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Softly, softly the only approach to media reform, says Press Council chief

The Gillard government’s failed attempt to introduce statutory laws for overseeing journalism was a “tragedy”, according to the chairman of the Australian Press Council.

But Julian Disney said he remained optimistic about improving media standards and continuing reform within the Press Council, now that the “diversion” of the government’s aborted reform was over.

Professor Disney said Australia would benefit from a consumer group focusing on media standards, such as Britain’s Hacked Off lobby group. 

“It is fatal just to rely on a regulator — especially a regulator with very limited power like the [Press Council] . . . to take on powerful interests on its own if there isn’t a strong consumer voice,” Professor Disney said.

Professor Disney was speaking at a forum hosted by the Centre for Advancing Journalism, during which he rejected suggestions that his position as a reforming head of the Press Council might now be under threat.

Professor Disney appeared on a panel with the Greens’ spokesman on communications, Senator Scott Ludlam, and ABC Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes, both of whom offered gloomy assessments of the outlook for media reform.

Click here for audio only of the event. 

Senator Ludlum declared any further attempts at legislating media reform as politically dead. Any government that took on big media in the future would “get shut down”, he said.

Referring to the media’s near-universal negative response to the government’s proposed laws, he said: “The bullies came to town and they won . . .

“What we had was the idea of freedom of speech conflated with freedom of media oligarchs to shunt assets around as though they’re poker chips . . . If you try to interfere with that process you’re interfering with freedom of speech.”

Last month’s forum was held to discuss the implications of the Federal Government’s botched bid to introduce legislation in response to the Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry and the Convergence Review.

The Government proposed making the news media’s exemption from the Privacy Act contingent on membership of an approved self-regulatory body, such as the Press Council.

“Some standards in our code and in the newspapers’ codes invite being ignored by journalists because they are unrealistically utopian. We want realistic and practical standards that are insisted on.” — Julian Disney, chair of the Australian Press Council 

Professor Disney agreed that the attempt to legislate for news media regulation was dead, and criticised the government’s processes.

He said Finkelstein inquiry had been the wrong kind of inquiry and it had taken the government too long to follow up its report with action. Then, the legislative process had been “too rushed” to succeed.

In the past year, the Press Council has introduced key membership rules in which publisher members are contractually obliged to give four years’ notice of withdrawal from the council. In that time they must continue funding the regulator and obey its rules, a provision that makes it less likely that publishers will quit in response to rulings that go against them.

Professor Disney, who took up his current position at the end of 2009, said his focus would now be on developing clear practical standards.

“Some standards in our code and in the newspapers’ codes invite being ignored by journalists because they are unrealistically utopian,” he said. “We want realistic and practical standards that are insisted on.” 

He added that the Press Council would consider setting up a three-yearly review of its work by an independent body.

Professor Disney said that adhering to clearly articulated standards could in the future become one of the ways in which journalists were defined, and that online-only publishers, such as bloggers and users of social media, might be able to be given the same privileges and access as journalists, provided they joined a standards body.

He was “not hugely worried” about the fact that Seven West Media, owner of The West Australian newspaper, had set up its own in-house alternative to the Press Council, and that he did not think the approach would spread to other publishers.

However, he agreed with Senator Ludlum that there was now less pressure on the media industry to agree to further reform.

The forum’s mediator, Margaret Simons, said that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, as well as representatives of the Federal Opposition and News Limited, had also been invited to participate in the forum, but had been unavailable.

Mr Holmes, who will soon vacate the post of Media Watch presenter after five years, later criticised the Australian Communications and Media Authority in a conversation with The Citizen. He said ACMA, which regulates broadcast media, was too slow and legalistic.

“A statutory regulator over news content is a bad idea. It doesn’t work,” he said. “You can wait nine months or a year, then they can either take away your licence, which they would never do . . . or they can slap you on the wrist.”

Mr Holmes said ACMA should be given mid-range powers that include ordering on-air corrections or, in severe cases, on-air apologies.

Approached later for comment, ACMA’s chairman, Chris Chapman, agreed that the authority should have “a more calibrated series of powers, the so-called mid-tier powers”, but he stopped short of supporting compulsory on-air apologies.

“I’m personally not in favour of the power to direct on-air apologies . . . in certain circumstances that may complicate other legal proceedings.”

Mr Chapman said that ACMA’s speed in dealing with complaints had greatly improved. The average time for a complaint to be dealt with had been cut from six months to three months, “which is a dramatic improvement”.

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