In a wide-ranging interview Australian Press Council chair Professor David Weisbrot spoke to Miranda Ward on the issues facing press freedom in Australia, how the Press Council wants to change defamation laws, its membership drive and relationship with News Corp.
Recently introduced anti-terrorism laws and metadata retention laws indicate a downward path for press freedom in this country, warns Professor David Weisbrot, the man running Australia’s independent press complains body.
“We understand it’s challenging times for governments to keep populations safe. But we’re seeing unprecedented attacks on press freedom. Some of them are intended,” he says.
“The clampdown on whistle blowers, punishing doctors who speak out against conditions in detention camps, proposed legislation that would say animal welfare authorities would be liable for blowing the whistle on abusive practices regarding animals. Those are unconscionable that we would have criminal penalties for people who identify malpractice, we should be rewarding people who expose it.”
For Weisbrot, and industry body the Australian Press Council which is responsible for promoting good standards of media practice and for responding to complaints about Australian publications, the trends towards control of free speech and free media means it is the time to put their foot down and highlight “the detriments of all of these approach to what should be journalism shining a light on government, on power”.
To this end, the Press Council is marking it’s 40th anniversary with a conference which will explore the need for reform of secrecy, censorship and defamation laws, the risks of over-regulation by governments and the influencers of technological, social and commercial change on journalism quality.
However, Weisbrot was keen to highlight that not all the new laws are aimed at hurting journalism, and that press freedom in Australia is much better than many countries, including many of our closest neighbours.
“Some of it is just journalists just caught in the net. We have seen anti-terrorism laws which are much too broad. I don’t think they’re intended to ensnare journalists, but they have that effect.
“The amendments of the ASIO Act make it quite a serious offence to report on a protected operation, and you might not know its a protected operation, you can get 5 to 10 years jail for that sort of thing.The metadata retention laws which are a huge detriment to whistleblowing and investigative reporting.”
Weisbrot highlighted comments made by conference speaker New York Times journalist David Barstow who said “that in order to do his work he has to think like a drug dealer”.
“He has to think how do I avoid detection, don’t use mobile phones, don’t drive my car with a beeper on it that can see where I’m going – all those kinds of things to do his, socially quite important, job of being an investigative journalist.”
But it doesn’t mean Australia’s press isn’t free, Weisbrot acknowledges.
“These things are all relative of course. We want to live in the best society we can and we want to have the most free press we can. We are lucky in many other ways – Kate McClymont can go home after a stunning investigative report and probably not worry too much or have to look under her car the next day,” he says.
“We know there’s countries where it is much, much more dangerous to be a journalist. In our own region, the Philippines has the most journalists killed a year. It was 84 in the last year. We know that in terms of physical safety and cultural, communal acceptance, reporters are much more safe here. But we know we could do better.”
Weisbrot’s comments come as he admits his pledge to develop a “Model Uniform Defamation Law for Australia of which we can finally be proud”, made in August last year, has been put on hold.
“We still are waiting on that because we were told the Standing Committee of the Attorneys General was looking at the issue and it was being driven by a couple of major state attorneys,” he says.
“We thought let’s let that play out for a little way. Certainly by the middle of this year if we don’t think there’s been sufficient progress then I think we would go back to our plan A, which was let’s do it ourselves and put a model build into the public domain for debate and discussion and let politicians respond to that. It wouldn’t be very difficult to do.”
Weisbrot cited changes to the defamation legislation in the UK, made in 2013, that he says is proof Australia could do the same.
“It’s widely seen to be a huge improvement on what they had before, certainly it would be a huge improvement on what we have here. I could take that piece of legislation and adapt it to Australian conditions, it would be a huge improvement,” he says.
Fairfax Media was sued by Treasurer Joe Hockey for defamation over ‘Treasurer for Sale’ story.
Weisbrot says despite the delays the changes are “very much in our sightline” and would seek to put a “much higher premium on free speech” to bring defamation law “up into the 21st century”.
He admits, however, that problems for reform in this area is due to the fact that it is politicians and celebrities who tend to use it.
“They are probably precisely the people who shouldn’t because they have their own mechanisms. A member of parliament can go into parliament and under parliamentary privilege give a statement and say whatever they like. People in big corporations have a lot of access to the media and communications professionals who can help them shape their own message,” he says.
“There are powerful interests, especially politicians who don’t really want reform in this area.”
In August Weisbrot also revealed the Press Council was looking at drafting standards for reporting of family violence, child sexual assault, LGBTI individuals and issues, race and religion and labelling/disclosure requirements around sponsored or native content “so as not to mislead readers about the nature of the material”.
Weisbrot was set to take a draft guidance document on family violence to the Press Council meeting on Friday.
“We’ve done an enormous amount of research and community consultation. We had three big roundtables around the country which involved survivors, people working in the domestic violence sector, police and of course journalists,” he explains.
“We’ve now got a much more nuanced feeling for how these things should be handled. Journalists were very careful to want to protect freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to write a confronting article that challenges perceptions and we certainly don’t want to do anything remotely to interfere with that, we agree that is essential.
“But then we also heard from survivors and people working in the sector on how unintentionally brutal the media can be to victims or alleged victims. We had many survivors who said to us the actual violence was horrific but then it kept getting played out over and over again in the media and essentially they felt they were being told it was their fault or partly their fault.
“I’m pretty confident we’ve come up with a happy medium and I’m hopeful the council will agree on Friday.”
Weisbrot says the next focus will be reporting around children.
“We have received a large cluster of complaints in that area and many of them relate to photographs of children. Photographs of children in distress, photographs taken off children’s Facebook pages without their knowledge or parents consent but they were on public setting so the view was it is fair game,” he says.
“We’ve had complaints about children being interviewed without a parent or teacher present. For example, their classmate has been injured or disappeared or something tragic like that and reporters going and talking to little kids about how they feel and parents being horrified to see that on the late night news.”
Weisbrot cautions the guidance documents are not about trying to “catch people” to deal with through the complaints process.
“We don’t feel we need a specific standard or any changes to the rules but at a minimum we need some guidance and some education and training to the people working in the industry on how they can do these things better,” he says.
“We’re not trying to find ways to catch people and deal with them through the complaints process, we’re looking at ways of avoiding that practice so we get fewer complaints in that area. That’s our goal.”
The guidance around native, or sponsored, content is set to be taken to a Council meeting in May.
“We’ve been doing an enormous amount of consultation around that too. We’ve been talking about it with our sister Press Councils around the world as it is an issue everywhere,” he says.
“We’ve been talking with journalists, editors, marketing departments. There’s not a monolithic approach here – you get editors who are cautious and marketing people who tell you it’s the only way a newspaper will stay afloat and continue to employ journalists. We don’t want to do anything that will crush the market but we want to duly uphold the highest standards of ethical behaviour.
“Where they’ve made changes already around the world, it’s usually asking for more clear disclosure. What people are really angry about is being duped or feeling like they’ve been duped.”
Meanwhile, The Australian Press Council is also continuing to drive ahead with its push to broaden its membership base by targeting the multicultural press, with a focus on Chinese publishers.
In January the industry body signed its first multicultural publisher, with Emanily Pty Lts, an online publisher serving Australia’s Filipinio community, joining the body.
Weisbrot says the body has now signed two Chinese language publishers and has a number of other publishers “in the cue” as well.
The body is also considering exploring “associate membership” for publishers that have their own complaints system such as The Guardian and Seven West.
On The Guardian, Weisbrot says the Council had meet with senior executives at the company who “reiterated the approach of the trust” to remain outside of the body.
“So it’s not just Guardian Australia, it’s the UK, Canada and so on. We understand their position, I don’t agree with it,” he says.
“There was a respectful discussion and where we left it, The Guardian would cooperate with us on most matters of common interest – standard developments and education programs but for the moment at least they would run their own complaints handling process.”
On the Seven West Media’s independent complaints commission – Seven West Media pulled out of the Press Council in 2012 citing the proposal for possible government funding, via the Finkelstein inquiry, and new rules requiring four years notice for withdrawal as key factors – Weisbrot says it “looks to be quite a reasonable one”.
“It’s got two former attorney generals and a third person sitting on it. We talk to them regularly about press freedom issues and standards. We talked to them about the family violence guidance. We are cooperating with bodies that run their own process very well.
“We seem to be getting a lot of acceptance from the new entrants. Daily Mail in Australia, Huff Post joined immediately. They understand that in Australia its important to be part of the industry body and sign up to those standards.”
Weisbrot also asserts the body’s relationship with News Corp, which deteriorated under the chairmanship of Julian Disney, is “very professional and civil”.
“There’s no difference on the relationship to that with other constituents. That seems to have passed,” he says referencing News Corp’s past criticisms of the body.
“We’ve both taken a step back and said it’s in everyone’s interest for this system to work. If there is no effective regulation by the Press Council you’re inviting government regulation and no one wants that in the industry.
“There’s been a lot of good will. We routinely process complaints about articles that appear in News Corp publications, that’s because they have a high percentage of circulation in Australia, we get a relative proportion of complaints.”
The Australian Press Council is hosting its conference in Sydney on May 4 and 5 at L’Aqua, Darling Harbour. The early bird rate of $460 finishes next Tuesday on March 1. Click here for tickets. For information on the program click here.
Disclosure: Mumbrella is a member of the Australian Press Council.
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