

What are the concerns about a government funded regulator?

A government funded regulatory body (as suggested by Chris Berg’s research into Finkelstein’s proposed body) would ultimately have to accept suggestions from the government on issues of interested, and could even be subject to allowing state censorship over content, should the government find the content too controversial to publish.

The proposed government funded regulator in the Finkelstein Inquiry was planned with the powers to take its disobedient members to court, if deemed necessary. There is reason to be cautious of a government funded media regulatory, yet the current self-regulatory Australian Press Council has proved it’s structure to be inadequate for the task.

Matthew Ricketson, co-author of the Finkelstein Inquiry now sits on the board of the Australian Press Council representing the journalist’s union Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. Since completing the inquiry, Ricketson’s concerns seem to have differed. Although he recommended a government funded statutory body be introduced to regulate the media, he more recently displays concern over government intervention in the media, stating:

“Given the possibility of political interference by governments of whatever colour, though, it is far preferable for the news media to regulate itself. But it has to commit itself to the task. Without that the industry is kidding itself and hoodwinking the public.”
Media complaints-handling body essential – Matthew Ricketson, The Australian, June 13, 2016

Why did Seven West depart from the Press Council?

In the midst of the inquiry, Seven West Media departed from the Australian Press Council with criticisms that the Council wasn’t working as efficiently for the WA based network. Seven West decided to create their own self-regulatory body called the Independent Media Council, in the hopes of more effectively handling complaints towards The West Australian and other Seven West Media newspapers and magazines.

The APC then announced a strengthening of the contracts for constituent bodies in the Council, specifying that in the event of a publisher wishing to withdraw, there would be a four year waiting period until the withdrawal will be in effect. The announcement also states that the members have agreed to double their funding to the Council, which came in response to the Finkelstein Inquiry. The finance boost came with the hopes of increasing the Councils productivity, and making the prospect of a government funded regulator harder to justify.

What’s next?

Media regulation or deregulation legislations in Australia’s history tend to benefit the large media organisations and increase the already massive concentration of media ownership, rather than opening up the diversity of the media as intended.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield reintroduced proposed changes to media ownership regulations at the start of September, 2016, in the hopes of updating laws in the digital era. This legislation change would see the removal of the ‘reach rule’, which prevents networks from broadcasting to more that 75 per cent of the population, and the removal of the ‘two out of three rule’, which prevents media organisations from owning a newspaper, radio station and a TV network. Removing the ‘two out of three rule’ would grant Rupert Murdoch the ability to expand his control in major markets.

These changes are under consideration. Labor are up for reform but they are against removing the ‘two out of three rule’, and Fifield has made it clear that he is against splitting the bill. Current Prime Minister/Previous Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition will need the support of nine independent senators – if Labor blocks the bill – in order for the legislation to go ahead, and it seems likely now that the fate of this bill will rest in Senator Pauline Hanson’s hands.

Feature image credit: http://www.abc.net.au/technology/articles/2011/12/23/3397389.htm
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