Making media accountable to the public bolsters press freedom

Julian Disney is preparing to depart as chairman of the Australian Press Council after five years in the role. AAP/Lukas Coch

Julian Disney, the outgoing chair of the Australian Press Council, made a singularly powerful argument in his valedictory speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday: that freedom of the press is strengthened, not weakened, by effective public accountability.

Discussing press freedom, Disney said:

The council’s main and unique contribution to the cause of press freedom is its core work of developing standards of media practice and responding to complaints about possible breaches.

In doing so, Disney put his finger on something that the media industry is unwilling or incapable of accepting: press freedom ultimately depends on public legitimacy, and that legitimacy rests in part on public accountability. The industry’s attitude to this was vividly illustrated by its reaction to the Finkelstein inquiry into press regulation in 2012. Finkelstein and others who espoused the view that there should be meaningful media accountability were Stalinists bent on censorship.

As Disney also recounted, the spectre of external regulation – as Finkelstein recommended – spooked the newspaper companies into boosting their funding for the Press Council. At the same time, they also agreed to set funding levels at least three years in advance, to give four years’ notice of any intention to withdraw from the council and to remove themselves from membership of the complaints adjudication panels.

Set against the troubled history of the Press Council – littered with arbitrary withdrawals of membership and cuts to funding, threatened and actual – these seemingly modest achievements are quite significant. They reflect not only the pressure brought about by the Finkelstein inquiry, but Disney’s robust and determined leadership.

Over the past two years in particular, Disney has endured a sustained and highly personalised campaign by News Corp against his chairmanship. That company’s newspapers took to calling the Press Council “Disneyland” as they ridiculed and misrepresented Disney’s reforms.

Disney named no names in his speech, but the target of some of his remarks was clear to anyone who has followed the history. For example, when speaking about the Press Council’s independence and integrity, he said:

Above all, the council must not be diverted from meeting the responsibilities that it, including its major publisher members, has solemnly assured the public it will fulfil. If honouring these commitments meets fierce attack from a powerful voice or voices in the industry, the council will need to continue standing firm.

Potential estrangement or loss of a dissident publisher, no matter how powerful, cannot justify deceiving the public and disadvantaging the other publishers who will continue to respect council processes and decisions, even when not agreeing with them.

In a similar vein, Disney had this to say about freedom of speech:

The freedom should not be largely the preserve of powerful interests in government, business or the ranks of publishers. These powerful interests also should not use their freedom of speech to gravely damage – even destroy – other people’s freedom of speech.

It was especially important that freedom of the press was not abused by, for example, repeatedly and seriously misrepresenting what a person had said, or by abusing or intimidating a person with whose views it disagreed. Disney said:

If a publication repeatedly and flagrantly engages in these kinds of practices, can it credibly portray itself as a supporter of free speech? Or is it only a supporter of free speech for people with whom it agrees or from whom it seeks support?

News Corp will not like this, nor will it like Disney’s advocacy of a series of reforms that it continues to oppose. Among them is the increased use by the Press Council of the power to investigate possible serious breaches of its standards even when there has been no specific complaint, but where it is important to clarify publicly whether there has been a breach.

There was a strong case to do this in the aftermath of the Lindt Café siege in Sydney in December 2014. Among some otherwise excellent media coverage, there were some serious breaches of privacy, exemplified by the exploitation of people’s Facebook content.

Respect for privacy has been one of the priority issues for the Press Council under Disney’s chairmanship. He spoke of the increased threats to privacy arising from digital technology:

There is a common belief in the media that if a photograph is taken in or from a place to which the public has access, there is necessarily no breach of privacy. But the true test is whether the relevant place and activity meant that the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Consistent with this view, Disney has presided over – and driven – the development of a new set of specific standards to flesh out the Press Council’s general principles. One was concerned with the protection of hospital patients from media intrusions; another was on the coverage of suicides.

Work has started on the burgeoning conflicts of interest arising from so-called “content marketing” or “native advertising”, where paid advertising is embedded and disguised in what appears to be news content.

So, as Disney acknowledged, there is still much to do. For all its weaknesses, the Press Council is the best Australia has by way of an accountability mechanism for newspapers. He leaves it noticeably stronger than he found it.

Disney’s calls for further reform deserve to be heeded with the same determined sense of purpose he brought to the job.

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