Disney to tackle online comments and corrections as he finishes his term as Press Council chair

Julian Disney

Julian Disney

Outgoing chair of The Australian Press Council (APC) Julian Disney has vowed to tackle some of the big issues in the online news environment, such as online comments and corrections, ahead of the end of his term in January next year.

Professor Disney made the comments as part of an announcement by The Australian Press Council this week that it was issuing a revised Statement of General Principles for print and online media, which attempts to explain the core principles it takes into account when handling complaints and making decisions.

As he heads into his final six months at the head of the Press Council before stepping down in January, Professor Disney told Mumbrella that he was planning a series round tables to cover online prepublication practices, online corrections, and online comments.

“We certainly want it done in the next six months,” said Disney. “I don’t know if it will be my legacy but it will certainly be one of the last things I do.”

“The round tables that will be going to start… they will to some extent delineate some of the issues and will include practitioners and members of the public. And while I wouldn’t want to be definitive about what we will cover three board areas: pre publication and pre the first post — checking the facts, and getting the other side.

“The second will be corrections etc. particularly after the event, and achieve quicker and better corrections than would be possible outside of print.

“The third area is the comment streams. The hopes that people had for the internet that it would hugely improve ordinary people’s abilities to express their views and I think that that is being lost in this torrent of abuse and irrelevancy that is on a lot of streams.

“The answer may not be to get those out of the streams necessarily but to perhaps encourage publishers to have at least a select stream where they pick out the goods things, as places like The Guardian is doing.”

Professor Disney said it was his personal view that more could be done to address the challenges around raising the tone of online comments.

“We are losing, I think, a lot of people who wanted to make serious contributions, or provide new information or opinion – who are not doing it in the mainstream websites because they know they will just be surrounded by stuff that really isn’t worth reading,” he said.

However, the chair of the APC said he still believed allowing anonymous comments, which are often controversial, were still important.

“My personal view is that it is still very important to keep some capacity for anonymous comments,” said Disney. “The reasons for that is whistle-blowing is important and anonymity is often part of that. But it’s not just that, some people who may have an important opinion to put may have good reasons for not being willing to put their name to it.”

Today’s Australian Financial Review carried an advertisement for the position of chair of the Australian Press Council beginning in January next year.

Professor Disney said he would not be reapplying for the role following the end of his five year term. “I said a few months ago that I would just do my five (years) through to the start of January,” he said.

“We are advertising now but I told them (that I wouldn’t reapply) four or five months ago and we are looking for a new person now. ”

Disney also welcomed the revised general principles which relate to accuracy and clarity; fairness and balance; privacy and avoidance of harm; integrity and transparency.

“The revised version strengthens the clarity and conciseness of the Principles. It focuses on setting standards of practice for print and online publications which are both rigorous and reasonable in the modern media environment.”

The revised Statement of General Principles takes effect for all material published on or after August 1, 2014. The APC has also released additional guides on the coverage of suicide – issued in 2011 and will next week release a guide on contacting patients in hospitals and people in residential care facilities.

In additional to tackling issues around digital and online publishing the APC said it would also in the future issue new principles on conflicts of interest, including publication of sponsored material, amid the growing publisher interest in so-called native advertising.

Nic Christensen

Declaration of interest: Mumbrella is a member of the Australian Press Council. 


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