Australian Press Council
The Australian Press Council (APC) was established in 1976 and is responsible for promoting good standards of media practice, community access to information of public interest, and freedom of expression through the media. The council is also the principal body with responsibility for responding to complaints about Australian newspapers, magazines and associated digital outlets.
In accordance with its Constitution, the Council pursues its goals by:
- considering and dealing with complaints and concerns about material in newspapers, magazines and journals, published either in print or on the internet;
- encouraging and supporting initiatives to address the causes for reader's complaints and concerns;
- keeping under review, and where appropriate, challenging developments which may adversely affect the dissemination of information of public interest and may consequently threaten the public's right to know;
- making representations to governments, public inquiries and other forums as appropriate on matters concerning freedom of speech and access to information;
- undertaking research and consultation on developments in public policy affecting freedom of speech, and promoting;
- promoting an understanding of the roles and activities of the Council through forums and consultations; and encouraging feedback for Council's consideration
The Council is funded by its publisher members in the newspaper and magazine industries. It relies on publishers and editors to respect the Council's standards and decisions, to adhere voluntarily to standards of good practice and to publish adjudications the result from complaints made against them. It has no legal or legislative power to fine or penalise the press.
The Council's standards of good media practice are contained in its Statements of Principles, Specific Standards and Advisory Guidelines. The standards are applied by the Council when considering complaints and are used as the basis for statements by Council representatives about good media practice, whether addressing practitioners within the industry, journalism students or the broader community. The Council also undertakes research and convenes conferences and seminars on aspects of media standards.
The Council's Statement of General Principles was substantially revised in 2014.
The Council's mandate to consider complaints extends to all print publications and related digital outlets, such as websites, of publishers which are "constituent bodies" of the Council. These publications comprise about 90 percent of all print and online outlets in Australia representing some 850 mastheads.
The Council also issues statements on policy matters within its areas of interest, including through submissions to parliamentary committees, commissions and other public bodies. It also undertakes research and convenes or participates in conferences and seminars on policy issues.
The Australian Press Council has 24 members, comprising:
- an independent Chair and 10 "public members", who have no affiliations with a media organisation;
- nine nominees of media organisations which are "constituent bodies" of the council;
- four independent journalist members, who are not employed by a media organisation.
The Chair is chosen by the Council and has always been a Judge or a University Professor. The public members and independent journalist members are appointed by the Council on the nomination of the Chair. The nominees of publishers are chosen by the media organisations which have agreed to support the Council and be subject to its complaints system. It meets quarterly, usually in Sydney or elsewhere in Australia from time to time. It is headed on Administrative and other matters by an Executive Director.
The current Chair of the Press Council is Professor David Weisbrot AM. The inaugural Chairman was Sir Frank Kitto. He was followed by Geoffrey Sawer, Hal Wootten, David Flint, Dennis Pearce, Ken McKinnon and Julian Disney.
In 1979, during the run-up to the South Australian state election, the Murdoch-owned The News campaigned against the Australian Labor Party in South Australia. A successful complaint was heard in relation to which the News Limited representatives alleged contained irregular procedures, leading the News to withdraw from the Council in 1980. News re-joined the Press Council in 1987, but, as the single most important source of funding, its relationship with the body has been fraught. [see Criticisms by News Corp, below]
The media union, now known as the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), withdrew from the Press Council for nineteen years. It was not a member between 1986 and 2005.
In 2012, Seven West Media, publisher of The West Australian, withdrew from the Press Council and set up its own complaints body, the Independent Media Council, to handle complaints against its print and publications and websites. The company cited its unwillingness to fund a substantially strengthened Press Council.
The Council receives more that 700 complaints each year. About three-quarters of those which are fully pursued by the complainant result in a correction, apology or some other form of action being taken.
Where the complaint is resolved through a formal adjudication, the relevant publisher is required to publish the adjudication promptly and with due prominence.
The Council has in the past been criticised for being unable to censure its members in anything more than a minor manner when standards are breached and for being a "toothless tiger" as a result of being funded by the publishers whose work it is meant to evaluate.
The chairman of Australian Consolidated Press, Kerry Packer described the Council as "window dressing" at a 1991 parliamentary inquiry into the print media. A former chair of the Council, Professor Dennis Pearce, told the Finkelstein Media Inquiry that the authority was overly influenced by concerns of losing its sponsors and that the industry was reluctant to fund its own watchdog.
Another former chairman, Ken McKinnon supported calls for the APC to have a stronger role and be better resourced, instead of statutory regulation. The Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown has described the APC as a "hollow vessel" and supports reform towards a statutory body with better funding.
In the wake of the Finkelstein Media Inquiry, publishers agreed on a major strengthening of the Press Council. Funding was raised from $0.8 million to $1.6 million in 2012-13 and $1.8 million in the following year.
News, Fairfax Media, the media union (MEAA) and the other publisher members of the Council agreed to specific funding commitments for the three years, with subsequent commitments to be agreed at least two to three years in advance.
Under the new arrangements, publisher members are required to give four years’ notice of withdrawal from the Council and will remain part of the Council throughout that period. Their obligations to provide funding and comply with Council processes became legally binding.
The then Chair of the Press Council, Prof Julian Disney, said at that time:
“The publishers’ commitments are very welcome and will greatly strengthen the Council’s resources and effectiveness. Now that continued membership and greatly-improved funding have been guaranteed for the next three years, the Council can implement a sustained program to fulfill its responsibilities across print and online media…. The package substantially addresses key concerns expressed by the Finkelstein Inquiry about the Council’s capacity to strengthen its independence and effectiveness."
Since 2010, the Council has undergone a major transformation; doubling its budget, increasing its membership and staff, and moving to new premises in Sydney. As well as boosting its work on standards of practice, it has strengthened its processes for handling complaints and for ensuring that adjudications are prominently published by member organisations.
In August 2011, the APC released new Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide. The standards stress the importance of the discussion of suicide in helping to improve public understanding of the causes and warning signs of suicide and act a deterrent. However they say that reporting of methods should not be published, care must be taken not to spark “copycat” suicides, and details of suicide hotlines and helplines should be included in the relevant news reports.
In July 2014, the APC released new Specific Standards on Contacting Patients. The aim of these Standards is to facilitate media contact with people in hospitals and residential care facilities, while also ensuring respect for the health, dignity and privacy of those people and their families and for the general provision of care on the premises. In particular, the Standards aim to:
- prevent unreasonable exclusion of journalists from hospitals;
- promote a co-operative approach between journalists and hospitals;
- prevent inappropriate contact by journalists with a patient who is in a vulnerable position
- prevent undue intrusion by journalists on other patients and hospital staff.
Criticisms by News Corp in 2014
Beginning in August 2014, The Australian newspaper, owned by News Corp, published a series of more than 20 articles and editorials highly critical of the Press Council’s activities and leadership. The newspaper accused the Council of overstepping its mandate and issuing questionable adjudications.
In an editorial published on 9 August 2014, the newspaper said it had “lost confidence in APC chairman Julian Disney and deplores the direction in which he has taken the council”.
The editorial continued:
“The APC has become erratic in its rulings, unmoored from its foundations, ponderous and serpentine in its procedures, side-tracked by its chairman’s peculiar tastes and political predilections and ineffective as a body that promotes good practice.”
In a subsequent article in Crikey on 11 August 2014, David Salter, the former Executive Producer of the ABC TV Program Media Watch, noted that “The Australian has turned its particular brand of venom on Julian Disney, chair of the Press Council”.
“Self-regulation, at least in the ethical fantasyland of News Corp, is only a worthwhile system of media accountability so long as it doesn’t inquire into the abuse of a newspaper’s power to pursue vendettas and parade its own paranoia…. More importantly, this whole unpleasant episode demonstrates the hypocrisies that underpin the media self-regulation construct in Australia. In response to the perceived threats of the Finkelstein Inquiry and the Convergence Review, newspaper proprietors rushed to ‘strengthen’ the Press Council’s authority and increase its funding.
Now we have proof that this was all window dressing. If the APC’s processes and findings don’t suit a powerful member such as News Corp, it refuses to play by the rules and trashes the chair’s reputation. Self-regulation is no regulation at all.”
In an interview on ABC Radio’s Media Report program, Julian Disney said: “There's always, over the years, been tensions way back to the start of the Council, not only with News Corp but with Fairfax from time to time. News pulled out only four years into the life of the Council, when the Chair was a High Court judge. So these tensions come and go, and I think they're felt more strongly in some parts of an organisation than others, and sometimes there are other pressures.”
The Press Council pointed out factual inaccuracies in The Australian’s criticisms, and an alleged lack of balance and fairness in the series of attack articles. At a Council meeting on 28 August 2014, a resolution re-affirming support for Julian Disney was passed and made public. The resolution, passed by 19 votes to nil, with one abstention, read in part:
“The Press Council reaffirms its confidence in the Chair and rejects the recent misrepresentations made by The Australian about the Chair and the Council. It also deplores the breach by The Australian of obligations of confidentiality during the Council’s complaint processes. The Council will continue to work with News Corp to resolve any legitimate concerns.”
David Weisbrot's Chairmanship
After taking over as Chair in March 2015, Professor David Weisbrot spent much of his time meeting with member publishers, editors, leading journalists, officials of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, media and communications academics, and members of the NGOs, peak associations, and community groups with which the Council regularly interacts.
Professor Weisbrot also:
- oversaw improvements to the complaints handling process;
- initiated strategic planning and organisational reviews;
- sought to broaden the Council’s membership base (especially among online publications and those serving multicultural communities); and
- substantially increased the Council’s advocacy for free speech and freedom of the press.
In a major address to the Melbourne Press Club on 6 August 2015, Professor Weisbrot stated:
“Whatever benefits those procedural refinements may deliver, they are likely to pale in comparison with the benefits that will come from cultural change and a belief that the maintenance of high standards in the industry must be a shared enterprise.
As I mentioned at the outset, for most of its history the Press Council has been perceived as the ‘watchdog’ or the ‘cop on the beat’ - in other words, its presence might tend to discourage poor journalistic practice by putting the fear of God into publishers and practitioners, giving the public an opportunity to bring complaints, and then whacking those unfortunate few whose alleged transgressions happened to be complained about.
And publishers and journalists who pride themselves on their professionalism clearly do not relish the experience of having to publish a negative adjudication.
But focusing on a particular breach of the Council’s Standards in the past and then publicising it probably channels too much energy, attention and resources on the aberrant cases - the roughly 40 cases in any particular year that go all the way from initial receipt to final adjudication.
And since it’s such a relatively small number, most journalists, editors and publishers may feel that those aberrant cases have nothing to do with them.
What we need to do instead is to create a different culture: one that is collegial and intelligent, that continually learns from experience….
We urgently need to move away from the system of punishing individual transgressions in our industry and feeling that such action alone maintains high standards across the entire profession. While the need to identify and sanction poor practice will remain, there are much better strategies for achieving industry-wide improvement, and reassuring the community that this is the case.”
- "About the Council - Australian Press Council Website".
- Schultz, Julianne (1998). Reviving the Fourth Estate: Democracy, Accountability and the Media. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. p. 114. ISBN 9780521629706.
- "What we do - Australian Press Council Website".
- "Standards of Practice - Australian Press Council".
- "Press Council release of revised Statement of General Principles".
- Cryle, Dennis (2008). Murdoch's Flagship: Twenty Five Years of the Australian Newspaper. Carlton Victoria: Melbourne: University Press. pp. 152–153. ISBN 978-0-522-85674-3.
- Day, Mark (9 April 2012). "A shame Seven West should quit press council". Retrieved 1 July 2015 – via The Australian.
- "One regulator to rule them all ...". Media Watch. Episode 32. 2011 – via Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
- Merhab, Belinda (9 November 2011). "Press watchdog has no bite, inquiry told" – via The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media).
- Murphy, Katharine (11 November 2011). "Fairfax warns on freedom" – via Fairfax Media - The Age.
- Dick, Tim (2 November 2011). "Media must curb corrosive corporate influence, Brown tells inquiry" – via Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media).
- "Media Release - Publishers Agree on Major Strengthening of the Press Council" (PDF). Australian Press Council - Media Release. 5 Apr 2012.
- "Online-only members join the Press Council - Australian Press Council Media Release (24 May 2012)". Australian Press Council Media releases, statements, articles, interviews. APC Website. 24 May 2012.
- "Standards Relating to Suicide - Media Release" (PDF). Media releases, statements, articles, interviews. Australian Press Council. 2 August 2011.
- "Press Council issues Specific Standards on Contacting Patients" (PDF). Media releases, statements, articles, interviews. Australian Press Council Website. 23 July 2014.
- Day, Mark (8 September 2014). "Press Council leadership out of touch with the real world". Retrieved 1 July 2015 – via The Australian.
- Editorial (9 August 2014). "Press Council runs off the rails". Retrieved 1 July 2015 – via The Australian.
- Salter, David (11 August 2014). "Smelling an adverse ruling, The Australian turns on Press Council". Retrieved 1 July 2015 – via Crikey.
- Aedy, Richard (5 February 2015). "ABC Radio National - Richard Aedy with Council Chair Julian Disney". Media releases, statements, articles, interviews - Selected media reports and interviews. Australian Press Council Website. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
- "Chair’s Address to Melbourne Press Club" (PDF). Media releases, statements, articles, interviews - APC media releases and announcements. Australian Press Council. 1 September 2014. Retrieved 6 August 2015.