New Press Council chair wants to ‘reset relationship’ with News Corp

David WeisbrotThe new head of the press regulator David Weisbrot has vowed to try and “reset” its tense relationship with the country’s biggest publisher News Corp, signalling it may adjust the advice it gives when delivering adjudications.

In recent months News Corp paper The Australian has been an ardent critic of the The Australian Press Council (APC), but new chair Weisbrot said his appointment is an opportunity for the two sides to refresh their relationship.

“My appointment has provided an opportunity for us all to have a deep breath and hopefully lower the temperature significantly and reset the relationship,” Weisbrot told Mumbrella in an interview marking his first week as chairman.

Weisbrot also called on West Australian Newspapers to return to the industry self regulator, and flagged he will be chasing the plethora of new online sites, including The Guardian, Daily Mail Australia, Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, about joining the body. 

Asked about the tense relationship with News Corp enjoyed by his predecessor Julian Disney, Weisbrot noted that he had already had some “cordial” meetings with Australia’s largest newspaper publisher and would be meeting with one of the APC’s fiercest critics Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief of The Australian, in coming weeks.

“I have had a couple of cordial meetings already with senior executives at News Corp such as (editorial director) Campbell Reid,” said Weisbrot. “I will be meeting with Chris in a week or two. We are just trying to pin down a date.

“The meetings have been very cordial, polite, constructive. They exceeded my expectations in terms of the prospect of moving on. That’s not to say there won’t be particular flash points. No one likes being complained about.”

When questioned on Mitchell’s recent declaration that he would to remove his newspaper from what he labelled the “activism” of the APC the new boss of the print regulator said he did not believe it had been activist under Disney, but signalled he was focused on the nature of some of News Corp’s complaints and would look at separating decision of the Council from other guidance.

“No I don’t think (it has been activist) but I can see it from their perspective as well,” he said. “One thing I would like to do, and this will probably reduce some of the tension as well, is heighten the distinction between breach findings and a need for education, or adaptation in the profession.

“I think some of the matter that got News Corp riled were actually ones where the Council found no breach and so actually News was successful on the merit, but what got them annoyed was the opinions went on to say this is what you should do in the future.

“I think what we should do is end the adjudication with either you breached or didn’t breach and here is what you have to do.

“But then on the educative points collect them up and take them to Council and say we are finding complaints about, say pictures of children, characterisation of Islamic people etc. and there is a growing number of complaints shall we have some new guidelines? ”

Weisbrot also commented on the ongoing absence of the West Australian which elected in 2012 to withdraw from the body after funding and adjudication requirements were tightened. 

“I’m very disappointed by (their absence),” he said. “I’d like to have some discussion with people at The West.  I don’t know what their particular concerns are but I would hope we might be able to address them.”

The APC chair argued that self-regulation would work better for both print and online if all the players operated under the same regime.

“It would be much better if we could have a single regime governing Australia. It makes sense for everyone, including The West Australian, for there to be complete coverage.

“It is not fatal to the Council (not to have their membership) 90 odd per cent of print publishers are involved and increasingly we have important online publishers such as Crikey etc. If that’s as good as we can do then fine.

“I think it would much more effective if all of the major publishers were covered.”

At the time of publishing The West Australian had not responded to requests from comment on his remarks.

Asked about the absence of new major online players such as The Guardian, Daily Mail, Huffington Post and Buzzfeed from the regulation Weisbrot signalled it would be on his agenda.

“I will make my best efforts,” he said. “The Guardian, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed are all ones I read myself and have some affection and respect for and I would like to bring them into the fold if possible.

“These sites have an increasingly important presence in Australia. I would have thought as a practical matter and as a sign of good faith it would be useful to have them involved.”

Last week The Guardian signalled it was intent on remaining outside the APC for the time being arguing its own self regulation is “adequate and proportionate”.

Weisbrot addressed this specifically urging them to reconsider: “The Guardian is a media outlet that everyone respects and so having their input into standards and so on would be very helpful.”

A former President of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Weisbrot also told Mumbrella that press freedom would be another major agenda item of his time as chair.

“I think the Council should play a more prominent role as a advocate for free speech and freedom of the press,” he said.

“My background is as a law reformer and I guess we all come with our own experiences but I think the Council can play a very positive role.”

Nic Christensen 

Disclaimer: Mumbrella is a member of the Australian Press Council


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