Disney calls for more proactive Press Council and urges formation of new cross-media watchdog

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 12.44.37 pmProfessor Julian Disney, the outgoing chair of the Australian Press Council (APC), has called for the regulator to investigate potential standards breaches even when there is no complainant, and suggested it should “morph” into a new body with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to take oversight of “a fuller range of media”.

In an address to the National Press Club today Disney called for the APC to move to consider breaches of the Standards of Practice without a complainant, a move which will likely be controversial given concerns raised by The Australian newspaper last year that it had “strayed” into areas which are not part of its oversight.

“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,” said Disney. “The Council now needs to implement that decision more effectively.”

In a wide ranging speech Disney tackled the use of social media photos by media outlets, raised concerns about the impact of falling revenues on publishing practices and press freedom, and called for ongoing discussion around merging the print and online regulator with the ACMA to form a new body.Disney also made several veiled comments which appeared to be aimed as News Corp Australia, a company he has enjoyed a fractured relationship with in recent years.

While discussing press standards and issues of inaccuracy and misrepresentation Disney said that there had been an upsurge in complainants, with more than 3,000 people lodging complaints in the last six months, driven largely by more prominent placement of details of the complaints process by publishers and a fast handling process.

The APC chair also warned: “Indisputable errors or misrepresentations are too common… Many of the worst misrepresentations occur on prominent pages, often in headlines or opening paragraphs. Sometimes they may reflect editors’ commercial or political concerns rather than the perspectives of the relevant journalist and article.”

Major newspaper publishers Fairfax Media and News Corp have recently had major stories which have drawn substantial criticism and led to apologies, while the remarks on commercial/political bias could be interpreted as a critique of News Corp’s recent active campaigning for the Coalition, on both a state and federal level, with Disney adding: “News reports are too often distorted by writers’ opinions, especially through the use of loaded language… or by omission of key facts.

“Some prominent columnists can adeptly express strong opinions in ways which are highly likely to be read as indisputable facts yet are indisputably inaccurate or misleading.”

Disney also warned of a “chilling effect” on press freedom coming from outside pressures on publishers’ business models.

He cited strategic government leaks to favoured media outlets; sources leaking information on condition the initial report not include comment from opponents; non-media organisations, such as the AFL, hiring journalists to cover themselves; and also the ongoing risk of advertiser influence as examples.

“A publication’s financial difficulties make it especially vulnerable to demands for favourable coverage in return for advertising or other support,” said Disney.

The chair of the APC also raised concerns about privacy, and the ongoing debate about how newsrooms use social media images without permission arguing the likes of Facebook and Twitter were not clear in their privacy settings.

“Digital publishing has increased the opportunities and pressures to intrude on reasonable expectations of privacy,” he said.

“This includes widely re-publishing social media material that clearly was not intended to be used in the different context, or had been posted by someone else without due regard for the person’s privacy and safety.

“Some social media providers contribute to these problems with privacy settings that are complex or largely ineffective.”

However, Disney also took aim at publications using photographs taken in public places, adding: “There is a common belief in the media that if a photograph is taken in or from a place to which the public has access, there is necessarily no breach of privacy

“But the true test is whether the relevant place and activity meant that the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy from the intrusion or subsequent publication.”

On the future of the APC, Disney noted that despite the issue of media reform coming off the agenda there should be ongoing discussion about the merging the APC with the ACMA.

Disney cited a recommendation in the 2012 Convergence Review, saying: “The Council will also need to keep at least a watching brief on the continuing trend towards convergence between print, digital and broadcast media.

“Its detailed proposals for a new Independent Standards Organisation to take over the Council’s role and those of bodies such as ACMA were broadly endorsed by the official Convergence Review in 2012.

“The proposed body was to be sufficiently independent of both government and the media to command public confidence.”

Asked about the detail of how the two organisations should come together Disney said: “Over time we would need morph into or be replaced by a body that covers a fuller range of the different kinds of media.

“To the extent that the Press Council is relevant to that future we believe the model of the Press Council, which is broadly independent and certainly not controlled by Government, is the way to go forward not the statutory model of the ACMA, not total self regulation but a middle course.”

Media watchdog the ACMA declined to comment on Disney’s remarks. Comment is being sought from News Corp.

Nic Christensen

Mumbrella is a member of the Australian Press Council. 


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