Free speech sidelined

The Australian Press Council under chairman Julian Disney has taken a number of steps to position itself for a broader role in the new regulatory landscape post-Finkelstein Convergence reviews.


Ian Moore pic of Julian Disney

Australian Press Council chairman . . . the council has been silent on important matters

One of the moves was to set up a five-person panel to advise it on media standards of practice to which publishers need to comply, as well as “key aspects of the public interest”. It is a high-profile group that includes two former senators, a former Supreme Court justice, a bureaucrat and a Reserve Bank board member – none of whom has any editorial experience and therefore no qualification to determine media standards of practice.

This has led to concerns the appointments were more political than practical, and served to distance the council from the publishers – a move that would bolster its independence, at least in the eyes of a government hell-bent on placing controls on media freedoms.

Professor Disney defended the appointments by saying the panel’s advice would be considered with equal merit to that of editors, journalists and community leaders who it would consult regularly during the year.

However, it is an interesting move considering Prof Disney does not see the council as being part of a self-regulatory process. “I don’t like getting into the self-regulation debate because I don’t think the media has helped itself by suggesting we are self-regulation,” Prof Disney told PANPA ezine News Now. “We’re not and we’re not meant to be. We are a body to provide a link between the media and the community.”

That would be news to publishers who are looking to a strengthened Press Council as a self-regulatory alternative to plans by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to establish a government-funded news media council to help editors decide what should or should not be published.

It begs the question as to what the Press Council stands for and what its responsibilities are – particularly after publishers more than doubled council funding to A$1.8 million and agreed its processes should be legally binding on members.

According to the council’s website, the body – among other things – is responsible for promoting good standards of media practice, community access to information of public interest, and freedom of expression through the media. To this end, it undertakes to issue statements on policy matters within its areas of interest, including through submissions to parliamentary committees, commissions and other public bodies.

“The council seems to have an unusual reluctance to stand up for free speech – despite its charter … Instead of politicking, the council would be better served to re-read its principles and take a stronger stand on protecting the interests of a free press”

If this is the case, it has again failed the expectations of publishers. The council has been silent on the most important matters concerning freedom of speech and freedom of the press since the conclusion of World War II – the recommendations contained in the Finkelstein and Convergence reviews and the Eatock-Bolt decision in the Victorian Supreme Court last year.

It has made no formal submissions on either matter, despite their impact on freedom of speech and the way in which our democracy is conducted. To be fair, after a long period in which Prof Disney proposed alternatives to the government’s proposed news medial council instead of opposing it, he did come down against it in an interview with News Now.

“This approach raises major concerns about excessive government influence and ineffective responses to public concerns. Accordingly, the council has firmly opposed it,” he said.

However, its lack of formal opposition would appear to be contrary to the principles of a Charter of a Free Press in Australia to which the Press Council agreed in 2003.

The first two principles state:

– Freedom of the press means the right of the people to be informed by the press on matters of public interest so that they may exercise their rights and duties as citizens.

– The press shall not be subject to government licence and government authorities should not interfere with the content of news nor restrict access to any news source.

The last principle states that “laws, regulations and practices which in any way restrict or inhibit the right of the press freely to gather and distribute news, views and information are unacceptable unless it can be shown that the public interest is better served by such laws, regulations or practices than the public interest in the people’s right to know”.

With the role of the council likely to be diminished or enhanced by the government’s reform proposals, it is in a difficult position – but it should have the courage of its convictions, or at least stand by its agreed principles.

The case successfully mounted by Pat Eatock and eight others under the Racial Discrimination Act against News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt has created a dangerous precedent in Australia – that the implied constitutional right to freedom of speech becomes secondary if the statements are “reasonably likely to offend”. As Opposition leader Tony Abbott said last month a “hurt feelings” test cannot exist alongside a search for truth.

Yet on this issue the Press Council has again has been silent, with no formal submissions calling for a review of the law.

The council seems to have an unusual reluctance to stand up for free speech – despite its charter. A recent adjudication involving a column written by News Limited’s Piers Akerman on climate change drew a sharp response by former Press Council chairman Professor David Flint. Mr Akerman had been critical of flawed findings of the International Panel on Climate Change and was taken to task by a reader who disagreed with his opinions.

The complaint was dismissed, but not on the obvious grounds of the article being opinion, to which a reader could agree or disagree.

The council emphasised in its ruling that that its decision was due largely to “the assertions in question being insufficiently specific for their accuracy or falsity to be established”, and warned that columnists did not have “unfettered” licence to express or qualify their views.

Prof Flint called it the most reluctant decision he had seen.

“The principles of the council are absolutely clear. Nobody could have doubted that this was anything but an opinion column. The complainant was not satisfied with this and wants to stop Mr Akerman from expressing what is clearly an opinion based on facts,” he said.

“This complaint should not have got to first base. It should have been left to wither away and be extinguished there.”

Instead of politicking, the council would be better served to re-read its principles and take a stronger stand on protecting the interests of a free press.

Ian Moore was the founding editor of the Sunday Herald Sun and a former editor of The Sunday Telegraph

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