Less Watchdog, More Shared Enterprise – Australia’s Approach to Press Regulation

As news organisations around the world face new commercial challenges and the likes of Facebook and Google are fast being seen as publishers rather than technology platforms, it is worth reflecting on how press regulation keeps up with these developments. We asked the Chair of Australia’s Press Council, Professor David Weisbrot and its Executive Director John Pender for their views.

“We have been working hard to move away from the old image of the Press Council as ‘the cop on the beat’ or the ‘watchdog’,” said Professor Weisbrot. “This view of the world suggests that the press should try to get away with as much as they can, subject to being ‘caught’ and punished. Our current approach is that good media practice is a shared enterprise, which requires publishers to set and maintain high standards, not minimum standards, for themselves, for readers to be vigilant, and for the Press Council to redress individual grievances but also to seek continual improvement in practice, through education and training, good advisory guidelines and an effective adjudication process. 

“To be perfectly candid, however, I’m sure the press often feels we are too hard on them, and the public feels we are too soft on them. But we don’t have, or want to have, draconian powers. If we were given the power to fine or censor, we’d be spending all of our time and resources in the courts, rather than getting on with dispute resolution.”

Do you have any views on the future of press regulation in light of the digital sphere, fake news and the power of internet giants such as Google?

“We are already coping pretty well with the shift from paper to digital publishing,” said Executive Director John Pender. “Our remit covers the ‘associated digital platforms’ of newspaper and magazine publishers, and we are getting an increasing number and proportion of digital-only publications. The latter includes a growing number of international publishers that are establishing Australian operations, such as the Daily Mail Online Australia, Huffington Post Australia and others. But we are by no means complacent about this, and recognise that we have to remain vigilant. 

“The growing power of Facebook and Google and others is having a marked effect on the revenues of our member publications, and anything that reduces their capacity to employ great journalists and produce important stories is a worry,” said Professor Weisbrot. “In association with the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE), we have been calling on Facebook and Google to accept that they are publishers, and not merely technology platforms. Their algorithms and content policies have a very major effect on what is available to readers, so they must not only accept their role as publishers, but their leading role in maintaining free speech and freedom of the press.”

“The Australian Press Council already plays a critical role in guarding against ‘fake news’ by receiving and determining complaints about published material that is inaccurate, unfair or lacking in balance,” said Professor Weisbrot. “Under our General Principles, this includes opinion pieces that are premised on inaccurate facts or significant omissions. We are also developing more guidance material for editors and journalists about how to report elections, about how to report on polls, and so on, which should help. 

“It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the fake news crisis is having the greatest impact in the United States — which has no independent Press Councils.”

To what extent do you exist to maintain the confidence of the press or to serve and protect the public interest?  How do you walk this narrow path?

“We exist primarily to ensure public confidence in the integrity of the press, which ultimately serves the best interests of both the press and the community,” said Executive Director John Pender. “Our role is to maintain high standards and to consider complaints about material which is alleged to have breached those standards. If the community is sufficiently happy with how we do our job, then there will be little call for government to intervene with more regulation.” 

John Pender continued: “It’s not always an easy path to walk, since complainants often feel personally aggrieved, and of course we are dealing with controversial political, social and scientific issues. That’s why it’s so important for our code to be clear and sensible, and for our processes to be scrupulously fair and independent. We feel vindicated when a ‘losing’ publisher or complainant tells us that while they are naturally disappointed with the result, they nevertheless feel they were listened to and treated with respect.”