Outgoing Australian Press Council chairman Julian Disney has urged the council to make adjudications on possible breaches of standards without a complaint being laid, in a speech to the the National Press Club yesterday.
Professor Disney said the council’s experience indisputably demonstrated a number of reasons why complaints were not made to it “despite there being a very clear, or at least highly probable”, breach of its standards.
He cited circumstances where a person affected by material may fear retribution or further publicity, or be constrained by financial or personal circumstances.
Prof Disney quoted reflections made by a former Fairfax editor, David Bowman, on the first 10 years of the council in which he said many minor transgressions were ruled upon as a result of public complaint, “while nearly all of the major crimes go unremarked”.
“The council decided a few years before I became chair that it would investigate some possible breaches of its standards even if it had not yet received a formal complaint,” he said.
“The council now needs to implement that decision more effectively.”
Sydney Morning Herald editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir said he was closely reviewing the chairman’s comments, as they proposed a markedly different course for the council and its role.
The Daily Telegraph in its editorial on Thursday “with the greatest respect” dismissed Prof Disney’s proposal, describing it as “overreach”.
“This would place the press council above the public it is meant to serve,” the editorial read. “It would mean that the press council, rather than judging complaints by community standards, would judge them by its own.”
Prof Disney also said the council needed to continue to strengthen the effectiveness of its responses to complaints and concerns expressed from people not directly affected by the material in question, often referred to as third party complaints.
One such complaint against The Daily Telegraph by a blogger over the prominence given to a Federal Court decision to dismiss sexual harassment allegations against former House of Representatives speaker Peter Slipper created controversy when it was upheld last year.
“All publisher members of the council hold themselves out to their readers as complying with its standards, and the council has always said that readers can ask it to determine whether the standards have been observed in a particular case,” Prof Disney said.
He said the council had made significant changes last year aimed at streamlining the handling of these matters, including preventing members from straying beyond consideration of possible breaches of its standards of practice.
“Very recently, as in earlier times, the council has firmly rejected attempts to impose unreasonable constraints on its handling of these complaints.”
Replying to a question about the structure of the council, Prof Disney said the current system of electing members – requiring 40 per cent to be nominated by individual publishers – could be overhauled.
“We are very unusual,” he noted, comparing the council to other watchdogs around the world such as in the UK. “In most other cases, members are appointed by an association of publishers and I think this is the way to go in Australia – by an appointments panel, which appoints all the council members.
“But you pay a price, because you then may have less engagement from particular publishers.”
He said it was important to have both current and recent expertise and credibility from the industry itself alongside public members.
Prof Disney said the relatively small number of publishers in the Australian media was of concern to the council, but the influx of digital publishers had the potential to increase this diversity.
Digital publishing had increased competitive pressures to publish quickly at the expense of accuracy and without providing ample opportunities for prior correction or comment by those affected, he said.
“Yet ‘getting it right’ before publishing is even more important than in pre-digital days, especially as search engines make material much more readily and permanently accessible.
“It is important to emphasise, however, that while digital competition has damaged standards of accuracy, fairness and privacy in some ways, the quality of many print and online articles has benefited greatly from the wider and faster access to information and opinions which digital media has made possible.”
Prof Disney was critical of leaks by government to selected media outlets, describing their effect on press freedom as “chilling”. The issue had received much less attention than other intrusions on press freedom, such as government restraints on coverage of security and border control matters, he said.
He regarded the practice of a government repeatedly giving a closely aligned publication advance access to key information and policies, ahead of other media and the general public as an erosion of press freedom, as it often came with a caveat that the initial report did not include comment from anyone else.
He also emphasised that the media had obligations to be responsible, fair and accurate in return for their privileges in regard to press freedoms.
Prof Disney will be replaced as chair by David Weisbrot, an Emeritus Professor of Law and Honorary Professor of Medicine at the University of Sydney, from March 1.
Prof Weisbrot was Australian Law Reform Commission president for 10 years until 2009 and is currently a part-time commissioner with the NSW Law Reform Commission.