Professor Julian Disney, who stepped down in February 2015 after five years as chair of the Australian Press Council, has delivered a sharp rebuke to News Corp for “serious misrepresentations” and “extravagant criticism” of Press Council adjudications and processes.
The rebuke is contained in his foreword to the Press Council’s 2013-2014 annual report. The report was placed on its website this month.
Disney sets his criticism in the broader context of “freedom of speech and of the press” and precedes it by these more general remarks:
… Powerful interests in government, business or the media … should not use their freedom of speech to gravely damage, even destroy, other people’s freedom of speech. It is especially important that powerful publications do not abuse their freedom of speech in this way by, for example, repeatedly and seriously misrepresenting what a person has said, especially if it also denies the person a reasonable opportunity to correct the misrepresentation.
A publication that engages repeatedly and flagrantly in practices of this kind cannot credibly claim to be a supporter of free speech, except perhaps for people with whom it agrees or from whom it seeks support.
Some of the greatest obstacles to achieving and sustaining genuine freedom of speech are extremism and hypocrisy by people that prominently propound it and have privileged opportunities to exercise it.
Referring then specifically to News Corp, Disney says:
Serious misrepresentations of Council adjudications or other processes have appeared prominently in several of its major publications in recent years, sometimes accompanied by extravagant criticism. On occasion, the Council has sought to correct the record by a published letter to the editor. But this approach rarely achieves adequate rectifications of prominent misrepresentations, especially if the publication then repeats them rather than acknowledging them.
On another occasion, its national newspaper [The Australian] refused to co-operate with the Council’s complaints work for several months in protest about the handling of a particular adjudication. The recent incidents have rekindled concerns about the depth of commitment to a genuinely independent and effective Council.
Campbell Reid, group editorial director of News Corp and a newspaper industry nominee on the Press Council, was invited to comment on these remarks, but said he was unable to help.
Reid was not in an easy position. In 2011, the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation – the Finkelstein Inquiry – received a submission from News Corp asserting its commitment to the Press Council and supporting a range of measures taken under Disney’s leadership to strengthen its effectiveness. That was a time when the newspaper companies faced what they thought was a clear and present danger of genuinely external accountability being imposed on them by the government.
But the danger passed. The Gillard government’s communications minister, Stephen Conroy, made a hash of the reform process. It disappeared under the 2013 Rudd-Gillard leadership avalanche.
A shift from support to attack
Emboldened by this liberation, in 2014 News Corp embarked on a sustained attack on Disney and his chairmanship of the Press Council.
The attack consisted of the standard News Corp tactics of ridiculing the person, creating stories where no story really existed, promoting these stories well beyond any objective assessment of their news value, and publishing associated editorial commentary prosecuting the underlying agenda driving the exercise in the first place.
There were vague threats that News Corp might withdraw from the council. Since the company contributes about 45% of the council’s funding, this was no idle consideration.
During the dispute over the complaint that led to The Australian’s refusal to co-operate for several months, efforts by the council and Disney personally to have the newspaper acknowledge its misrepresentations were unavailing.
This says something about the unequal power relationship between a newspaper and any citizen who wishes to challenge it. If the chair of the newspaper self-regulator can’t get effective redress, what hope is there for the less powerful in society?
It also says something about the hypocrisy of an organisation that purported to support Disney’s reforming zeal when it suited – and in Reid’s case to lay claim to being an architect with Disney of the much-needed strengthening of Press Council processes – and then repudiated him when the need had passed.
Disney’s successor as Press Council chair is David Weisbrot, emeritus professor of law and honorary professor of medicine at the University of Sydney, and a part-time commissioner of the NSW Law Reform Commission.
Weisbrot has taken over at a time when the Press Council’s relationship with its largest funder is under strain. It will be interesting to observe how this plays out in the longer term.