Revisions are afoot at the Australian Press Council, as Julian Disney discussed with Amanda Meade.
The old distinction between news reports and opinion pieces has been removed in a revised set of general principles released by the Australian Press Council this week (MEAA is a member of the Council).
Along with a modernised, digital-era set of principles, the Press Council will also release new separate guidelines on accessing patients in hospital and more detail on how the online environment has changed journalism.
“We wanted to reflect that the old alleged distinction between news reports and opinion pieces no longer applies,” Professor Julian Disney, chair of the Council, told The Walkley Magazine. “There are news reports that have comment and there are opinion pieces that have a lot of reporting in them. The new principles don’t adopt that distinction between reports and opinion. But they do have a distinction between facts and opinion.”
Disney has negotiated the new deal with publishers in an exhaustive process designed to better reflect the media in 2014 – faster moving, more diverse and, of course, under more financial pressure.
After the Finkelstein inquiry raised concerns about the Press Council’s effectiveness, funding for the Council was doubled in 2012 and this year is at $1.8 million. Members also committed to funding for three years, and to give four years’ notice of withdrawal from the Council.
The bigger, stronger Council has been tackling the challenges of the digital age head-on, and has been working hard to be more rigorous and to communicate what they do and why they do it, Disney says.
“Our biggest challenge really is fairly self-evidently the impact of the internet,” he explains. “Firstly on our traditional publishers, and then on their standards. And I mean, as you know, it’s leading to fewer reporters, as you know very well, and fewer specialist reporters.”
He hints at some of the barriers he may have faced during the process of revising the general principles: “I do think we need less obstruction than we get from some quarters in the media, and we need more genuine commitment to the Council and to the importance of public input to that. There’s a myth amongst our publishers that most of the people that complain to us are troublemakers, and that isn’t true.
“I think our standards are getting clearer and more specific,” Disney says. “The one on aspects of digital standards is terribly important and will enable us to engage with online publishers even if they’re not members of ours. Obviously there are both advantages and disadvantages that can arise from the internet.”
As well as the heritage publishers, including Fairfax Media, News Corp and Bauer Media [formerly ACP], the Council includes online outlets ninemsn, Private Media (Crikey), WorkDay Media, Urban Cinefile and Focal Attractions (Mumbrella), who signed up in 2012.
The Council is considering introducing another level of membership that would make it easier for smaller online platforms to join.
“We need to encourage more online publishers, whether they be bloggers or larger than that, who want to comply with high quality, to give them a way of being recognised,” Disney says. “It means we need to bring more online members in, firstly to help us get those standards right and, secondly, to reduce the extent to which people who are our members feel that they’re being unfairly competed against by people who won’t subscribe to the same standards.”
The Council receives more than 450 complaints each year and about 75 per cent result in a correction or apology. Where the complaint can’t be resolved, the Council’s adjudication must be published prominently.
Correcting the record in an online publication is not as easy as running a correction on page two, as is the case with newspapers. When it comes to publishing the adjudication issued by the Council, it gets even trickier.
The Council’s rules say: “Where the Council issues an adjudication, the publication concerned should publish the adjudication, promptly and with due prominence.”
Where is due prominence on a website is a question the Council is grappling with.
“How can we, on the internet, get some of the things that used to apply in print?” Disney asks. “I’m not saying print was wonderful but, for example, if you said that if we have a correction or a balance to an article on the homepage for 24 hours that will be flagged with the headline of the original article, that would be similar to print. But then there are also some solutions on the internet that aren’t available in print. One of them is that by and large in print any reply, if it isn’t in the same issue, will be 24 hours later. Well, online it can be straight away.”
The bigger problem is that once something is on the internet it spreads, and if it’s wrong that can be devastating.
“I think that digital editors now are much more willing to acknowledge problems and be thoughtful about the need for responses, rather than the old Wild West that was still prevailing when I first came here,” Disney says.
Disney sees prevention and compliance as a “very high priority”. Before he steps down next year, he is keen to see a monitoring program established that would involve tracking the compliance of members, whether a complaint was made or not.
“Our adjudications, of course, focus on issues once they’ve arisen and a complaint’s been made, but we want to focus much more on prevention – so that means spelling out more clearly what should be done,” he says.
“Otherwise it just means that there are a huge number of instances of where our standards are undoubtedly broken, and that’s never stated by us. We also want to monitor the extent to which there has been compliance with standards.
“In other words, whether there’s been a complaint or not, to be able to look at the extent to which our standards are being complied with and to express views about problem areas.”
The publishers would not be publicly identified, but the Council would publish wider trends.
The new standards will take effect from August 1.
Amanda Meade is the media writer for Guardian Australia. Twitter: @meadea