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Better the devil you know: News Limited tells Media Inquiry they’ll pay more to the Press Council

John Hartigan would prefer to increase funding to the Press Council rather than face a new regulator. AAP/Alan Porritt

Departing News Limited CEO John Hartigan has agreed in principle to support increased industry funding for the Australian Press Council but with a caveat.

On day four of the Independent Media Inquiry, now holding hearings in Sydney, Hartigan told Justice Finkelstein that “rather than writing a cheque for increased support” members would want to see, and approve, any new accountability model that Press Council chair Professor Julian Disney has in mind.

Hartigan, supported by Group Editorial Director Campbell Reid, voiced clear support for the devil News Limited knows, rather than risk greater regulation by a disenchanted federal government. His concession was hardly startling, given spectre of a single statutory media regulator shimmering on the horizon.

Nor was it a guarantee of better funding ahead for Council, given the central part News Limited has played in crafting a leaner Council and its budget since 2009.

Yet News Limited’s attitude was in marked contrast to that of Fairfax Media.

In Wednesday’s hearings Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood argued against further funding or enforcement powers for the Press Council, which he said was “adequately funded” and operating well – despite Professor Disney’s claims last week to the contrary.

If it ain’t broke…

Greg Hywood has argued that there are no systemic problems of accountability or diversity with the Australian press that warrant further industry regulation. The company’s defense of press freedom has been reproduced in every one of its 185+ websites from Bunbury to Cessnock.

Yet at the inquiry Fairfax executives were not over generous with praise for the Press Council’s role in keeping the ethical peace.

Company Secretary Gail Hambly criticised its spending on media industry research, such as its State of the News Print Media reports.

She told the inquiry that Council should abandon its interest in research and use its funding more effectively on complaints.

Hywood said that the Council was a useful but not “necessarily essential” avenue for redress, as people could complain to editors or try legal remedies for serious media misconduct.

Peter Fray, Editor-in-Chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and Sun Herald titles cast a doubt about the “grandeur” of the Council’s complaint handling job, suggesting that media complaints generally tended to be “personal, vexatious and serial”.

Fray may yet change his mind about the importance of that process, as he is Fairfax’s newest representative on Council and yet to deal extensively with its adjudications.

Even so, his blanket judgement of complaints sat uncomfortably with his later First Decade Fellowship speech on the future role of editors. There he proposed a new compact with audiences and championed the cause of editorial accountability and transparency.

One-stop complaints shop

In contrast to the otherwise steady as she goes approach of the press’s two big employers, the media union used the inquiry to renew a decade-old call for a unified body that can handle complaints about news and opinion, regardless of the publishing platform.

Chris Warren, head of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has proposed the creation of a Media Council which would oversee complaints about media conduct in print, television, radio and online.

This concept has been around, with various permutations on powers and funding, since at least the mid-1990s.

Media academics John Hurst and Sally White outlined details of National News Commission in their 1994 book Ethics and the Australian News Media.

They argued the Commission could cover both media workers and companies, and should have the power to fine breaches of industry codes. It could be funded by an advertising levy and media union member contributions, or a scaled proportion of company profits.

A similar plan crops up again in 2000, with federal MP Peter Andren asking for a media council with statutory “teeth” and government funding as a necessary support to privacy legislation. At the time he said the self-regulatory codes of conduct did not “go anywhere far enough in protecting the vulnerable from exploitation.”

Andren was probably fresh from reading the Senate Inquiry earlier that year, In the Public Interest: Monitoring Australia’s Media which outlined the shape of an independent statutory body, the Media Complaints Commission (MCC). That was to be “a one-stop-shop for all complaints and will assist to enforce standards established by self-regulation.”

Like many inquiry recommendations, this one clearly sat on the shelf until the MEAA and Press Council dusted it off for Justice Finkelstein.

And it is just possible that some combination of all these ideas will be cobbled together to reinvigorate, and eventually replace, the Press Council. But as yet no-one has come up with a palatable, workable funding alternative to member contributions that might allow any platform-inclusive or statutory duties expansion.

Hartigan rejected the idea, put to him by Justice Finkelstein that the government might chip in. That would be “totally inappropriate”. An industry levy would be difficult to support, although he claimed he “hadn’t thought it through”.

Indeed by the end of the days jousting about who might pay to monitor the media and how, Hartigan’s opening promise to rethink the Council’s allowance seemed like gold.

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