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GLOBAL: APC's Disney commends Leveson Report on media ethics as 'moderate, well-reasoned'


The Leveson Inquiry into the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. Image: The Guardian

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Item: 8163

SYDNEY (Australian Press Council / Pacific Media Watch): The chair of the Australian Press Council, Professor Julian Disney, has welcomed the Leveson Report into Britain's media culture, practices and ethics:

“It is a very moderate and well-reasoned contribution, giving publishers a clear opportunity to develop an appropriately independent and effective system for monitoring and improving media standards if they wish to avoid regulation by a statutory authority," he said.

"A number of the recommendations already apply to the Press Council in Australia, especially as a result of changes negotiated with the publishers earlier this year. Their proposed adoption elsewhere is very welcome.

"Other recommendations, especially in relation to ways of ensuring that all substantial publishers are subject to the system, merit very close consideration in Australia. The system here remains unduly vulnerable to lack of cooperation by any publisher or editor who lacks commitment to appropriate standards of journalism.”

Recommendations applying in Australia
A number of the recommended changes have applied to the Australian Press Council for many years or, in some instances, were introduced earlier this year. For example, by contrast with the council’s counterpart in the UK:

→ the chair and public members are appointed by a process which is more independent of the media than in the UK (although not fully independent);

→ the council’s standards of practice are set by the council itself, not by a committee consisting solely of editors;

→ the council often agrees to consider complaints by “third parties” (eg, people who are not the specific subject of a story);

→ from next January, no serving editors will be members of the council’s adjudication panel for complaints;

→ publishers which are subject to the council are legally-bound to publish adjudications in the manner directed by the council;

→ the publishers have also agreed that they cannot withdraw from the council at less than four years notice;

→ each of the publishers has agreed to specific and legally-binding increases in their funding for the council over the next three years;

→ the publishers who are subject to the council are legally bound to display in each issue the council’s logo and a notice about how to complain to it;

→ the council has discontinued its general practice of requiring that complainants would have to waive their right to pursue legal proceedings;

→ the council has decided to commence active monitoring of print and online media for compliance with its standards;

→ from next July, publishers will be legally bound to provide the council with statistics in a specified form about complaints handled by them, including the outcomes.

It should be acknowledged, however, that some of these changes are not yet fully implemented or are still resisted vigorously by some publishers. They include the decisions relating to active monitoring, publication of the council logo and notice, cooperation with the council’s handling of particular complaints (including the provision of requested information) and provision of statistics.

The report emphasises that the new board should see its overall responsibility as promoting and protecting the public interest, which includes taking due account of the interests of publishers but also those of the broader community. The Australian Press Council has recently emphasised a similar view of its role.

Other recommendations of interest
One publisher withdrew from the Australian Press Council early this year when it became apparent that the council, with the support of all other publisher members, was introducing the new requirements above in relation to funding, notice of withdrawal, and other matters. On the other hand, several publishers subsequently joined the council’s new membership category of online-only publishers.

The recent withdrawal from the council was not unique in its history, and significant withdrawals have occurred recently in the UK and in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario by publishers who did not agree with the relevant council’s adjudications.

In this context, some recommendations of the Leveson Report are clearly relevant to the Australian situation. In relation to its proposed new body (which it called a board), the report concluded that

→ voluntary agreements to be subject to such a board, even if they were of 4-5 years duration, would not be sufficient to guarantee its long-term security of membership, independence and effectiveness;

→ accordingly, one or more statutory incentives should be provided to encourage publishers to become, and remain, subject to the board;

→ the board should establish a quick and economical service of arbitrators to which claimants and publishers can refer a dispute without resorting to court proceedings;

→ failure by a claimant or publisher to use this service could lead to an adverse costs order in the event of legal proceedings over the matter in dispute (thus providing a significant incentive to be subject to the board);

→ publishers which are subject to the board would have certain benefits in the application of rules about data protection administered by the Information Commissioner;

→ the current statutory regulator of the broadcast media (Ofcom, broadly equivalent to the ACMA in Australia) should have the role of verifying every three years that the board is complying with the report’s recommendations about the composition and processes of the board;

→ the level of funding for the board should be sufficient for the board to certify that it is adequate.

The Leveson Report recommended that along with the requirements for the new body, there should be an explicit, statutory obligation on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press.

The report also canvasses the option of Ofcom being the regulator of any publisher which does not agree to be subject to the board, or of all publishers if they do not agree to establish a board which complies with its recommendations.

But as Lord Justice Leveson clearly points out, if the UK publishers agree to establish and maintain the proposed board, they will not be subject to a regime which can be described credibly as an attack on freedom of the press. Indeed by enhancing media standards and the transparent effectiveness of complaints-handling, the proposed regime will strengthen the defences of that freedom.

The Leveson Report

Australian Press Council
 

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Pacific Media Watch

PMC's media monitoring service

Pacific Media Watch is compiled for the Pacific Media Centre as a regional media freedom and educational resource by a network of journalists, students, stringers and commentators.
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