Chris Mitchell vows to remove The Australian from the Press Council after new condemnation over breaches of confidentiality

Chris Mitchell

Chris Mitchell

The editor-in-chief of The Australian Chris Mitchell has vowed to remove his newspaper from what he called the “activism” of The Australian Press Council (APC) and urged publishers to “reconstruct” the print and online watchdog.

Mitchell’s comments come after the APC passed a motion condemning The Australian for breaching rules around confidentiality in an editorial on Tuesday where it revealed an as yet unfinalised complaint against the News Corp paper.

“I will to do everything I can to remove my paper from the activism of the Press Council, which has no business telling people what pictures to run,” said Mitchell. “I am interested in publishing truth.”

Tuesday’s editorial was triggered by an APC ruling on Monday which found while The Daily Telegraph did not breach standards by publishing a photo of the execution of US journalist James Foley on its front page, it would have been better to have used the image on inside pages.

“We will never accept that the Press Council or anyone else has any business telling us what we can and cannot publish on our front page. It is a direct challenge to editorial independence that should be rejected by every media outlet that takes press freedom seriously,” the editorial said.

The Australian then went on to detail a preliminary ruling over a front page image in The Australian of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in the Ukraine, where the Council is thought to have found the newspaper did not breach council standards.

The action by the national broadsheet comes after it drew criticism last year from the APC for breaching confidentiality on other cases.

On the unconfirmed ruling against his newspaper Mitchell said: “We ran a small double column at the bottom of page one carefully cropped so readers would not be able to identify even the sex of the victims. In my view photo journalists risk their lives to represent truth and it is not an editor’s role to hide that truth.

“The Press Council needs to be reconstructed by the proprietors.”

News Corp Australia confirmed today that it remains a member of the Press Council.

Nic Christensen

The APC resolution in full:

Council resolution about conduct of The Australian

The Australian Press Council has expressed its deep concern at recent conduct of The Australian, which has again deliberately breached its obligations to the Council.

The Council has also denied assertions made by The Australian about the scope of the Council’s authority, about recent adjudications by the Council, and about recent statements by its Chair.

At its meeting this week, the Council passed the following resolution (by 18 votes to 1):

“The Council expresses deep concern that, notwithstanding assurances at its last Council meeting that News Corp publications were complying with the obligations of Council membership, The Australian has again chosen consciously to breach one of the Council’s firmest requirements concerning the confidentiality of its provisional adjudications;

Agrees that until The Australian provides assurance that it will abide by Council’s requirements, complainants against the publication will be advised that confidentiality cannot be assured, but that the Council will still consider the complaint if the complainant so desires;

Requests the Executive Director to make a public statement explaining the Council’s concern and asks the Chair to write to the Editor of The Australian calling on him to abide by the obligations of a member of the Council;

Denies the assertion by The Australian that the Council has exceeded its authority and notes with concern The Australian’s further misrepresentations of the role and policies of the Council and views of its Chair since his Press Club speech.”

The Executive Director, John Pender, said:

“The Australian’s assertions about the legal and traditional scope of the Council’s work are incorrect. It has also misrepresented the particular adjudication to which it referred, the provisional adjudication in relation to which it breached confidentiality, and the Council’s general approach to photographs which depict the horrors of accidents, war or other disasters.”

“The requirement of confidentiality of provisional adjudications is designed to enable complainants and publications to have an opportunity to comment and seek changes before an adjudication is finalised. This opportunity will continue to be generally available but will need to be re-considered where a publication repeatedly breaches the terms on which it is provided.”

The adjudications

The following extract from the final adjudication to which The Australian objected contains the Council’s full reasons for not upholding the complaint:

“The Council considers that the image was likely to cause substantial offence and distress to a significant number of people. This impact was due largely to the close proximity of the knife to Mr Foley’s neck and thus to what readers might have perceived as the actual beheading.

On the other hand, the Council agrees that it is sometimes in the public interest for people to be exposed in a powerful way to realities which they may find upsetting but about which it is important that public opinion is well-informed. This applies especially to behaviour that, as in this case, is of an extreme kind with which they may not already be familiar and which has potentially far-reaching consequences.

The Council considers that the image could well have been published on an inner page without losing its effectiveness. This would have reduced the risk of offence or undue harm to children and others including those who merely saw it in passing. The risk could also have been reduced by choosing, as did many other publications, an image less close to the actual beheading but still powerfully graphic.

On balance, however, the Council has concluded that publication of the image was not a breach of its Standards. This is mainly because there was a very strong justification in the public interest due to the extreme behaviour about which it was reasonable to believe readers should be well-informed.

The Council welcomes the careful consideration in the publication of images of this nature, but emphasises that where the justification is less powerful than in this case, some images may breach its Standards of Practice if published on the front page even though they would not have done so if published less prominently. The particular placement of material is not usually a matter for consideration by the Council but in some cases it may affect whether the Standards have been breached because, for example, it substantially affects the circumstances in which the material is seen, the range of people who see it, or the nature of its impact on them

Accordingly, the Council has concluded that its Standards of Practice were not breached.”

The wording of the provisional adjudication to which The Australian objected cannot be disclosed until the adjudication has been finalised.


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