New Australian Press Council chairman Neville Stevens says he is ready to make changes to council operations in his first interview since his appointment.
Issues surrounding the complaints process and freedom of press are some of Mr Stevens’ key concerns.
“At the end of the day, my objective is to ensure we are still an effective body, the community has confidence in what we do and that the overall objectives [of the council] are upheld.
“Within that, we need to look at how we do it, yes.”
Mr Stevens also acknowledged the controversy surrounding the appointment of GetUp! deputy chair Carla McGrath as a public member in June last year, which lead to the resignation of former Press Council chairman Professor David Weisbrot.
“We can all do without controversy”, Mr Stevens said. “I think the need is to address controversy and to move on and ensure the confidence of both publishers and the community.”
Fate of McGrath in the balance
As part of the Press Council’s move to put an end to the controversy, all public members of the council will need to disclose their potential conflict of interests at the May meeting next Friday.
“The council has asked all existing members and panel members to lodge in returns against that policy and that will be considered at the May meeting,” Mr Stevens said.
At his first public address as the council’s head at the Melbourne Press Club last month, Mr Stevens announced that the council had introduced a new policy to ensure that all members were eligible to adjudicate on panels.
Mr Stevens decided not to weigh in on whether he believed that any of the current public members may be declared ineligible to sit.
“Conflict of interest is never black and white and a lot of it is perceived as well as actual,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have guidelines that spell out particular issues but there are always grey areas that need to be the judgment of the council.”
Following Ms McGrath’s appointment, News Corp Australia national and metro mastheads announced that they would not back any adjudication in which she had taken part.
At the time, The Australian’s editor-in-chief Paul Whittaker said: “The Australian holds steadfast to the position that it will boycott testimony and not accept any Press Council adjudications in which Ms McGrath takes part.”
When pressed on whether the Press Council has come to an agreement with its publisher member, Mr Stevens would confirm only it had “certainly been part of the discussion.”
Ms McGrath was originally said to take part in her first adjudication in early-mid 2018 but has yet to be assigned to a panel.
No timeline has been given as to when a decision will be made on potential conflicts.
Secondary complaints a ‘concern’ for press freedom
Secondary complaints – in which a complainant is not personally identified or directly affected by the published material – have been a concern of publisher members for some time, due to the process easily being abused and its potential restrictions on free speech.
“I have been aware that there has been some controversy around that [secondary complaints].”
Despite there being similar procedures around the world, Mr Stevens acknowledged the possibility some groups here may abuse the complaints process to push an agenda.
“This has been one of the concerns. There is always the possibility groups will do that,” he said.
However, he also argued the process allowed for the industry to self-regulate, providing an outlet for community complaints that excludes government.
“I think they [secondary complaints] are very important because at the end of the day they go to the confidence the community has in the journalistic standards, that they need to have overall confidence that they are meeting the standards of practice we have set,” said Mr Stevens.
“This is one mechanism where the community has the opportunity to voice its concern.”
From the period July 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, the council said it received a total of 370 secondary complaints, with more than 70 per cent declined for being out of scope or insufficient grounds. Only 2 per cent of the complaints went to adjudication and were upheld.
Mr Stevens acknowledged that the speed of the complaints process also needed to be addressed, with some complaints taking eight months to be closed. He believes that if the deadlines publications are working towards are becoming shorter, the council should work to shorter deadlines too.
“In the digital age, timeliness is important and we need to work on that,” he said.
Government independence is key
Despite press freedom being a core principle of the council, it failed to make a submission to the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill inquiry.
“There are a number of issues we didn’t make submissions to in the transition from when I joined to now. That’s partly because I was still understanding those issues, Council was making that transition,” Mr Stevens said.
The Bill would make it illegal for editorial staff to receive and interact with restricted government data relating to national security, if it passes in its current state. Potential penalties for doing so include up to 20 years jail time.
Mr Stevens conceded: “Going forward, we do need to make those submissions”.
The council did make a submission to the ACCC inquiry into Digital Platforms, making the document public prior the official release by the competition regulator yesterday.